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The B1GGEST Conference Baseball Preview Around

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Previewing the conference as hardball hits full swing.

Hoosier daddy?
Hoosier daddy?
Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports

The Hawkeye baseball team is 14-6, and is receiving votes [!] in the USA Today Coaches' Top 25. They're also off to their best start in, literally, decades.  (1941, to be precise.)  This weekend, Iowa opens Big Ten play against recent powerhouse Indiana. That series will be previewed shortly, but first, we give you a look at the entire conference, as we embark on the road to Target (TM) Field and the 2015 Big Ten Tournament.  The top 8 teams in the Big Ten make the conference tournament in May.

The top eight teams in the regular-season standings qualify for the conference tourney. Complicating matters is that each team plays eight three-game series in conference play, so again with the unbalanced scheduling, Jim! With no two rosters or schedules being equal, let's look at who Iowa is up against, and their assets and obstacles.

THE COMPETITION

Illinois

2014 Record: 32-21 Overall, 17-7 B1G (3rd)

2015 Record to Date: 17-5-1

Do They Play Iowa? No

Outlook: The Fighting Illini are currently ranked #22 in the USA Today Coaches' Poll, and look like an obvious contender for the conference regular-season championship. Of Illinois' five losses so far, only one came by more than two runs without the benefit of extra innings, and that was an early-March 8-1 defeat in the middle game of Illinois' series with then-#10 Oklahoma State, which the Illini took two of three games in, by the way. Illinois' pitching staff has posted a daunting 2.08 team ERA. They make opponents earn what they get, having only walked 39 batters in 208 IP, and, oh, they're not so good at letting opponents earn it, surrendering just a .201 opponent's batting average. Offensively, Illinois has a powerful trio in David Kerian (.351 Avg., 5 HR, 15 RBI), Reid Roper (.378, 3 HR, 19 RBI), and Casey Fletcher (.309, 3 HR, 16 RBI). The Illini have a middling schedule, as they miss Maryland, but play Indiana and Nebraska (albeit both at home), yet also have series against presumptive cellar-dwellers Northwestern and Penn State.

Indiana

2014 Record: 44-15 Overall, 21-3 B1G (1st)

2015 Record to Date: 16-5

Do They Play Iowa? Yes (this weekend in Iowa City)

Outlook: Following Indiana’s ultra-successful 2014 season, head coach Tracy Smith left for greener (in a way) pastures at Arizona State, while offensive catalysts Kyle Schwarber (1st round, 4th overall) and Sam Travis (2nd round, 67th overall) left for professional baseball. Chris Lemonis, formerly an assistant at Louisville, is now the Indiana head coach and the 2015 Hoosiers (16-5, 1-1) are poised for their third consecutive conference title. Craig Dedlow (.341, 15 RBI, .402 OBP) and Austin Cangelosi (.333, .606 SLG%) provide much of the offense, while Scott Donley--a holdover from the 2013 College World Series run--is hitting .309. Pitcher Scott Effross has transitioned well from the bullpen to the starting rotation, holding opponents below two runs a game. Seniors Luke Harrison (2-0, 1.06, 11 APP) and Ryan Halstead (3.14, 5 Saves) anchor the bullpen for Indiana. The Hoosiers must go on the road to Maryland and Illinois if they hope to capture their third straight conference title.

Maryland

2014 Record: 40-23 Overall, 15-14 ACC

2015 Record to Date: 17-5

Do They Play Iowa? Yes (4/10/15 to 4/12/15 in College Park, MD)

Outlook: The #17 Terrapins aim to make a huge splash in their Big Ten debut. Like Illinois, the Terps' five losses have all been fairly narrow. Maryland's non-conference slate was not staggering, but they did pick up a marquee-sounding win over Arkansas. The Terps feature an incredibly balanced lineup, with all of their regulars (plus one bench player) having notched at least 12 RBI through 22 games. Brandon Lowe has been outright scary with his production (.402, 4 HR, 18 RBI, 1.203 OPS [!]). To give an idea of how dangerous Maryland is, four Terrapins have combined for more extra-base hits than Iowa's entire roster. Pitching has been an early vulnerability for the Terps, but if they can get the ball to Ryan Selmer (0.49 ERA in 18.1 IP in relief) with a lead, they're in good shape. Maryland also seems to have gotten the Delany red-carpet special, as they miss Illinois, and get Nebraska and Indiana (and Iowa) at home. With a sweep of Minnesota already under its belt, this B1G race might be Maryland's to lose.

Michigan

2014 Record: 30-29-1 Overall, 13-11 B1G (T-4th)

2015 Record to Date: 12-11

Do They Play Iowa? Yes (5/1/15 to 5/3/15 in Ann Arbor, MI)

Outlook: Last year, Michigan played a brutal non-conference schedule. This year...not quite so much. The Wolverines opened with a respectable showing, salvaging a game out of three from periodic national powerhouse Long Beach State. But five of Michigan's next seventeen games were against Siena, and the others don't appear enormously more difficult. Still, the Wolverines can't escape the near-.500 mark where they ended last year. Michigan was already swept at Nebraska last weekend, makes a trip to Bloomington, and faces Maryland, but they miss Illinois, and get nine games against Northwestern, Purdue, and Penn State, so the .500 trap seems to remain set for these Wolverines. Returning outfielder Jackson Glines leads Michigan with a .453 average and 1.082 OPS.

Michigan State

2014 Record: 31-26 Overall, 11-13 B1G (6th)

2015 Record to Date: 11-11

Do They Play Iowa? No

Outlook: SPARTY...Yes? Like Michigan last year, MSU gets the 2015 vote of best .500 team in the conference, having played New Mexico (W), Oregon State (extra-inning L), Houston Baptist (L), at UCLA (swept in 3), and Clemson (W!), among others. They also have forthcoming series/games at Oregon and Notre Dame, so Sparty is testing himself. Speaking of tests, there's a little ballclub we already talked about called Illinois who travels to East Lansing this weekend, so we'll quickly find what Sparty is made of in the conference race. After that, there's only Indiana among the top dogs, and Sparty gets all of Purdue, Penn State, and Northwestern, so don't be surprised if MSU starts to string the wins together. The strength of schedule thus far render MSU's statistics largely unremarkable, but Cam Gibson (only the Kirk Gibson's son) managed to steal 10 bags in 11 tries against the tough early slate. Blaise Salter (.295, 3 HR, 14 RBI), and reliever/spot-starter Andrew Gonzalez (2-0, 1.35 ERA in 20 IP) also made it through the tough early slate looking good.

Minnesota

2014 Record: 27-24 Overall, 13-11 B1G (T-4th)

2015 Record to Date: 7-13

Do They Play Iowa? Yes (5/8/15 to 5/10/15 in Iowa City)

Outlook: Minnesota sees Michigan State's tough early schedule...and goes ALL IN! The Gophers dropped their first seven games of the year in two road sweeps at the hands of Houston, and a little school known as the University of Texas at Austin. Setting aside momentarily also Goldy's conference-opening sweep (the bad kind) at Maryland last weekend, and the Gophers are 7-3 in their remaining games, which include series with Creighton and Florida Gulf Coast, so not making the NAIA tour there either. Matt Fiedler managed to hack his way through the early carnage to the tune of .403, with two triples, two homers, 14 RBI, and a 1.018 OPS. So look out for that guy. Minnesota's starting pitchers--their usual strength--also all stand today with sub-5.00 ERAs. In context, pretty good. So does it get easier for Minnesota? Probably. They go to Iowa and Nebraska, but no Illinois, no Indiana, and mid-tier competitors Michigan and Michigan State travel to Minneapolis. These guys probably have a good shot at traveling downtown for the conference tourney.

Nebraska

2014 Record: 41-21 Overall, 18-6 B1G (2nd)

2015 Record to Date: 18-6

Do They Play Iowa? Yes (4/24/15 to 4/26/15 in Iowa City)

Outlook: Darin Erstad, the media darling of Big Ten Baseball, and his club sit with the conference’s best record after sweeping Michigan last weekend. Iowa native Ben Miller carries a .352 batting average through twenty-four games, second only behind Ryan Boldt’s .370 average. Erstad’s number two starter is Muscatine native Derek Burkamper, who is 3-1 with an ERA of 3.07. Nebraska’s non-conference schedule included Texas A&M, LSU, and Loyola Marymount, proving the Husker record to this point is no fluke. The conference title may come down to the final weekend when the Huskers travel to Champaign to play the Illini.

Northwestern

2014 Record: 19-33 Overall, 7-16 B1G (10th)

2015 Record to Date: 5-17

Do They Play Iowa? Yes (4/17/15 to 4/19/15 in Iowa City)

Outlook: Despite Northwestern’s poor record, there is one bright spot with the ongoing renovation project to Rocky Miller Park, much needed if you’ve ever seen a game there. Redshirt senior Kyle Ruchium leads the Wildcat offense after missing all of 2014, hitting .365 with a team high 12 RBI. Despite a team ERA of 5.36, junior lefthander (and Marion, IA native) Jake Stolley has been lights out in the Wildcat bullpen, sporting a 0.83 ERA in twelve appearances. Iowa over everythang.

Ohio State

2014 Record: 30-28 Overall, 10-14 B1G (9th)

2015 Record to Date: 15-6

Do They Play Iowa? No

Outlook: The Buckeyes began conference play by taking two of three last weekend from Michigan State. Leftfielder Ronnie Dawson, the preseason player of the year by Perfect Game, leads Ohio State offensively though his average (.238) is yet to show it. The Buckeye pitching staff has been salty thus far, sporting a 2.58 team ERA. Tanner Tulley and Travis Lakins provide the Buckeyes with tremendous starting pitching while senior lefthander Ryan Riga’s 0.94 ERA and 4-1 record rounds out the weekend staff.

Penn State

2014 Record: 18-32 Overall, 5-18 B1G (12th)

2015 Record to Date: 4-14

Do They Play Iowa? No

Outlook: Second-year head coach Rob Cooper didn’t shy away from competition with this year’s non-conference schedule. The Nittany Lions sit at 4-14 (1-1) after collectively dropping seven games to Texas A&M, Liberty, and South Carolina. Battle-tested, Penn State is led by senior Aaron Novak (.383, HR, 16 RBI) at the plate with Jim Haley (.311, 14 RBI) and Christian Helsel (.302, .441 OBP) also hitting well. On the mound, senior lefthander Geoff Boylston has proved versatile and efficient for the Nittany Lions, often being used as a starter or in long-relief while carrying a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 15/2.

Purdue

2014 Record: 13-37 Overall, 6-18 B1G (11th)

2015 Record to Date: 9-14

Do They Play Iowa? Yes (4/3/15 to 4/5/15 in West Lafayatte, IN)

Outlook: Trying to improve on a 2014 season which yielded only thirteen wins, Purdue sits within four wins of matching last year’s total after last weekend’s series with Rutgers. Senior Kyle Wood leads the offense, hitting .375 with an on-base percentage at .458. Freshman starting pitcher Mike Kornacker’s 3.80 ERA is the lowest among Purdue starters. Upperclassmen Matt Gibbs, Tim McElroy, and Joe Eichmann are Coach Doug Scheiber’s favorite bullpen arms.

Rutgers

2014 Record: 30-25 Overall, 14-9 American Ath. Conf

2015 Record to Date: 6-14

Do They Play Iowa? Yes (5/14/15 to 5/16/15)

Outlook: Of the apparently middle-tier B1G teams, Rutgers will get the most head-to-head opportunities within that cohort to separate itself. The Scarlet Knights get Iowa, Michigan State, Minnesota, and Ohio State, all at home mind you, to comprise half of their conference schedule. The key battle for 8th place and the last conference tourney berth may well go through Piscataway. So how did Rutgers get to 6-14, then? Early road trips to Miami, Old Dominion, and Florida Atlantic didn't help (a series at Tennessee got cancelled...yikes). Even given the schedule, Rutgers has looked worse than at least we expected early in the year, but they did get a jump start on B1G play by taking two of three on the road at Purdue last weekend. A flop at home this weekend against Ohio State may put Rutgers behind the 8-ball. Tom Marcinczyk has posted some incredible numbers (.351, 3 HR, 20 RBI), but may need to carry this team if they hope to end the season in Minneapolis.

POWER PREDICTIONS

Now for the fun part. We present our official, on-the-record predictions or power rankings (maybe a little of both), the obliteration of which will commence in full this weekend. Because we have already discussed each team, and because we're humans with outside lives, we will provide no reasoning whatsoever for these picks. It appears we differ most in the middle, surrounding the 8th-place line, which as noted above, is most crucial for conference tournament purposes.

Hayden's_Aviators Randy Johnson's Mullet
1. Maryland Maryland
2. Illinois Illinois
3. Indiana Indiana
4. Nebraska Nebraska
5. Michigan State Ohio State
6. Iowa Iowa
7. Minnesota Michigan
8. Michigan Minnesota
9. Rutgers Michigan State
10. Ohio State Penn State
11. Purdue Rutgers
12. Northwestern Purdue
13. Penn State Northwestern