Tuesday, May 22, 2007

The Long And Winding Tournament Preview

Anybody can win the 2007 Big Ten Conference Tournament. Anybody.

Conversely, all six teams are perfectly capable of going two and barbecue. (Is anybody having a bbq, by the way? Of course, I'm invited, right?)

This is the most wide open conference tournament in years. I think there are two primary reasons for this. 1) The teams in the Big Ten are just plain better baseball teams in 2007. Look at the number of Big Ten programs that beat some of college baseball's big boys this year (Ex: Penn State over UNC, Michigan over Mississippi State, Minnesota over Arkansas). If Big Ten programs can go on the road and beat the sunshine boys, they can all beat each other.

2) Each school's pitching can be erratic. If you've got good starters, your bullpen is probably a question mark. If you've got a tremendous bullpen, your starters get squirrely from time-to-time. In some instances, especially late in the year, entire pitching staffs have gone belly up.

As the pitching as been so difficult to get a handle on, it's hard to guess which team has an edge heading into the tournament. The bottom line will probably be that whomever pitches best this week wins. An insightful thought, I know. But, how much did you pay for this insight? Sometimes you do get what you pay for.

Having said all this, let me provide an array of short concepts that will provide, well, will provide me with an outlet to share these ideas. You can decide if they make an ounce of sense.

The Favorite: Whether you love 'em or hate 'em, Michigan has to be the pre-tournament favorite. They've now won the last three championships the conference plays for : '06 regular season, '06 tournament & '07 regular season. They are at home. (Yes, they've been better on the road this year. I still think the players and coaches would rather have this tournament in Ann Arbor.) They have the highest RPI of anyone in the Big Ten. They have the most dynamic offense in a conference with a number of teams that can swing the bat.

The Hot Team: Penn State. The Nittany Lions have won nine of their last twelve conference games. Three weeks ago, Penn State won the series versus Purdue. Then, PSU won three in Ann Arbor two weeks ago and took three more from a revived Ohio State squad this past weekend. Drew O'Neil is plain nasty out of the 'pen and the Lions don't lose leads very often. An under-appreciated starting rotation keeps PSU in nearly every game.

The Pitching Staff To Watch Out For: Ohio State. Coach Bob Todd inserted Jake Hale into the rotation two weeks ago and the Buckeyes first three starters are now Cory Luebke, Hale and J.B. Shuck. All good. All have pitched in the conference tournament before. Are three starters enough to win it all? Maybe.

Nobody Loves Us: Iowa. If one program is going to throw around the "Us Against The World" speech, it's the Hawkeyes. They just can't get no respect. An unimpressive RPI. A fourth place finish. It seems like Iowa is in the shadows. Although, these Hawks can swing the bats with anyone in the Big Ten. Jason White, Travis Sweet and Dusty Napoleon all finished the year with an OPS above 1.000. That's real good, boys and girls. Their pitching has been just good enough, but losing closer Mike Schurz does hurt their chances in this format.

If You Don't Get To Them Early: In my mind there are three clubs with exceptional bullpens. Minnesota has the double-headed monster of Josh Oslin and Kyle Carr. Penn State's Matt Ogrodnik and O'Neil (there seems like there should be a nickname for a bullpen led by two guys with last names starting with o) aren't far behind. Illinois counters with Omar Kadir and Jake "I got us in the stinkin' tournament" Toohey. I would normally include Iowa, but losing Schurz drops the Hawkeyes bullpen some.

Comeback Kids: Illinois. The Illini needed two wins to get to the little dance (that's the conference tournament). They fall behind Friday, 4-0, after two innings yet win the game. Needing only one win, they get crushed in both games Saturday. Down 7-0 to Michigan State on Sunday, with their entire season on the line, Illinois makes another comeback to win 8-7 and gets in the tournament. Can this continue? Can the Illini faithful take it, if it does? Do the Illinois kids have anything left in the tank?

History Should Teach Us Something: Last year, I liked Minnesota. I opined at the time that history told me to watch out for John Anderson's team. Those who don't learn from history are doomed to repeat it, right? Well, recent history, including dropping six of their last twelve (NU and IU took four of six) makes me ponder where the Gophers are right now. Yet, I refuse to ignore history. If Minnesota can beat Arkansas, Mississippi and Pepperdine, they can take out the other five teams in Ann Arbor.

The Official View: Here is the link to the Big Ten's preview of the tournament. (Apparently, non-conference games don't mean much in Chicago.)

Is That Rain?: The weather forecast is typical for May. Wednesday is supposed to be warm (pushing 90, perhaps) and sunny. Trouble may arise come Thursday. I've seen thundershowers called for and I've seen another forecast predicting a second straight sunny, high eighty degree day. Amazingly, both forecasts are courtesy of The Weather Channel -- one online the other on tv. I guess they've got their bases covered regardless of what happens.

Overall, we've got nice on Wednesday, a toss-up on Thursday, water from the sky on Friday and rain with some noise on Saturday. Did I mention the temperatures are going to drop each successive day, as well?

I'll tell you the same thing I said last year, pack everything -- sunscreen and shorts to umbrellas and jackets.

All-Conference Picks: Another official announcement from the home office in Chicago. The Big Ten has names it's Players of the Year and their All-Conference Teams. Congratulations to Cory Luebke and Lars Davis on being named Pitcher and Player of the Year, respectively. (FYI: I can never decide if I want to name an All-BTH team or not. I'm leaning towards an All-Freshman Team, but even that's not definite. If you have an opinion or would like to nominate a freshman -- or two -- drop me an email.)

Let's look at some numbers. The PRPI indicates Boyd's World Pseudo-RPI as of the time I write this. I'm assuming you realize the first two sets of numbers are each school's record in the Big Ten followed by their overall record. You knew that, right? All that is followed by their record against the rest of the tournament field.

Michigan (21-7, 39-14; PRPI - 40)
vs. Minnesota 0-0 (4 games canceled)
vs. Penn State 1-3
vs. Iowa 3-1
vs. Illinois 2-2
vs. Ohio State 4-0

Minnesota (18-9, 38-14; PRPI - 54)
vs. Michigan 0-0
vs. Penn State 2-1 (1 canceled)
vs. Iowa 3-1
vs. Illinois 3-1
vs. Ohio State 2-2

Penn State (20-10, 28-24; PRPI - 71)
vs. Michigan 3-1
vs. Minnesota 1-2 (1 canceled)
vs. Iowa 1-2
vs. Illinois DNP
vs. Ohio State 3-1

Iowa (17-13, 31-21; PRPI - 93)
vs. Michigan 1-3
vs. Minnesota 1-3
vs. Penn State 2-1
vs. Illinois 3-1
vs. Ohio State 1-3

Illinois (16-14, 30-25; PRPI - 140)
vs. Michigan 2-2
vs. Minnesota 1-3
vs. Penn State DNP
vs. Iowa 1-3
vs. Ohio State 1-1 (2 cancellations)

Ohio State (15-15, 33-22; PRPI - 89)
vs. Michigan 0-4
vs. Minnesota 2-2
vs. Penn State 1-3
vs. Iowa 3-1
vs. Illinois 1-1 (2 cancellations)

I did a couple of additional stats, beyond the standard batting average and ERA you can find at the Big Ten's official site, just out of curiosity. I'm not sure it means a thing, but here is how the tournament field stacked up in OPS and WHIP ratio. Their overall conference ranking appears in the parentheses.

Michigan 908 (1)
Iowa 884 (2)
Illinois 848 (3)
Minnesota 840 (4)
Ohio State 798 (6)
Penn State 745 (9)

Walks + Hits/Innings Pitched
Michigan 1.449 (1)
Minnesota 1.461 (2)
Penn State 1.467 (3)
Ohio State 1.503 (4)
Illinois 1.712 (8)
Iowa 1.760 (9)

I thank you wading through this unorganized preview of the Big Ten Tournament. I'll try blogging each evening after the tournament concludes for the day, so stop by each day for a recap. Keep in mind, though, it could be late before the post goes up.