Published Thursday, March 21, 2013 at 12:01 am / Updated at 12:43 am
baseball
Big Ten teams build at-large hopes

The wild and unpredictable Big Ten may not be as nationally insignificant as it has been over the past three years.

No. 22 Indiana, Michigan State and Illinois each have already made the kind of noise that sets the foundation for a possible at-large berth to the NCAA tournament, assuming they avoid collapsing in league play.

The Hoosiers reached a regional in 2009. The Illini were there in 2011. And Michigan State made it last year.

All three want to get back, and the less random and parity-filled this Big Ten season is, the better it will be for the frontrunners. Cluttered standings in a normally irrelevant league only tend to drag down RPI ratings.

But there are other Big Ten teams, Nebraska included, who've struggled a bit early, yet still have enough on-paper talent to catch fire, make one of conference's patented late-season runs and earn a chance to win the league's automatic bid.

Over the last three years, six different teams have started Big Ten play with a losing record but have still managed to finish in the top three of the league standings.

That will be Nebraska's goal.

Whatever happens, the Big Ten seems to be trending upward, adding some significance to a conference season that begins Friday. Remember, though, only the top six teams will reach the league tournament in May. As NU coach Darin Erstad coined it: Big Ten play will be an “absolute dogfight” this year. Get ready.

Below is The World-Herald's up-to-date ranking of the Big Ten teams:

INDIANA (AP No. 22)

Record: 15-3 RPI
Rating: 14
Preseason World-Herald ranking: second
Team batting average: .314 Team
ERA: 2.11
Nonconference highlight: Winning two of three at Florida. Early surprise: Relievers Scott Effross and Ryan Halstead combining for five saves and a 0.86 ERA in 14 appearances after first-team All-Big Ten closer Jonny Hoffman was kicked off the team during the offseason.
Last word: The Hoosiers opened their new ballpark, Bart Kaufman Field, on Wednesday. But they have road series at Michigan State, Nebraska and Ohio State this spring.

MICHIGAN STATE

Record: 9-7

RPI: 11

Preseason W-H ranking: fourth

Team batting average: .282

Team ERA: 3.91

Nonconference highlight: Winning a road game at No. 10 Kentucky.

Early surprise: A semi-slow start for pitcher Justin Alleman, a top 50 freshman prospect and an 18th-round draft pick last summer. He has a team-high 10 appearances, but a 4.82 ERA and an 0-2 record.

Last word: The Spartans were the first Big Ten team since 2009 to earn an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament last year.

ILLINOIS

Record: 13-4

RPI: 23

Preseason W-H ranking: third

Team batting average: .291

Team ERA: 3.10

Nonconference highlight: Sweeping Baylor in Waco, Texas.

Early surprise: Getting both pitcher Kevin Johnson (31st-round draft pick) and outfielder Jordan Parr (26th round) back on the roster. Johnson is 3-1 with a 2.48 ERA, while Parr leads the team in home runs (three) and RBIs (18).

Last word: Sophomore Rob McDonnell, whose 2012 season was cut short due to injury, has a 5.40 ERA in three appearances. He has weekend starter potential, and the Illini could use him in that role.

NEBRASKA

Record: 6-13
RPI: 136
Preseason W-H ranking: first
Team batting average: .233
Team ERA: 4.73
Nonconference highlight: Winning a road game against UC Irvine.
Early surprise: One of the nation's top offenses last year is averaging just 3.3 runs per game and already has been shut out four times. Last word: Nebraska has played the 16th-toughest schedule so far, according to BoydsWorld.com. The rest of the Big Ten's average strength of schedule: 119.

OHIO STATE

Record: 12-6
RPI: 87
Preseason W-H ranking: sixth
Team batting average: .276
Team ERA: 2.52
Nonconference highlight: Splitting a two-game series at Coastal Carolina.
Early surprise: Senior Brad Goldberg, who hasn't pitched at this level in two years, is 2-0 and has a 1.52 ERA, striking out 29 batters in 29.2 innings.
Last word: Two-way standout Josh Dezse, a 28th-round draft pick in 2010, hasn't played yet this year because of a back injury. He ranked second on the team last year in batting average (.306) and home runs (five).

MICHIGAN

Record: 9-9
RPI: 119
Preseason W-H ranking: seventh
Team batting average: .254
Team ERA: 4.70
Nonconference highlight: Winning at No. 25 San Diego.
Early surprise: A team that ran quite a bit last season is taking even more chances on the base paths so far. The Wolverines rank 10th nationally in stolen bases, averaging 2.6 per game.
Last word: Senior outfielder Patrick Biondi (sprained thumb) could miss a month of action. He's second on the team with a .393 batting average.

MINNESOTA

Record: 13-8
RPI: 181
Preseason W-H ranking: fifth
Team batting average: .263
Team ERA: 2.98
Nonconference highlight: Opening the year with a 6-2 win at No. 11 UCLA.
Early surprise: After being limited by a shoulder injury all last season, junior lefty Tom Windle has a 1.69 ERA. He threw a no-hitter against Western Illinois earlier this month.
Last word: The Gophers' No. 2 starter last season, DJ Snelten, made his first appearance in 2013 this week. Opponents hit .229 against the left-hander last year.

IOWA

Record: 8-8
RPI: 101
Preseason W-H ranking: 10th
Team batting average: .265
Team ERA: 3.00
Nonconference highlight: Beating Mountain West favorite New Mexico 6-2 in 10 innings.
Early surprise: Lots of struggles for left-hander Sasha Kuebel, a second-team All-Big Ten performer as a freshman last year. He's 1-4 with a 5.08 ERA.
Last word: For the first time in five years, Iowa had a change on its coaching staff. The Hawkeyes hired a new hitting coach, Zach Dillion, and a new pitching coach, Jim Brownlee.

PENN STATE

Record: 5-11
RPI: 145
Preseason W-H ranking: eighth
Team batting average: .258
Team ERA: 5.02
Nonconference highlight: Losing a 3-2 game at Texas-San Antonio.
Early surprise: Sophomore shortstop Taylor Skerpon, who had one hit in 13 at-bats last year, leads the team with a .347 batting average this season.
Last word: The Nittany Lions hit 24 of their 38 home runs last year against Big Ten opponents. They've managed just 19 extra base hits so far this season.

NORTHWESTERN

Record: 7-5
RPI: 141
Preseason World-Herald ranking: 11th
Team batting average: .296
Team ERA: 3.05
Nonconference highlight: Losing three close games at Missouri State.
Early surprise: Zach Morton is making a case for Big Ten player of the year consideration. He's batting .356 and leads the Wildcats with 13 RBIs while also posting a 0.63 ERA in four starts.
Last word: Northwestern shortstop Trevor Stevens missed last year with an injury, but he's back now, leading the team in runs scored (14) and stolen bases (three).

PURDUE

Record: 7-11
RPI: 102
Preseason W-H ranking: ninth
Team batting average: .246
Team ERA: 6.49
Nonconference highlight: Losing two one-run games at No. 19 Mississippi State.
Early surprise: A slight regression for the only two returning position players who had significant playing time last year, seniors Stephen Talbott and Angelo Cianfrocco. They've combined to hit .226, driving in a total of 12 runs.
Last word: Junior starter Brad Schreiber (1-2, 5.25), who redshirted because of injury last year, is the Big Ten's sixth-best 2013 MLB draft prospect, according to Baseball America.

*RPI ranking according to BoydsWorld.com

Contact the writer: Jon Nyatawa

jon.nyatawa@owh.com    |   402-473-9585    |  

Jon Nyatawa has covered local sports, primarily Nebraska football and baseball, for The Omaha World-Herald since 2008.

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