Huth: Big Ten tourney storylines
Do Illini need to win it to get in it?
Two years ago, the Illini won the Big Ten tournament to secure the conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. If Illinois doesn’t repeat that feat this week, Illinois coach Dan Hartleb is confident his team still has made a strong case for an NCAA at-large berth. A 33-16 record is one reason. Another is Illinois’ No. 30 ranking in the NCAA’s RPI — the second highest among Big Ten teams behind No. 14 Indiana. The Illini also are performing at a high level down the stretch, having won five of their last six games and nine of their last 12. “I think we’re in very, very good shape for an at-large bid,” Hartleb said. “The more wins you can put on your resume (during the Big Ten tournament), the better off you are, but I think we’re in very good shape.”
Illinois or Minnesota won’t need a crash course in preparing for its first-round opponent. The Illini and Gophers wrapped up a three-game series last Saturday and now will square off yet again in Wednesday’s 12:05 p.m. tournament opener. In fact, both of the Day 1 games pair opponents that, coincidentally, concluded the regular season against each other. Nebraska and Michigan also will quickly renew acquaintances after finishing a series four days ago in Lincoln, Neb. The fifth-seeded Illini won two of three from the fourth-seeded Gophers to clinch a spot in the six-team tournament. Now each team again stands in the other’s way. UI coach Dan Hartleb is downplaying the rematch aspect of this matchup. “I just don’t think it has an impact,” he said. “You’ve got to go win games. It doesn’t matter who you’re playing.”
Bullish on bullpen
In a double-elimination tournament, it’s rare that a team doesn’t need to call upon its bullpen with some regularity. That can be particularly true for teams — like Illinois this year — that didn’t merit a Day 1 bye and face a longer road to a title. As a rule, expect pitching depth to be tested and bullpens to play a significant role. If that proves to be the case for the Illini, Hartleb won’t fret. “Our bullpen’s been outstanding,” he said. “It’s been a great, great part of our success. I just can’t say enough about what they’ve done.” The UI bullpen has a 12-8 record with 13 saves and a 3.04 ERA. And here’s an eye-opener: Illini relievers have limited opponents to a .230 batting average in 166 innings. The back end of the ‘pen — co-closers Bryan Roberts (1.64 ERA, six saves) and Reid Roper (2.53, five saves), and setup man Ronnie Muck (3-0, 1.16) — is the major reason Illinois is 24-1 when leading after seven innings. And Drasen Johnson (3-1, 2.66 excluding one start) has emerged as an effective middle reliever. This is Hartleb’s 23rd season on the UI coaching staff, the first 15 as pitching coach. The current Illini bullpen, he says, is in a class by itself during his tenure. “We may have had one dominant (reliever) here or there (in the past), but as a group, this is the best,” Hartleb said. “There’s no question.”
No area of the Illini’s game is performing at a higher level entering the tournament than the defense. Illinois has not committed an error in seven of its last nine games, and one in the last six contests. The UI defense has been a work in progress at times this season, but it currently is playing as well as any in the Big Ten and perhaps in the nation. Hartleb attributes his team’s recent stellar glove work to the athleticism Illinois puts on the field and to the work his position players have put into improving defensively. But the UI coach also tips his hat to the role the pitching staff has played. “Part of having good defense is having good pitching, and our pitching stepped up as well,” Hartleb said. “If you’re getting undressed time after time after time with balls being hit at you like bullets, it’s tough. It’s a combination of things — the athletes we have, the guys have worked very hard defensively, and the pitchers have done a good job of putting them in position to make plays.”