Hickey: Rating the difficulty of each Big Ten baseball team's road to Omaha
The messaging is too obvious to be called subliminal.
When the Big Ten began playing its baseball tournament at Omaha’s Charles Schwab Field, the goal was quite obvious: Win and try to get back here in 3 weeks.
Michigan remains the most recent B1G team to pull off that feat, getting back to Omaha in 2019 before falling to Vanderbilt in the championship series.
Last year, the Wolverines and Maryland came up short in the regional finals.
Can a Big Ten team break through regionals and move on this year?
No B1G team hosts this year. But all 3 in the 2023 NCAA Tournament have a reasonable shot at winning their regionals.
However, the degree of difficulty of their paths is not created equally.
Most manageable regional: Iowa
No disrespect to host Indiana State, which will definitely be disrespected by this proclamation, but the Terre Haute Regional is there for Iowa’s taking.
We know this in part because we’ve already seen it on the field. Iowa opened the season with a 6-2 win over the Sycamores in Florida.
Granted, Feb. 17 is a lifetime ago in the context of a baseball season. And the Hawkeyes won on Kyle Huckstorf’s walk-off grand slam in the bottom of the 11th inning, so these teams match up about as closely as you can.
Getting into the winner’s bracket will not be a walk in the park for the Hawkeyes. No. 3 seed North Carolina actually has a better RPI (27) than Iowa (33).
However, the Tar Heels are without center fielder Vance Honeycutt, who will miss regionals with a lower back injury. Honeycutt is the ACC Defensive Player of the Year, and also hits for power with 12 home runs.
Few teams in the entire tournament can match Iowa’s arms.
Brody Brecht has the lowest batting average allowed in the country (.148), while Marcus Morgan ranks 9th (.179). But both flamethrowers can struggle with control — each walks more than 18% of batters faced.
For Iowa, that often means high pitch counts and a reliance on the bullpen to finish the game. Beating North Carolina and avoiding the extra game of the loser’s bracket could be imperative for the Hawks.
If Iowa gets through Terre Haute, the winner of the Fayetteville Regional is next. No. 3 Arkansas is certainly a tough assignment, but TCU and Arizona are capable of getting through that regional.
Tough, but doable: Indiana
Few scenarios are more delicious to Indiana fans than the prospect of beating Kentucky for a regional championship.
Most IU fans look at Kentucky as their true basketball rival over Purdue. However, John Calipari has been ducking the Hoosiers ever since Christian Watford’s buzzer-beater to down the top-ranked Wildcats in December 2011.
It was once a rivalry game in football, too, with the Hoosiers and Wildcats vying for the Bourbon Barrel. The teams played every season from 1987-2005 but haven’t met since.
Kentucky can’t avoid Indiana in baseball, though — provided the Hoosiers are able to get past No. 2 seed West Virginia first. (And provided the Wildcats get past Ball State.)
The Mountaineers have been the best team in this regional for most of the season. Just a couple weeks ago, West Virginia looked like a sure regional host and a potential top-8 national seed. But the Mountaineers ended the regular season getting swept by Texas, then went 0-2 in the Big 12 tournament.
If West Virginia is still cold, Indiana can move into the winner’s bracket and potentially take the Lexington Regional. (For what it’s worth, Lexington was the site of IU’s most recent basketball regional title in 2002.)
The winner of the Baton Rouge Regional is next up in the bracket. LSU is the favorite, but if dark horse 3-seed Sam Houston State advances, there’s a chance the Hoosiers would host a Super Regional at Bart Kaufman Field.
A rocky road: Maryland
Maryland is the best team in the Big Ten, winning both the regular season and tournament titles. Unfortunately, the Terrapins are also stuck with the most difficult path of any Big Ten team.
The Terps drew the short straw, getting sent to No. 1 overall seed Wake Forest’s regional. The Demon Deacons are 47-7, and it’s largely in part to a pitching staff that boasts a nation-leading 2.59 ERA.
Wake Forest’s staff ERA is nearly a run better than the nation’s No. 2 pitching staff, Northeastern (3.46).
Oh, funny thing about Northeastern. The Terrapins are stuck playing the Huskies in the opening round.
So those are the stakes. All Maryland has to do in order to win its first regional since 2015 is beat the top 2 statistical pitching staffs in the country.
Thing is, the Terps are capable.
Maryland is 2nd nationally in home runs and 3rd in runs scored and slugging percentage. The Wake Forest Regional is the ultimate measure of hitting versus pitching.
Also noteworthy — the No. 1 overall national seed is a bit of an albatross. No top national seed has won the College World Series since Miami in 1999.
If Maryland can navigate through what’s arguably the toughest regional in the tournament, the Super Regional might feel like a relative breeze.
The winner in Wake Forest takes on the winner of the Tuscaloosa Regional, where No. 16 national seed Alabama will try to fend off a Boston College team that many felt should have been the final regional host.