It was a wild last weekend of the regular season in the Big Ten Conference! In fact, on Friday, when teams were playing the 2nd games of their respective series, each of the top 6 teams lost to the bottom 6 in the standings. (Number 7 Illinois was playing a non-conference team.) Even with all that wildness, not a whole lot changed in the standings from the previous week.
The most significant change was at the top. Maryland was able to overtake Indiana, who ended up losing the series to Michigan State. That gave Maryland back to back regular season conference titles. They were the first team to repeat since Indiana in 2013 and 2014. The other change was Nebraska jumped over Rutgers, who dropped 2 of 3 to Minnesota. Nebraska will now be the home team in the 4-5 matchup with the Scarlet Knights.
So here is the bracket for next week. As you can see, the format has changed, with the tournament starting a day earlier, because they have had so many issues trying to get 4 games in per day with games going into extra innings, just going long in general, and of course the weather in late May in the Midwest rarely cooperates over an entire week. So now they are going to schedule 2-3 games per day, so they may add a 4th game if needed on a day or two, should weather dictate. Let’s take a look at the opening games and see what each team could be in for.
Game 1 - 10 a.m.
#3 Iowa (15-8 Conference Record)
#6 Michigan (13-11)
Iowa should be a lock for its first NCAA tournament since 2017. Even though they bring the best pitching staff and defense to Omaha, they draw the early first game, which historically can be a tossup at best (just ask Iowa about last year). Add to that Michigan will be rolling out Connor O’Halloran and Iowa could be fighting out of the losers bracket. Is it worth them depleting their staff to get out of, when they need to be fresh next week? Also keep in mind, they don’t have their full roster with the gambling investigation. Don’t count out Michigan either, they won the whole thing out of the 5 seed last year, and won’t have to play until 2:30 am this year either.
Game 2 - 2 p.m.
#2 Indiana (16-8)
#7 Illinois (12-12)
The surprise of the season was Indiana leading the conference almost wire to wire. Loaded with tons of Sophomore talent, the Hoosiers are an NCAA lock, but may be a year ahead of making true noise in either the conference or NCAA tournaments. They were dominant at home, going 26-4, but 14-12 away from Bloomington. Illinois is back to their old self, having one of the best defenses in the conference, and combining that with smart base running and timely hitting. The normal tenet of Charles Schwab field has made a living of that formula for years. How will Illinois translate during tournament time?
Game 3 - 6 p.m.
#1 Maryland (17-7)
#8 Michigan State (12-12)
The back to back regular season champs may need a win or two to ensure their NCAA birth with a 45 RPI. It’s always an adventure in Omaha with a team built to play on a little league field comes to one of the biggest outfields in college baseball, with the wind generally blowing in this time of year. It takes someone like Pete Alonso or Kyle Schwarber to keep gorilla ball going here. Michigan State has been pretty solid for the majority of the season, other than back to back sweeps by Iowa and Illinois. They have the offense that can hang with just about anyone, and are coming off an upset series win against then #1 Indiana that got them in this tournament, so they will not be scared.
Game 4 - Wednesday @ 2 p.m.
#4 Nebraska (15-9)
#5 Rutgers (14-10)
After we get past the top 3 teams, its win the tournament or go home for the rest of the teams. Nebraska is the only team in the top 4 of offense, defense, and pitching in the conference, and has played more consistently since losing the continuation of the Creighton game. They have their 2 aces they can roll out, including Kaminska who pitched the best of the starters against Maryland and would matchup with them should both teams win. After those two though, is anyone’s guess as to what will show up to the ballpark on any given day. Rutgers has the roster to play with anyone, but has been up and down all season. Their pitching shows up every day, but the rest of their game has been trending down the past couple weeks, punctuated by a season ending series loss to Minnesota.