College : : Blog
Big Ten Giant Killers
Published: Tuesday, March 17, 2009
For the second consecutive weekend a team from the Big Ten travelled south to take on a prominently ranked national opponent and came out on top.
Two weekends ago the Illinois Fighting Illini took two of three games from the LSU Tigers, who at the time were ranked number one in the nation according to a few national polls.
This past weekend the Minnesota Golden Gophers did the same to TCU, often mentioned by people as somewhat of a dark-horse team when it comes to teams to watch during the pursuit of glory in Omaha.
Those series victories led to both the Illinois and Minnesota programs being ranked in the top 25 by a couple of national publications. The Gophers are currently ranked 17th in the national RPI ratings while the Illini are 54th.
In addition to Minnesota’s weekend series win over the Horned Frogs, they began the season taking two of three from the Big East/Big Ten Challenge, and also swept the Dairy Queen Classic tournament against opponents UC Santa Barbara, Washington and Hawai’i.
Illinois also went two for three in the Big East/Big Ten Challenge in addition to the two victories over LSU.
That’s good news for a pair of programs a week away from having their own conference schedules begin. The Big Ten is perceived to be down this year due to the amount of talent that Michigan (a program that is no stranger to playing the role of giant killer in recent years) lost in last year’s draft. Although at 10-5, the Wolverines are holding their own despite being swept by Arizona this past weekend.
(After a 13-2 start, Ohio State’s success also needs to be mentioned, although they haven’t scheduled as nearly of a challenging non-conference schedule as the aforementioned teams.)
Each program has a notable positional player and pitcher that has stepped up to help propel their teams.
For Minnesota, right-fielder Michael Kvasnicka is batting .411 with nine doubles, while right-handed pitcher Tom Buske is 3-0 with a 1.44 ERA and a 23 to five strikeout to walk ratio over 25 innings of work.
Illinois is led by catcher Aaron Johnson (who is keeping the Canadian pipeline of catching prospects to Champaign alive and well, following in the footsteps of Lars Davis and Chris Robinson) by hitting .396/.463/.646 with three home runs and 19 RBI so far this spring. Left-handed pitcher, and former quarterback, Phil Haig is 3-0 with a 0.72 ERA.
Sophomore center fielder Ryan LaMarre, a name to watch for the 2010 draft, has progressed well from his freshman year to this season for the Wolverines, batting .410/.486/.754 with six dingers and 25 RBI. Senior righty Chris Fetter is 2-1 with a 1.78 ERA and a 26 to three strikeout to walk ratio in just over 25 innings of work.
All of these players, and their respective programs, have stolen the spotlight in the Big Ten conference from Indiana, who was expected to be led by top draft-eligible players such as catcher Josh Phegley and left-handed pitcher Matt Bashore. Phegley is off to yet another impressive start (.421/.532/.807 with eight home runs), but Bashore (0-3, 8.44 ERA) is not.
The uniform start date was put in place to help teams in colder climates compete against programs in the Sun Belt, since they have a hard time playing, much less practicing in the bitter winter elements the upper Midwest has to offer. I don’t necessarily think that is giving these teams a better chance to compete against teams such as LSU and TCU, but I’m sure detractors who don’t think much of baseball from my part of the country are looking for reasons to diminish their early success.
Regardless of the reasons for the teams’ success, the emergence of the Minnesota and Illinois programs in national conversations will help add more interest and intrigue to the Big Ten conference schedule.
Illinois has three tough weekend matchups in the month of April, hosting Indiana (April 3-5) and Minnesota (April 17-19) while also traveling to Michigan (April 10-12). Minnesota will travel to Indiana to open Big Ten conference play on March 27th, and again to Michigan on May 8th. Michigan seems to be in a good position to gain ground if they need to over the course of the conference schedule, hosting the Illini, the Gophers and the Hoosiers (April 24-26).