Groundhog Day revisited

If you saw the 1993 movie "Groundhog Day" and are familiar with the recent history of the Illini baseball team in the Big Ten tournament, you know where I'm going with this.

Like Bill Murray  -- the movie's main character who surreally lives the same day over and over and over - Illinois just went through another of its conference tournament Groundhog Days at Columbus, Ohio.

For the third year in a row, Dan Hartleb's guys won their opener, then dropped the next two in the double-elimination event.

It's nothing new. Since last winning the tournament in 2000, the Illini have made six appearances in the league playoff. Not once did they win more than one game.

Getting there is one thing. Illinois is good at that.

The record shows that the Illini have established themselves as one of the league's top-tier programs during the regular season. Only Ohio State has a longer current string of consecutive Big Ten tournament appearances than Illinois' five in a row.

Doing something once they're in the tournament? Not so good. They're a combined 4-12 in their last six league playoffs.

No doubt Hartleb and his staff are analyzing and agonizing over another repeat of an all-too-familiar outcome in the tournament. Like Murray's character, they can't seem to break out of the cycle.

Many will point to the Illini's lack of pitching depth as the primary culprit. And that's a fair point. In each of Illinois' Game 3s in the last two tournaments, the opponent racked up 14 and 13 runs, respectively.

But Friday's elimination-round loss to Minnesota can't be explained by pitching alone. Illinois' hitting attack ranks among the best in the Big Ten. It managed six hits against a Gopher pitching staff also in its third game of the tournament. And an Illini team that statistically ranked No. 1 in fielding entering the tournament committed three errors.

This was a group effort.

You do have to wonder if Illinois might have broken through its one-win-and-only-one-win wall if the anticipated starting rotation had remained intact. Kevin Manson, the 2008 staff ace who was a tournament hero for the Illini a year ago, was virtually non-existent this season due to arm soreness. Another veteran, Ben Reeser, got off to a terrific start, then was struck by back pain that plagued him through most of the Big Ten race. To Reeser's credit, he tried to keep coming back but was largely ineffective and rarely around for more than an inning or two when he tried to pitch.

Without Manson and Reeser, Hartleb and pitching coach Ken Westray were forced to put together a Plan B rotation that included one experienced but young starter (sophomore Phil Haig) and two freshmen (Will Strack, Bryan Roberts). It's fortunate for Illinois that both newcomers pitched as well as they did or we wouldn't even be discussing the topic of another Big Ten tournament blowup right now. But imagine how much stronger the bullpen might have been if the two freshmen had been available as relievers. The versatile Strack, in particular, showed he could fill just about any role on the mound. We might actually be talking about Illinois' pitching depth  as a strength if Reeser and Manson had been around and pitched like they're capable.

Following  the loss to Minnesota, Hartleb said he still held out hope that the Illini could get an NCAA at-large berth if developments in the Big Ten and other conference tournaments broke in Illinois' favor (an Indiana title would be a killer for Illinois).

Can't say I share that optimism. Not after the Illini placed fourth in the Big Ten standings, lost six of their last eight games, and failed to finish among the top three at the league tournament.

But regardless of what happens on Selection Monday, Illinois' primary focus as a program needs to be figuring out a way to get over the hump in the Big Ten tournament. For too long, they've been stuck in a Groundhog-like burrow at this time of year.



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