Play Ball: The Illini Host First-Time NCAA Regional In Champaign
The Illinois baseball team has played in the NCAA tournament 10 times, but this weekend marks the first time they've hosted a conference regional in Champaign.
Their dominant regular season included 27 straight wins from late March through last weekend’s Big Ten Tournament, where they finished 2-2.
47 total wins earned them a national seed, meaning they’ll host the next round if they can earn three victories this weekend. Five total tournament wins earns the Illini a trip to their first-ever College World Series in Omaha next month.
Chris Webb is the founder of the B1G Baseball website, which is in its fourth season of covering Big Ten Conference baseball.
"They (Illinois) were one of my '8 for Omaha' (or, College World Series bound) kind of a prediction for this time last year," he said. "I really thought they were an NCAA quality team last year, they were left outside."
Webb said he considered the Illini's 2-2 record in the Big Ten Tournament (which included the end of the winning streak) to be a fluke.
"I don't think it's pressure, I just think it happens in baseball that here and there, every now and then, you're going to have a game like that," he said. The 5-3 loss to Michigan, a game that included a number of errors, knocked Illinois out of that tournament.
As for the other teams coming to Illinois Field over the weekend, Webb called Ohio a strong offensive team, leading the Mid-American Conference in home runs. He said Wright State is a veteran club that's 'owned' the Horizon League over the last decade. Webb said Notre Dame (which Illinois has a 38-25 record against all time) played really well in its final month, finishing third in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
"If Illinois doesn't bring their A game, if we see a repeat of last Saturday's performance against Michigan, any one of those three teams can beat them and win the regional," he said. "I think Illlinois is the favorite in the region, but it's a region that I don't think think people should look as far as being a cake walk. These are quality teams."
Webb notes the Illini will lose its share of talent in 2016, with seven seniors on the team, including Big Ten Player of the Year David Kerian, along with junior and Big Ten Pitcher of the Year Tyler Jay, who’s expected to be one of the top picks in next month’s Major League Baseball draft.