Pitchers and catchers are reporting to spring training for MLB, but the return of college baseball is even sooner -- this weekend, as a matter of fact. So let's talk a little bit about the other Iowa b-ball for a bit. We'll have another post soon breaking down the Iowa roster, which has some key returning faces and a lot of new faces, but for now let's take a bigger picture look at Iowa baseball.
Coach Rick Heller's Hawkeyes are coming off a sensational season in 2015. They went 41-18 overall, and 19-5 in Big Ten competition, good for a 2nd place finish behind Illinois (who went 21-1 in Big Ten play and 50-10-1 overall). They made their first NCAA Tournament appearance in 25 years and recorded their first win in the NCAA Tournament since 1972. It was a breakthrough performance in every aspect. Now comes the hard part, though: sustaining that success. Can Iowa build off a tremendous 2015 and repeat (or improve upon) any of last year's accomplishments in 2016? Heller is a very good coach and his recruiting at Iowa has been well-regarded by the recruitniks, so there's lots of reason to be optimistic about the medium- and long-term future of Iowa baseball. Success in the short-term is going to depend on how quickly some of those well-regarded newcomers are able to make an impact for Iowa.
Outside expectations are higher than usual for Iowa baseball, although not yet sky-high -- the Big Ten coaches have Iowa pegged to finish 4th this year, behind Michigan, Maryland, and Indiana. Baseball America and D1Baseball both tab Michigan as the favorite in the league, with D1Baseball also picking Iowa to finish 4th. D1Baseball also has Iowa in their projected Field of 64 for the NCAA Tournament, as a #3 seed in the Louisville regional. They're one of four Big Ten teams in that bracket (along with Michigan, Maryland, and Indiana). Baseball America's projected field of 64 includes just three Iowa teams (Michigan, Maryland, and Indiana) and omits Iowa. Making the NCAA Tournament two years in a row would be a hell of an achievement for Iowa baseball.
That's especially true because this is a fairly challenging-looking schedule, especially when it comes to Big Ten play. The non-conference play is very similar to what we've seen in recent years: Dallas Baptist, Indiana State, Southern Illinois, Missouri State, Bradley, Northern Illinois, Milwaukee, Kansas State, Nebraska Omaha -- these are all teams Iowa has played in non-conference games lately. As usual, Iowa's season starts away from home -- outside of a game against Northwestern College in Iowa City on March 8, 16 of Iowa's first 17 games are away from home, with many of them down south. (Not all of them, though -- Iowa plays a three-game series against Southern Illinois in Carbondale, IL at the start of March and has another three-gamer against Missouri State in Springfield, MO in mid-March.)
But the Big Ten schedule should really test this Iowa team. Remember how Michigan, Maryland, and Indiana are the consensus picks as the three top teams in the Big Ten? Well, Iowa has three game series against all of them, although they do get both Michigan and Maryland at home. They also draw three of the five teams expected to be in the middle of the pack in the Big Ten (Illinois, Michigan State, and Ohio State; they skip Nebraska and Purdue). They play just two of the four teams expected to be near the bottom of the Big Ten standings (Minnesota and Penn State), missing Northwestern and Rutgers (expected to be the two worst teams in the league by D1Baseball) entirely.
Again, this is all based off preseason expectations and what things look like on paper -- as we know, things can play out differently in reality (Iowa sure as heck wasn't picked to finish 2nd in the league last year). Some teams pegged to be bad might be good, while some of the teams picked to succeed might struggle. We'll have to wait and see how things actually turn out, but for now things look pretty challenging for #Hellerball. We'll be back with a preview of the Iowa roster (and this weekend's series against Dallas Baptist) later this week.