Breaking down the NCAA Tournament picture

A little over one month away from the Memorial Day unveiling of the 2018 NCAA Tournament field, media outlets are starting to churn out weekly NCAA Tournament projections and discuss whose stock is rising or climbing. The Big Ten is drawing attention for having six teams with realistic regional odds, where if all were to make the tournament would set a conference record.

Whether it ends up six teams, or five, as was the case in 2015 and 2017, or even just four, it is becoming a May fixture to have a half-dozen teams pursuit a regional bid. This year, with respect to Purdue who is still hanging around on the outer edge of the bubble, the spotlight is on Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, and Ohio State as they prepare to via for a coveted spot in the field of 64 over the last four weeks.

To get you up to speed on where the six teams stand, here’s an overview of their seasons to date, their remaining schedules and what their postseason picture looks like as of today, ahead of the weekend where the six teams are set to square off against each other, as Illinois travels to Indiana, Michigan heads to Iowa, and Ohio State welcomes Minnesota.

References

Boyd’s World RPI Needs Report

NCAA Official RPI

Warren Nolan’s Big Ten page

(Opponent’s number parenthesis represent Warren Nolan RPI)

Illinois

Record: 24-12 overall, 9-3 in Big Ten (3rd)

Warren Nolan RPI: 58

Strength of Schedule: 113

W-L Against RPI Top 50: 4-4

W-L Against RPI Top 100: 6-6

Losses against RPI > 150: Four

Remaining schedule: April 27-29 @ Indiana (26), May 1 vs. Southern Illinois (128), May 4-6 vs. Ohio State (39), May 11-13 @ Michigan (53), May 17-19 vs. Nebraska (126).

In a nutshell: The Illini have dropped four of their last five games, placing their RPI in the upper-50s, a precarious position. Illinois’ sweep of Pac-12 opponents in the Dairy Queen Classic is starting to look better with Arizona (40) turning around their season and UCLA (31) remaining a strong team, and the team has a split of two games at Coastal Carolina (25) to work with. But, in their lone weekend games against an RPI top 50 team since Minneapolis, Illinois dropped two of three games against Iowa. If there is a slight concern in addition to their RPI, it’s the lack of a signature weekend series win. The good news is that multiple such opportunities await the Illini. Series at Indiana and Michigan, while hosting Ohio State in-between, will allow Dan Hartleb’s team to go over 20 games against RPI top 100 teams.  Winning two of their next three weekends, which would also likely lead to a top-four finish in the Big Ten, should allow the Illini to return to NCAA play for the first time since 2015. According to Boyd’s World’s RPI Needs, which breaks down needed win-loss combinations to reach various RPI benchmarks, assuming all other teams in college baseball maintain their current winning percentage, 10 wins will have the Illini approach an RPI of 32, with several combinations to reach eight wins getting them in the top 45.

 

Indiana

Record: 29-8, 7-4

Warren Nolan RPI: 26

Strength of Schedule: 126

W-L Against RPI Top 50: 4-4

W-L Against RPI Top 100: 9-5

Losses against RPI > 150: One

Remaining schedule: April 25 @ Purdue (84) , April 27-29 vs. Illinois (58), May 4-6 @ Minnesota (38), May 8 vs. Kentucky (18), May 11-13 @ Nebraska (126), May 15 @ Louisville (41), May 17-19 vs. Maryland (119).

In a nutshell: Indiana has been the highest ranked Big Ten team all season. The preseason favorite in the eyes of the conference coaches, the Hoosiers have the conference’s top RPI, spurred by a Big Ten-leading 29 wins. It is a bit premature to say the Hoosiers are a lock for the NCAA Tournament, especially with a tough slate over the next four weeks, but Chris Lemonis’ club should be viewed as safely in the field of 64. Now, where it gets interesting for IU is whether their resume will warrant a spot as a regional host. Currently their RPI would suggest no, an absence of a weekend series win over a top 50 club is slight knock on IU’s season to date, but Indiana will have six conference games to add to their current 14 games against teams in the RPI top 100, with three midweek games against rivals, two on the road, at Purdue and Louisville (41), with the Cardinals joining the Kentucky Wildcats (18) as likely regional-bound clubs where wins would add bullets on Indiana’s resume. If Indiana can go 13-2 over their final 15 games, Boyd’s World suggest a top 16 RPI is in the picture, which would likely net a third Bloomington Regional in six years.

 

Iowa

Record: 23-13, 7-6

Warren Nolan RPI: 47

Strength of Schedule: 67

W-L Against RPI Top 50: 4-4

W-L Against RPI Top 100: 7-9

Losses against RPI > 150: Two

Remaining schedule: April 25 vs. Milwaukee (187), April 27-29 vs. Michigan (53), May 1 vs. Missouri (29), May 2 vs. Western Illinois (288) , May 4-6 vs. Oklahoma State (34), May 11-13 @ Northwestern (235), May 15 @ Western Illinois (288), May 17-19 vs. Penn State (206).

In a nutshell: After being swept in a three-game series at UNLV (51), March 9-11, the odds that the Hawkeyes would appear in a second consecutive regional appeared long, at best. But since St. Patrick’s Day, Iowa is 14-7, with series victories over Illinois and Ohio State, while splitting an abbreviated two game series with Indiana. Iowa’s turnaround has been powered by the return of leadoff batter Chris Whelan, making the team Iowa was over the first month a shell of it’s current self. Iowa is coming off of a weekend defeat at Minnesota, but are set to welcome Michigan to Iowa City this weekend. Iowa is the lone team of the Big Ten’s six regional hopefuls to face the other five teams, a tough task which is doesn’t include playing host to Oklahoma State (34) next weekend during their conference by weekend. Already with the best strength of schedule of these six teams, Iowa will have more opportunities to strengthen its case to be in the field of 64, before finishing with consecutive series against the conference’s last-place clubs. Northwestern and Penn State may offer a break in competition but poor records and 200+ RPIs where that may set back Iowa’s schedule strength a tick.

 

Michigan

Record: 24-11, 11-0

Warren Nolan RPI: 53

Strength of Schedule: 167

W-L Against RPI Top 50: 1-4

W-L Against RPI Top 100: 3-6

Losses against RPI > 150: Three

Remaining schedule: April 27-29 @ Iowa (47), May 1 vs. Eastern Michigan (181), May 2 @ Eastern Michigan (181), May 4-6 @ Rutgers (139), May 8 @ Central Michigan (225), May 9 @ Michigan State (203), May 11-13 vs. Illinois (58), May 17-19 @ Purdue (84)

In a nutshell: The Wolverines are drawing national attention with a current 20-game winning streak, the second-longest winning streak in the country this season. Unfortunately for Michigan’s NCAA Tournament chances, the month-long run hasn’t included any games against teams in the RPI’s top 100, with 15 being played against teams whose RPI is somewhere in the 200s. The competition Michigan has faced is reflected in their strength of schedule. The Wolverines do have a win over Stanford, the RPI’s top-rated team, but outside of the four-game set in Palo Alto the Michigan has played only one other game against a top 50 team. That will change this weekend with their series at Iowa, and potentially in mid-May when they welcome Illinois to Ann Arbor. U-M’s perfect Big Ten record has them in prime position to claim a conference-leading 36th Big Ten championship, but their conference slate to date, opponents Michigan State, Northwestern, Maryland, and Penn State are a combined 12-42 in Big Ten play, has them squarely bubble for their 24th NCAA Tournament appearance.

 

Minnesota

Record: 25-11, 9-2

Warren Nolan RPI: 38

Strength of Schedule: 96

W-L Against RPI Top 50: 6-6

W-L Against RPI Top 100: 12-9

Losses against RPI > 150: Zero

Remaining schedule: April 25 vs. South Dakota State (244), April 27-29 @ Ohio State (39), May 1 vs. Concordia-St. Paul (N/A), May 4-6 vs. Indiana (26), May 11-13 vs. Michigan State (203), May 15 @ St. John’s (48), May 17-19 @ Rutgers (139)

In a nutshell: The Gophers would have liked a better showing in the Dairy Queen Classic they hosted, only able to come away with one victory, although the win over Arizona (40) has aged well. Likewise, seeing where Creighton (33) stands in the RPI picture, it would have been beneficial to have won that home series following the DQ Classic. But the form the Gophers have showed since early March has them heading towards a second NCAA Tournament appearance in three years, and currently ranked in polls. As they join IU with a number next to their name, its similarly too early to say they’re a lock for the NCAA Tournament, but Minnesota can start dream about hosting a regional. Already with the most games against the RPI top 100, the conference’s best mark in such games, series victories over TCU (75), St. John’s (48), and Iowa, a steadily falling RPI, and no losses against RPI 150+ teams, Minnesota is compiling a pretty impressive resume. That’s with series yet to come against Ohio State and Indiana. Winning one of the two next weeks should all but wrap up a bid, where taking both may mean Minnesota in home during the first weekend of June, in the good way as a regional host. And the Gophers are two games back on Michigan, a conference championship would be icing on the cake.

 

Ohio State

Record: 27-11, 8-4

Warren Nolan RPI: 39

Strength of Schedule: 106

W-L Against RPI Top 50: 5-6

W-L Against RPI Top 100: 5-6

Losses against RPI > 150: Three

Remaining schedule: April 27-29 vs. Minnesota (38), May 2 @ Ball State (179), May 4-6 @ Illinois (58), May 8-9 vs. Campbell (136), May 11-13 Purdue (84), May 15 @ Cincinnati (150), May 17-19 Michigan State (203).

In a nutshell: Likely the team least expected to be among the six, the Buckeyes are in a position to reach a regional for the second time in three seasons, a feat last accomplished in 2007-09. Ohio State has a solid strength of schedule, although they have yet to play a game against a team rated 51-100 in the RPI, and has taken care of business at home with a 12-3 mark to have their overall winning percentage rewarded with a high RPI. OSU’s non-conference slate helped put them in the discussion of the NCAA Tournament, winning a game against Southern Miss (32), and going 1-1 against Coastal Carolina (25) . Ohio State squandered a big opportunity in a game against Oregon State (7), allowing six last-at-bat runs in a 10-8 loss during the second weekend of the season. Any lingering “what-ifs” about that game were likely thrown away when the Buckeyes knocked off the Hoosiers this past weekend, securing a resume-anchoring win. Now, the Buckeyes have two more opportunities, with Minnesota becoming the second straight ranked team to visit Columbus, before heading to Champaign. Barring a late May collapse, grabbing one of the next two weekends should punch their ticket, where, like Minnesota, if Ohio State game win at least four of their next six conference games, maybe NCAA play returns to the Buckeye State for the first time since 2003.

Preseason unit ranks: Corner infielders and outfielders

Champions aren’t crowned on paper, the games are decided on the field. But such a reality doesn’t mean it isn’t fun to take from stats and rosters and try to determine who is the best before the season starts.

Putting aside new faces and players primed for a breakout, here’s a look at which teams look to be the strongest on the corners of the diamond and in the outfielder, based on who is coming back and has previously shown they have what it takes to compete at the Big Ten levels.

Corner infielders & DH

Minnesota

A potent offense led Minnesota to its first Big Ten championship and NCAA Tournament appearance since 2010. While graduation or the MLB Draft forced the departure of three of the top four hitters from a .322 batting team, the Gophers return two key players at the corners and a breakout candidate at DH. Junior third baseman Micah Coffey has Big Ten Player of the Year Potential, coming off of a sophomore campaign where he filled up Gopher stat sheets. Coffey batted .333 with 13 doubles, three triples and seven home runs, tying for the team-lead with 42 RBI. Defensively, Coffey committed only six errors in 154 chances, providing a solid glove at the hot corner. Across the diamond, classmate Toby Hanson looks to build off of a season where he batted .301 over 40 games, hitting five home runs. In the DH spot, sophomore Cole McDevitt put up big numbers in limited opportunities for the Big Ten champs. Appearing in 12 games, making four starts, McDevitt collected nine hits in 22 at-bats for a .409 average, two of which were home runs. The trio provides a power-packed core that John Anderson can build around.

Michigan

The Wolverines return every starter around the diamond, but the two on the corner will flip-flop position. A summer injury will force junior Jake Bivens to move from third base to first base, changing spots with classmate Drew Lugbauer. Regardless of where on the diamond the two suit up, opposing pitchers need to proceed with caution when facing both. Bivens, the 2015 Big Ten Freshman of the Year, has shown an ability to hit from his first day in Maize and Blue. Batting .319 as a freshman, Bivens bumped his average to .356 in 2016 and contributed 13 stolen bases in 19 attempts. Lugbauer saw a noteworthy increase in offensive production from year one to year two himself. After posting a line .211/.281/.300 in 2015, as a sophomore, Lugbauer’s respective batting average, on-base and slugging percentages made him a force in Michigan’s lineup. On the strength of 15 doubles, seven home runs and 30 walks, Lugbauer batted .294 with a .389 on-base percentage and .483 slugging clip.

Michigan State

Michigan State sophomore third baseman Marty Bechina did a bit of everything for the Spartans last year. A good athlete, Bechina moved to center field when injuries depleted the Michigan State outfield. Bechina also showed flashes of being an impact player at the plate. Starting out hot, Bechina carried a .326 average through March 31, before finishing his first season in East Lansing with a solid .260 average., with 11 doubles and two home runs. Back to his natural third base in 2017, Bechina will be depended upon to be a big bat for Jake Boss. At first base, sophomore Alex Troop will be in the infield, when not the Spartans’ Friday night ace. Troop batted .372 with six doubles in 2016, before a broken thumb ended his season in early March. Troops’ injury allowed Zack McGuire to step in and receive playing time, give MSU a quality option at first when Troop is on the mound, or at DH. McGuire batted .250 over 76 at-bats, dialing up seven doubles and a pair of home runs to help produce a .739 OPS as a sophomore.

Honorable Mention: Indiana

A draft-eligible sophomore, Baseball America has tabbed third baseman Luke Miller as one of the Big Ten’s top five prospects. Taking on a new position, a high school outfielder, Miller handled the hot corner well, while batting .284 with 11 doubles. At first base, senior Austin Cangelosi looks to rebound after a down campaign. Cangelosi batted .219 with six doubles and four home runs after carrying a .246 clip in 2015, with eight doubles, three triples and three home runs. IU has four capable outfielders in Craig Dedelow, Laren Eustace, Alex Krupa and Logan Sowers, with the odd man out likely being the DH.

 

Outfielders

Indiana

Four capable guys for three spots gives Indiana the Big Ten’s best outfield. Sowers, a junior, has as much power potential as any player in the conference. Sowers connected for eight home runs in 2016, while being limited to 44 games due to injury. Later in the year, Sowers battled a banged up shoulder, contributing to a season-ending average of .273, which was as high as .337 in late April. Sowers has a big arm and runs well, a 6-foot-4, 220-pound mulit-tooled athlete. Dedelow led IU in batting as a junior in 2016, finishing year three in Bloomington with a .302 average. Dedelow’s 16 doubles also paced the club, a part of 23 extra-base hits with two triples and five home runs. Dedelow and Sowers can be as good of an offensive 1-2 punch in the conference. Krupa and Eustace don’t have the power of their Hoosier teammates, but both have a glove that can play in any outfield, while being spark plugs to the offense. Krupa, a senior, batted .281 with 14 stolen bases as the IU center fielder, after transferring from Iowa Western. When seeing playing time, Eustace batted .248 with a .746 OPS, steal six bases over 40 games as a sophomore. Eustace had a big summer in the Northwoods League, batting .320 over 63 with the wood bat for the Green Bay Bullfrogs.

Nebraska

Nebraska is right there in touting the Big Ten’s top outfield. Junior Scott Schreiber has All-American potential, slugging a Big Ten-best 16 home runs and posting a 1.020 OPS will do that. Schreiber, a former high school quarterback, was Nebraska’s primary first baseman in 2016, but will slide to right field, with Nebraska expecting Schreiber’s athleticism able to handle the change. Schreiber’s .325 average was bested by junior center fielder Jake Meyer’s .326 mark. Meyers, Nebraska’s Sunday starting pitcher, showed a good blend of speed and pop, recording 12 doubles, six triples and two home runs, with 10 stolen bases. Spending a little time in the infield in 2016, junior Luis Alvarado is back to calling left field is home. Alvarado finished his sophomore season witha  .251 average over 53 games.

Rutgers

Rutgers outfield deep enough that senior Mike Carter can move to first base, after batting .367 over 28 games, without head coach Joe Litterio worrying about a production drop off from his outfield. All eyes will be on sophomore center fielder Jawuan Harris to see what the two-sport standout does in year two. After leading Rutgers football in receiving yards and touchdown receptions, no returning player in NCAA baseball stolen more bases than Harris last season. Leading the Big Ten with 37 swipes, batting .273, Harris providing an immediate impact for the Scarlet Knights. To Harris’ right, senior Tom Marcinczyk led Rutgers with a .446 slugging percentage in 2016, picking up 12 doubles with six triples and four home runs, batting .270, adding 18 stolen bases for good measure. Left field will be manned by sophomore Luke Bowerbank, who comes off a quality rookie season where he batted .301 in 34 games.

Honorable Mention: Minnesota

While sophomore center fielder Ben Mezzenga is primed for a breakout season, the two Gophers around him look to pick up where 2016 left off, when they experienced breakthrough seasons. Junior right fielder Alex Boxwell put together a nice .327/.379/.464 season as he stepped into an everyday role. Boxwell’s 10 doubles were matched by senior Jordan Smith, who carried a .296 average throughout his junior season, adding a pair of triples and three home runs.

Five primed for breakout seasons

The Big Ten has produced a first-round pick each of the last three seasons, with Kyle Schwarber, Tyler Jay and Cody Sedlock emerging as one of the country’s top talents. Again, the Big Ten is not short of standout individual talent with Maryland’s Kevin Smith and Nebraska’s Jake Meyers receiving preseason All-American honors.

But beyond those two, there are several players ready to step into greater roles, capable of putting together noteworthy seasons. Here’s a look at five players primed for breakout seasons.

Maryland Soph. OF Marty Costes

It might not be fair to list Maryland sophomore outfielder Marty Costes as a player primed for a breakout season, he did lead Maryland with nine home runs, the most by a Big Ten freshman, after all. But if even gradual improvements are seen across the board, Costes has a chance to be the Big Ten’s Player of the Year and an All-American. Costes batted .260 in his freshman year, collecting 10 doubles with a pair of doubles, to reach 21 extra-base hits. The power, a .216 isolated slugging percentage, wasn’t terribly compromised with outrageous strikeouts, 21% of at-bats ended in strikeouts, while 28 walks spurred Costes to a .363 on-base percentage. During the Big Ten Tournament, Costes said he didn’t have the best approach as a freshman, there were times he’d chase bad pitches. With a year under his belt and better knowledge of the game, a banner year may be on deck.

Ohio State Jr. OF Tre’ Gantt

Tre’ Gantt emerged as a dynamic player for Ohio State in the second-half of the 2015 season. Arriving on campus in time for the winter semester, Gantt wasted no time getting up to speed and making an impact for the Buckeyes, batting .311 as a freshman over 74 at-bats. But Gantt had labrum surgery following the 2015 season and a slow start to his sophomore campaign led to a step backward offensive. Gantt did show a little more pop in year two, after collecting just one double and one triple in 2015, the outfielder picked up eight doubles, but he was unable to consistently reach base, finishing the season with a .255 average and .311 on-base percentage. More than a year removed from the surgery, the Buckeyes expect Gantt to excel in 2017, as a switch from right field to his natural center field position to help. Slated to start on opening day for the first time, with the departures of Ronnie Dawson and Trom Montgomery, the opportunity is there for Gantt to assert himself as the leader of the Buckeye outfield.

Indiana Jr. RHP Brian Hobbie

Since he arrived in Bloomington, Indiana junior right-handed pitcher Brian Hobbie has looked the part of a big-time college pitcher. Standing six-foot-seven, weighing 227 pounds, Hobbie is a physical presence on the mound. Long-limbed, the ball seemingly crosses home plate in no time. Hobbie does possess a low-90s fastball, a heavy offering that can continually induce weak contact, so his pitches have enough giddy-up. Hobbie has shown flashes of brilliance but the Hoosiers are waiting for everything to come together. Sporting a 6.27 ERA over 18.2 innings as a freshman, Hobbie took a step in the right direction as a sophomore, lowering his ERA to 2.08 in 8.2 innings. But after striking out 19 batters against six walks in 2015, Hobbie walked five and struck out three in 2016, contributing to a decrease in usage. Hobbie’s best 2016 effort came in the summer, earning Prospect League Pitcher of the Year honors after holding an 0.82 ERA over 54.2 innings. As Indiana needs to replace its entire rotation, the innings will be there for Hobbie to make an impact.

Minnesota Soph. OF Ben Mezzenga

With Dan Motl batting .336, dialing up 19 doubles and playing superb defense, the opportunities for Ben Mezzenga to make an impact for Minnesota were limited. Making four starts, Mezzenga picked up three hits in 21 at-bats. But don’t think Mezzenga didn’t try his best to leave his mark. Mezzenga stole three bases in three opportunities, to help him score seven runs. In the summer, with a full season of reps, Mezzenga showed why the Gophers are high on him heading into the new season. In 34 games with the Eau Claire Express, Mezzenga batted .321, scored 39 runs, and continued his base stealing prowess, swiping 22 bags. Able to run 60 yards in 6.6 seconds, Mezzenga is viewed as one of the best Minnesota athletes since two-sport standout Eric Decker, with a chance to be an impact the game with the bat, his glove and on the bases.

Illinois Soph. 3B Bren Spillane

Those who cover Midwestern high school baseball saw Illinois’ Bren Spillane as one of the most college-ready players in the high school class of 2015. With an advanced feel for hitting and the ability to hit with power, Spillane was viewed as a player capable of stepping in and contributing from day one for an Illini tweet hit hard that June by the draft. But Spillane suffered a concussion towards the end of his final prep season, and the effects lingered throughout his freshman year. Limited to just two starts and five total games, Spillane went hitless in nine at-bats before Illinois opted to hold him out for the rest of the season. With no symptoms, Spillane looks to have a big second season, this past fall proof of what he’s capable of. In Illinois’ intra-squad Blue and Orange series, Spillane had a three-home run game, a second multi-hit contest and capped the week with two RBI. Dan Hartleb and staff expects Spillane to be a force in the heart of the Illini lineup as the team seeks a fourth regional appearance in seven seasons.

 

Five more to watch

Northwestern Jr. RHP Tommy Bordignon

Penn State Soph. INF Connor Klemann

Purdue Soph. C Nick Dalesandro

Michigan State Jr. FHP Andrew Gonzalez

Michigan Jr. RHP Jayce Vance