One month from today, on May 20, the regular season will be over for Big Ten clubs. The eight-team field that will make up the Big Ten Tournament in Omaha will be set, players will have put forth all evidence to merit all-conference honors, and a clearer picture of who will be in the NCAA Tournament in two weeks time will be set.
What can we expect to unfold over the final five weekends of the season? Here’s some of the most intriguing questions we’re looking forward to seeing answered.
How many teams make the NCAA Tournament?
Long gone are the days of wondering if the Big Ten will place multiple teams in the NCAA Tournament. The question now becomes, how many teams less or greater than four will make the field. Currently, six teams are in position to receive strong consideration to be in the field of 64 if the season ended today. National outlets have between four and six clubs participating in a regional. The final tally of teams will likely depend on who much teams beat up on each other, if there are a few sweeps or if series are tight. The next three weeks will provide a bit of clarity as the schedule has:
Indiana @ Ohio State
Iowa @ Minnesota
Illinois @ Indiana
Michigan @ Iowa
Minnesota @ Ohio State
Indiana @ Minnesota
Ohio State @ Illinois
The weekend of May 4-6 also sees Iowa welcome Oklahoma State to town for a big series during their bye week. With all but Michigan having multiple weeks against opponents in the RPIs top 50, the next three weeks could punch a team’s ticket to a regional, or hang a cloud of a thus far strong season.
Does anyone challenge Spillane as Player of the Year?
So far, the only thing that has slowed down Illinois junior first baseman Bren Spillane is an injury which has forced the slugger to miss the Illini’s last three games and render his status as day-to-day. Prior to the injury, Spillane was punishing pitchers to the tune of .457/.540/1.038, cranking out 15 doubles and 14 home runs, and adding 12 stolen bases for good measure. But if Spillane is out for an extended period, or his numbers aren’t as video game-esque, will he cruise to being the third Illini in six years to be name Big Ten Player of the Year? There’s a handful of players that suggest no.
A pair of Gophers, Ben Mezzenga and Terrin Vara, check in with averages north of .400, .411 and .406, respectively. Right behind them are a pair of first basemen, who, like Spillane, are compiling all-america campaigns. Nebraska senior Scott Schreiber is batting .399 with 11 doubles and 11 home runs. Ohio State senior Noah McGowan is batting .396 with 16 doubles, seven home runs, and a Big Ten-best 43 RBI.
Spillane should enter the final month as the even-odds favorite to be named the Big Ten’s top player, but there are a few players putting together seasons which otherwise would have the competition well behind.
Will any records go down?
With Spillane missing a few games, as well as the Illini losing contests to weather, the single-season home run record of 29, set by Iowa’s Jake Adams last year appears to be safe, for now. But what other records may be in jeopardy?
Illinois closer Joey Gerber already has racked up 11 saves, just seven shy of the record set by Ohio State’s Jake Hale in 2009.
Spillane could threat the slugging percentage mark of .869, set by Michigan’s Casey Close in 1986.
With four series down and four to go, Schreiber is on pace to tie the record for most home runs in a Big Ten season at 14. And if Schreiber matches his efforts during Nebraska’s back-half of the Big Ten slate, the record for total bases of 92 will fall, he currently has 49, as will the slugging (1.022) and on-base (.568) percentages, as he currently leads the Big Ten with respective marks of 1.195 and .625.
Can Michigan State make a second-half run?
After a 3-10 start to the season, Michigan State is showing signs of playing better baseball, winning five of their last seven games, including three straight in Big Ten play. Although the Spartans are 11-21 overall, a .344 winning percentage which would be the worse regular season in Jake Boss’ 10-year tenure, MSU is only one half-game behind eight-place Rutgers and a game behind seventh-place Purdue, a spot in the Big Ten Tournament is still within sight for the Spartans.
Coming off of their bye week against Valparaiso, Michigan State’s next three weekends will have them host Maryland, in between traveling to Northwestern and Penn State. Maryland has the same 3-5 record in Big Ten play, while the Wildcats and Nittany Lions have only won one of 12 conference games. The opportunity is there for Michigan State to pick up wins against teams struggling in league play, before finishing against Minnesota and Ohio State.
Is this the year for Rutgers?
The feel-good story of the first two months has been Rutgers. Yet to finish above 11th in their three-season Big Ten history, a winning season is possible with a 19-14 record, and, as mentioned, the Scarlet Knights are above the cut, holding onto eight place in the standings. Will Rutgers be able to continue their winning ways over the final five weeks? The schedule is a bit tough, with trips to Maryland and Purdue, two teams also fighting for a spot in the conference tournament, while Nebraska, Michigan, and Minnesota head to Piscataway. But Rutgers has shown an ability to go head-to-head against quality teams and come out on top, taking five of six over consecutive weekends playing Army and Florida Gulf Coast. Head coach Joe Literrio has raved about the new culture that exists in the program and there seems to be a greater sense of resiliency with this year’s outfit.
Who is the prospect that shoots up draft broads?
It’s been a muted spring in terms of prospect buzz in the Big Ten. There isn’t a Tyler Jay or Cody Sedlock on the mound, nor a Ryan Boldt, Ronnie Dawson, or Kevin Smith in the field. But there still are a few prospects worth keeping tabs on as the temperatures, hopefully, rises.
Joey Gerber is drawing scouting attention at the back of the Illini bullpen as he shows a power arm with a feel for a slider. Ohio State’s Ryan Feltner is starting to turn potential into promise, showing a four-pitch arsenal highlighted by an upper-90s fastball with improving command. Hoosier right-hander Johnathan Stiever has the best blend of production and potential, the most pro-ready pitcher in the conference. Indiana outfielder Logan Kaletha and Iowa right fielder Robert Neustrom have solid tools across the board. Purdue right-handed pitcher Tanner Andrews, Nebraska’s Scott Schreiber, Ohio State’s Noah McGowan are proving to be potential high round senior signs.
Does Ohio State win a marquee series?
The Buckeyes enter the final month of the season in position to mark the NCAA Tournament for the second time in three years. At 25-10, Greg Beals’ club is enjoying a turnaround season after winning 22 games last year. But prior to the 2017 season, Ohio State entered the final month of the season each of the last four years in a position to participate in a regional, only to run out of steam. Will this year have the Buckeyes turn into a pumpkin again? We’ll soon find out, as Ohio State takes on Indiana, Minnesota, and Illinois over back-to-back-to-back weekends. If Ohio State can win two of three weekends, the Bucks may be in a position to host NCAA play for the first time since 2003. But the Buckeyes have struggled against each of those three teams in recent years. Dating back to 2012, Ohio State’s series record and overall record against the three are:
Illinois: 1-3, 4-8
Indiana: 0-5, 2-15
Minnesota: 2-2, 6-6
The last time Ohio State grabbed a series from a team that finished in the top two of the conference was 2013, taking two of three from Nebraska, who they finished in a tie for second with.