Several teams across the conference picked up big victories over the weekend. From Illinois going 3-0 in the Dairy Queen Classic, to Indiana taking three out of four games against San Diego, the weekend saw Big Ten teams garner national attention with impressive performances.
With only two weekends left before Big Ten play begins, conference teams are half-way through their non-conference weekends. And for some, keeping the Big Ten bye week in mind, there are still noteworthy out of conference games to come. This week’s power rankings takes a look at each team’s most important non-conference showdowns.
#1 Indiana (9-3) Last Week: 1
IU’s series at San Diego is the highlight of their non-conference slate. Left for the Hoosiers on non-Big Ten weekends are series at home against Pacific, Northern Illinois and Butler. Anything less than a 7-2 showing over those three weekends would be a shock, neither of the three teams should pose much a threat. As Indiana positions itself for a potential regional bid, avoiding bad series defeats will become important. Of the three, a series loss to Northern Illinois would be the worst, making it the most important remaining non-conference schedule for Indiana.
#2 Purdue (8-2) LW: 2
Purdue heads down to Tulane this weekend for three games against the Green Wave. Although their record stands at only 6-7, three losses have been to Ole Miss with another two against Cal State-Fullerton. Tulane’s record should improve as they head into American Athletic Conference play, potentially creating a quality non-conference weekend opponent, which is the only thing missing from Purdue’s strong start.
#3 Illinois (6-3) LW: 7
If Illinois’ five-game winning streak, which included victories over two currently ranked teams, is a sign of what’s to come for the Illinois, Dan Hartleb has a team capable of ending a two-year NCAA Tournament drought. For that to happen, Illinois will need to avoid dropping games against teams that can sink their RPI. During their Big Ten bye week, Illinois hosts Grand Canyon, April 20-22. Grand Canyon has struggled to a 3-8 start in their first season as a Division I program, and could be a late-season dream killer if Illinois overlooks the Antelopes.
#4 Iowa (8-2) LW: 4
Iowa has racked up eight wins over their first 10 games, kicking off Rick Heller’s fifth season in Iowa in good form. But the quality of wins hasn’t quite matched the quantity. That will change soon. A three-game set at 12-2 UNLV kicks off the back-half of Iowa’s non-conference slate, but that still isn’t the series to circle. Between May 4-6, the Hawkeyes take on Oklahoma State during their Big Ten bye week. The Cowboys are the type of strong, non-conference opponent that can add a bullet to a postseason
#5 Minnesota (10-4) LW: 3
The marquee matchup for the Gophers may be the Big Ten series of the year. Minnesota heads down to TCU for three games against the four-time reigning College World Series participant. Minnesota has a team capable of appearing in a second regional in three years, and a series victory over the Horned Frogs will carry a lot of weight come May on whether John Anderson’s team is included in the field of 64.
#6 Maryland (7-4) LW: 8
With a series victory against traditional power North Carolina under its belt, East Carolina figures to be a tough opponent for the Terps. Maryland welcomes ECU to College Park, March 16-18, in a series that can help Maryland regain some of the attention the club garnered in the preseason. An uneven start has seen Maryland follow a four-game losing streak with a current five-game run, if their strong showings continue against the Pirates, finishing in the top half of the Big Ten should keep Maryland in the NCAA Tournament picture.
#7 Ohio State (7-4) LW: 5
To this point, the non-conference portion of Ohio State’s schedule can be considered a push. Ohio State dropped two games against No. 2 Oregon State, allowing a six-run last at-bat to decide the fate of the first, before rebounding to game a victory over a ranked Southern Miss team last weekend. This weekend, Ohio State has two more games against a ranked team, taking on Coastal Carolina. This weekend presents the last golden chance for the Bucks to bolster a regional resume with wins over a top team.
#8 Nebraska (6-5) LW: 6
Nebraska welcomes Nevada to Lincoln, April 26-28, during their conference bye week. The Wolfpack may not be the toughest foe, but the series comes before Nebraska finishes the season hosting Maryland and Indiana in back-to-back weeks, then ending with a series at Illinois. Based on how national pundits view the Terps, Hoosiers and Illini, that may be the toughest in-conference stretch a team faces. One that could push Nebraska to a fourth regional in five years or shut down their title defense hopes. Getting a little momentum and picking up expected wins can set May’s tone.
#9 Michigan (3-8) LW: 11
There isn’t a non-conference opponent remaining on Michigan’s schedule in the quality of Stanford. But after Michigan went 1-3 in Palo Alto, the Wolverines have only three wins in 11 contests this. This weekend’s three-game series at Lipcombs is important for U-M to start to turn the tide, rebound from a 2-7 stretch and gather momentum as they start their home slate and soon after conference schedule.
#10 Michigan State (3-8) LW: 10
Michigan State has faced stiff competition over the first three weeks of the season. With the exception of two games against in-conference peer Illinois this weekend, the non-conference slates winds down with lesser competition dotting the schedule. But that doesn’t make the games against less important. If MSU can go on a run, the team’s strength of schedule may help boost their RPI. If so, it is imperative the Spartans take care of Niagara in a four-game set, March 15-18, to avoid RPI-killing defeats.
#11 Penn State (4-5) LW: 9
The Nittany Lions host Xavier during their Big Ten bye week, May 10-12. The Musketeers have appeared in back-to-back regional championships, making the NCAA Tournament in three of the last four seasons. Stepping outside of the Big Ten in the penultimate weekend, and taking on a solid opponent, may allow Penn State to enter its final series at Iowa with the needed focus to reach the Big Ten Tournament for the first time since 2012.
#12 Rutgers (5-6) LW: 12
Army, Rutgers upcoming weekend opponent, has given the Big Ten fits; the Black Knights grabbed a game in their season-opening series against Michigan, then took two of three at Maryland. But it’s Florida Gulf Coast, Rutgers’ final weekend opponent before Big Ten play begins, who hosts the Scarlet Knights in a series worth watching. The Osprey are coming off of an NCAA Tournament season, and a hot start has them in position to do the same in 2018. Rutgers’ weekend in Fort Myers will provide a good barometer of the club in Joe Litterio’s fifth season.
#13 Northwestern (3-7) LW: 13
For the Wildcats, they don’t occur over one weekend, but the Wildcats have a road game at Notre Dame on April 11, before hosting the Irish on May 15. If Northwestern’s program continues to build under Spencer Allen, an Irish-Wildcat I-80 rivalry can blossom into one of the region’s best inter-conference matchups.