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2015 Big Ten Conference Baseball preview

Illinois begins their conference schedule with a trip to East Lansing, Mich. after which they won't travel more than 3 hours for a game until April 24.

Courtesy of Illinois Athletics

The Illinois baseball team moved up one spot to No. 17 in the D1Baseball.com top 25, marking the program's highest ranking since finishing No. 16 in the 1990 Baseball America final poll.

The Illini (18-5-1) are ranked in all six polls: No. 21 by Perfect Game, No. 22 by Collegiate Baseball and the USA TODAY Coaches poll, No. 25 by Baseball American and No. 26 by NCWBA. Dan Hartleb's team is led by its pitching staff, which leads the nation in WHIP (0.94) and is No. 2 in walks allowed (1.82) and is No. 4 in ERA (2.16), strikeout-to-walk ratio (4.32) and hits allowed (6.68).

Kevin Dunchene sits second in the nation and conference with a 0.67 ERA followed by Tyler Jay (1.03) in fifth, Rob McDonnell (1.14) in sixth, Drasen Johnson (1.85) in ninth and John Kravetz (2.82) in 14th. Illinois can also hit the ball well as they rank second in the Big Ten with 19 home runs. Senior David Kerian has a career-high five blasts, Reid Roper and Casey Fletcher each have three bombs followed by Pat McInerney and Jason Goldstein with two each and Adam Walton with one long ball.

Illinois begins Big Ten Conference play against Michigan State in East Lansing, Mich. on Saturday at McLane Baseball Stadium. The series was scheduled to begin Friday, but because of cold temperatures was moved to Saturday through Monday.

The Big Ten Tournament is back at Target Field in Minneapolis, Minn., where the top eight teams in the conference standings will play in May.

Here's a breakdown of each Big Ten team as the Illini open conference play:

Indiana

2014 record: 44-15, 21-3 in Big Ten (1st)

Current record: 16-5

Projection: Regional team

Series against Illinois: April 17-19 at Illinois Field

Outlook: Chris Lemonis, a former assistant at Louisville, is in his first year as the Hooisers coach after Tracy Smith left for Arizona State. Kyle Schwarber (first round, fourth overall to the Chicago Cubs) and Sam Travis (second round, 67th overall to the Boston Red Sox) are also gone. Craig Dedlow (.341), Austin Cangelosi (.333) and Scott Donley (.309) provide much of the offense for the two-time defending conference champions.

Iowa

2014 record: 30-23, 10-14 in Big Ten

Current record: 14-6

Projection: Mid-tier, Big Ten Tournament team

Series against Illinois: N/A

Outlook: Iowa is off to its best start since 1941 when it started 19-5 en route to a 22-5 season. Iowa's pitching and defense ranks among the top 10 nationally. Iowa's .938 team fielding percentage is third-best in the country, while the 2.20 team ERA is eighth-best. The Hawkeyes are 11-2 when scoring first and just 3-4 when their opponents score first. Iowa hosts No. 19 Indiana this weekend where it will look to snap a four-game losing streak to ranked foes.

Maryland

2014 record: 40-23, 15-14 in ACC

Current record: 17-15

Projection: Regional team

Series against Illinois: N/A

Outlook: The Terrapins shocked the college baseball landscape by toppling South Carolina in the Columbia Regional, then gave Virginia all it could handle in the Charlottesville Super Regional last season. Maryland is ranked No. 17 in the USA TODAY Coaches poll and only boast five losses on the season. Gone are Charlie White and Black Schmit, two of its top hitters a year ago, but the rest of the lineup remains intact. All of their regular players have at least 12 RBI through 22 games this season. Their offensive is led by Brandon Lowe, who is hitting .402 with 18 RBI and an astounding 1.203 OPS. Freshman All-American Mike Shawaryn has a perfect 5-0 record and leads the Big Ten with 47 strikeouts. And when Coach John Szefc (70-48 in two years at Maryland) hands the ball to Ryan Selmer (0.49 ERA in 18 1/3 innings in relief) with a lead it's lights out. Maryland will not play Illinois and host Nebraska, Indiana and Iowa in their first season in the Big Ten. They already have a sweep against Minnesota this spring.

Michigan

2014 record: 30-29-1, 13-11 in Big Ten (4th)

Current record: 12-11

Projection: Mid-tier, Big Ten Tournament team

Series against Illinois: N/A

Outlook: Senior Jackson Glines leads the league in batting average and on-base percentage and is second in hits while sophomore Carmen Benedetti is tied for second with 25 RBI. Junior Jacob Cronenworth is tied for second in the league in both runs scored (25) and walks (16). Michigan swept Nebraska last weekend and makes a trip to Bloomington, Ind. and faces Maryland, but won't play Illinois. Oh and they play nine games against lowly Northwestern, Purdue and Penn State.

Michigan State

2014 record: 31-26, 11-13 in Big Ten (6th)

Current record: 11-11

Projection: Mid-tier, Big Ten Tournament team

Series against Illinois: March 28-30 at East Lansing, Mich.

Outlook: Like their in-state rivals a year ago, Michigan State drew a tough non-conference schedule with games against New Mexico, Oregon State, Houston Baptist, at UCLA (swept in three) and a surprising win over Clemson. The Spartans also travel to Oregon State and Notre Dame, two top 25 teams. Cam Gibson, Los Angeles Dodgers legend Kirk Gibson's son, swiped 10 bags in 11 attempts; Blaise Salter has produced with a reasonable .295 with three home runs and 14 RBI and pitcher Andrew Gonzalez is 2-0 with a 1.35 ERA in 20 innings. Michigan State's only other top conference foe is Indiana. They play Purdue, Penn State and Northwestern.

Minnesota

2014 record: 27-24, 13-11 in Big Ten (4th)

Current record: 7-13

Projection: Mid-tier, Big Ten Tournament team

Series against Illinois: N/A

Outlook: Minnesota dropped their first seven games in two road sweeps to Houston and Texas. The Golden Gophers were also swept at College Park, Md. by the Terps last week. Matt Fielder managed to hit .403 with two triples, two home runs, 14 RBI and a 1.018 OPS during the tough early scheduling. Minnesota won't play Illinois or Indiana and they have mid-tier competition in the mitten state teams travel to Minneapolis.

Nebraska

2014 record: 41-20, 18-6 in Big Ten (2nd)

Current record: 18-6

Projection: Regional team

Series against Illinois: May 14-16 at Illinois Field

Outlook: Darin Erstad and his club sit atop the Big Ten standings following a sweep of Michigan last weekend. Ryan Boldt (.370) and Ben Miller (.352) lead the Cornhuskers offense. Nebraska played in the Houston Classic at Minute Maid Park and played Texas A&M, who went 24-0 to start the season, LSU and Loyola Marymount in non-conference play. The series at Illinois could serve as a de-facto Big Ten regular-season title series.

Northwestern

2014 record: 19-33, 7-16 in Big Ten (10th)

Current record: 5-17

Projection: Bottom-tier

Series against Illinois: April 3-5 at Illinois Field

Outlook: Northwestern's offense is led by redshirt senior Kyle Ruchium, who missed all of 2014, with a team-high 12 RBI. Despite a team ERA above 5, junior left-hander Jake Stolley sports a 0.83 ERA in 12 appearances out of the bullpen. The series at Illinois comes the day after a game against Missouri in Sauget, Ill. A win against the Tigers should give the Illini plenty of momentum going into the series.

Ohio State

2014 record: 30-28, 10-14 in Big Ten (9th)

Current record: 15-16

Projection: Mid-tier

Series against Illinois: May 1-3 at Columbus

Outlook: Ohio State opened Big Ten play by taking two of three against Michigan State. Outfielder Ronnie Dawson (.238) leads the Buckeyes offensive, but he has yet to find his swing early on this season. Tanner Tully, Travis Lakins and Ryan Riga (4-1, 0.94 ERA) are the top arms in the Buckeyes' rotation. The series against Ohio State comes after a game in Carbondale against Southern Illinois -- sandwiched between a series at Penn State. A series win would continue momentum for Illinois down the stretch to their series against Nebraska at home.

Penn State

2014 record: 18-32, 5-18 in Big Ten (12th)

Current record: 4-14

Projection: Bottom-tier

Series against Illinois: April 24-26 at State College, Pa.

Outlook: Second-year Coach Rob Cooper gave his team everything it could handle during its non-conference schedule with games against Texas A&M, Liberty and South Carolina. Senior Aaron Novak (.383, 16 RBI, 1 HR), Jim Haley (.311, 14 RBI) and Christian Helsel (.302, .441 OBP) lead the Nittany Lions at the plate. The series against Penn State comes after a home game against Eastern Illinois. It will the first out of state travel experience -- longest travel is a two-and-half hour trip to Sauget, Ill. for Braggin' Rights against Missouri -- for the Illini since the Michigan State series.

Purdue

2014 record: 13-17, 6-18 in Big Ten (11th)

Current record: 9-14

Projection: Bottom-tier

Series against Illinois: April 11-13 at Illinois Field

Outlook: Since winning 45 games and hosting a regional in 2012, Purdue has been stuck in rebuilding mode and had a .260 winning percentage for the program's worst performance since 1975. Senior Kyle Wood leads the Boilermakers at the plate with a .375 average and .458 on-base percentage. Senior third baseman Brandon Krieg looks to be a presence at the plate as well, he hit .302/.390/.414 a season ago. Freshman starter Mike Kornacker leads Coach Doug Schieber's staff.

Rutgers

2014 record: 30-25, 14-9 in AAC

Current record: 6-14

Projection: Bottom-tier

Series against Illinois: May 8-10 at Illinois Field

Outlook: Rutgers opened Big Ten play by taking two of three from Purdue last weekend, and they host Ohio State this weekend. The Scarlet Knights scheduling did them no favors with road series against Miami (Fla.), Old Dominion and Florida Atlantic. They were scheduled to play against Tennessee but that was canceled. Rutgers will host Iowa, Michigan State, Minnesota and Ohio State as they vie for a berth in the conference tournament. The series at Illinois will be huge for Rutgers hopes to get into the post-season while the Illini will likely being battling for the conference crown.

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