2019 Big Ten Stock Watch

Image credit: Karl Kauffman (Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea, Getty Images)

In the Big Ten, the 2019 season will always be remembered most as the season that ended with Michigan playing for the league’s first national title since the 1960s.

That’s the headline, but the season was also notable for a number of other reasons. It featured a fantastic regular season title race between Indiana and Michigan that went right down to the final weekend of the season, with Indiana finishing atop the standings. There was also a compelling race for teams to get into the top eight of the league standings to earn entry to the Big Ten Tournament.

It was also another season in which the conference put a record-tying five teams into the postseason. As the Big Ten pushes ever closer to being a true power conference in the sport, 2019 was another big step in the right direction.

Presented here are team-by-team analysis for every team in the Big Ten, as well as the trajectory of the program this season.

Illinois (36-21, 15-9), reached regionals ??

After just missing out on getting into a regional in 2018, the Fighting Illini came back in 2019 motivated to make their first postseason trip since they were a top-eight seed in 2015, even after the loss of slugger Bren Spillane and his historic levels of production. Not only did they pull that off, but they were the hottest team in the Big Ten during the stretch run of the regular season, briefly flirted with the possibility of hosting a regional, and ended up as the No. 2 seed in the Oxford Regional.

Illinois faces some roster attrition heading into 2020, but last season’s team featured an exciting freshman core led by middle infielder Branden Comia, utility player Cam McDonald, catcher Jacob Campbell and hard-throwing righthander Aidan Maldonado. That should give the Illini a chance to be a regional team in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 1989-1990 under then-head coach Augie Garrido.

Indiana (37-23, 17-7), reached regionals ??

Suffice it to say that Jeff Mercer’s first season as the head coach at Indiana went pretty well.

He picked up where former head coach Chris Lemonis left off by getting the Hoosiers into a regional for the sixth time in seven seasons and by having a boatload of players drafted—10 of them, in fact, an Indiana program record. But then he took things to the next level by winning a Big Ten regular season title for the first time since 2014, which was former head coach Tracy Smith’s final season in Bloomington.

Michigan getting to the College World Series finals set the bar incredibly high for Big Ten programs, and Indiana is one of the teams in the league positioned to match the Wolverines’ exploits. It was the last team prior to Michigan to get to the CWS, and it has all of the raw materials in place to get there again.

Iowa (29-24, 12-12), no postseason ????

The Hawkeyes’ 2019 season was a mixed bag. On the positive side of the ledger, this wasn’t a team that was really expected to make a run at the postseason. After hemorrhaging talent to pro baseball after the 2018 season, last season’s squad was a new-look group. And yet, after an early May series win over UC Irvine, Iowa was in position to secure a regional bid.

But then the other shoe dropped. The Hawkeyes lost five of their last six games to take them completely out of the running. In that way, it was eerily similar to what occurred in 2018, when they won a series against Oklahoma State late in the season, only to drop a series with Northwestern immediately afterward that put them on the outside looking in.

Last season, with a ton of first-year players in the fold, was perhaps supposed to be a transition season. Instead, many of those first-year players became instant stars. Now, with minimal attrition suffered heading into 2020, the Hawkeyes are well-positioned to compete for the postseason yet again.

Maryland (29-29, 12-12), no postseason ?? 

After a tough 2018 season, when Maryland failed to reach the Big Ten Tournament, there was hope that 2019 would signal a bounce back for a program that had been to three regionals in four years under head coach John Szefc before his departure for Virginia Tech. It was a bounce back season insofar as the Terps used a sweep of Iowa to end the regular season to get back into the conference tournament, but it was still a far cry from the level of success the program had achieved in the not-so-distant past.

Maryland will go into the 2020 season eager to prove that it can still be a top-flight program in an increasingly competitive Big Ten.

Michigan (50-22, 16-7), national runner-up ??

No team in the country deserves a bigger up arrow next to its name than Michigan. The 2019 season could represent a sea change for the program.

It wasn’t just that the Wolverines made it to Omaha. It was that they went on the road to win a regional, went out to Los Angeles and took down No. 1 UCLA in a super regional, and then made it all the way to the CWS finals before falling to Vanderbilt.

It only makes what they accomplished even more impressive that they were one of the last four teams into the Field of 64 and that a walk-off win against Illinois in the Big Ten Tournament was all that separated them from missing the tournament entirely.

Throughout his team’s stay in Omaha, coach Erik Bakich commented that he wanted to show players that they didn’t have to go South just to win at a high level, and it’s safe to say that his point was proven in a big way.

Michigan State (20-34, 8-15), no postseason ??

The 2019 season just never got off the ground for Michigan State. Against a tough non-conference slate, the Spartans got off to a 3-15 start heading into Big Ten play, and then started 0-9 in league competition.

They got things straightened out as the season wore on, and Michigan State ended up winning three of its last four Big Ten series, but it was too little and too late to even get into the conference tournament, much less into a regional.

Offensively, the Spartans hit .237/.320/.323 as a team, and a pitching staff with some potential, led by quality arms in Mike Mokma, Mason Erla and Mitchell Tyranski, wasn’t able to pick up the slack due to injuries and inconsistency. Add it all up and it ended in a disappointing season in East Lansing.

Minnesota (27-27, 15-9), no postseason ?? 

On the strength of a pitching staff led by righthanders Patrick Fredrickson and Max Meyer, Minnesota began the season in the Top 25, but it wasn’t able to live up to that billing.

The Gophers played a brutally difficult non-conference schedule that was made more difficult because it all had to be played on the road while the NCAA got U.S. Bank Stadium, Minnesota’s winter home, ready to host the men’s basketball Final Four. Had Minnesota been able to weather the early storm, it would have been road tested for the postseason, but the Gophers weren’t able to do so, starting the season 2-11.

In Big Ten play, Minnesota found its footing, thanks in large part to Meyer’s continued development, this time as a member of the weekend rotation, but it wasn’t quite able to get back into the postseason picture.

Going into 2020, Meyer and Fredrickson will be back, which should help keep the Gophers’ postseason window open for another season.

Nebraska (32-24, 15-9), reached regionals ??

After pitching injuries derailed Nebraska’s 2018 season, the Huskers bounced back in 2019 with a regional appearance, the fourth in coach Darin Erstad’s tenure.

Just one season after struggling on the mound due to those aforementioned injuries, it was the steady starting rotation of Matt Waldron, Nate Fisher and Reece Eddins that pushed the team into the Oklahoma City Regional.

Now, a new era of Nebraska baseball begins. After the season, Erstad announced that he would be stepping down to spend more time with his family. Taking over is former Nebraska and Texas A&M assistant Will Bolt, who brings with him high-end experience as an assistant and familiarity with the Nebraska program, both of which should serve him well in the quest to bring the Huskers back to heights not seen since Dave Van Horn took the program to Omaha twice.

Northwestern (23-27, 11-13), no postseason ??

On paper, Northwestern’s below .500 record overall and in the Big Ten don’t stand out as a particularly impressive achievement. But in context, it’s further proof of the quality of the job being done by coach Spencer Allen and his staff in Evanston, perhaps the toughest place to win in the entire conference.

The Wildcats’ 24-27 record and 11-13 mark in the Big Ten represent a six-win improvement in the overall record and a five-win jump in league play, and the win totals are both the second-most since 2010. The season that saw both of those high-water marks? That would be the 2017 season, Allen’s second year on the job.

It still remains to be seen whether the high tide in the Big Ten and the efforts of Allen will be enough to lift the Northwestern boat into the postseason, but the Wildcats’ trajectory is pointing straight upward.

Ohio State (36-27, 12-12), reached regionals ??

For most of the season, it looked like it was going to be a lost year for Ohio State. After a sweep at the hands of Minnesota to begin May, the Buckeyes were 7-11 in the Big Ten, making a trip to the Big Ten Tournament unlikely, to say nothing of an RPI that was never going to give them a chance to be an at-large team.

But then, winning five of six in league play to end the season got them into the Big Ten Tournament, and they made the most of that opportunity. They won the Big Ten Tournament for the first time since 2016 and the second time under coach Greg Beals to advance to regionals for the third time in four years. And with a young core returning, the Buckeyes have a chance to make the 2020 season a special one.

Penn State (22-27, 4-18), no postseason ??

There is no other way to put it. It was another tough season for the Nittany Lions, but it didn’t begin that way. After a sweep of Massachusetts-Lowell in their first home series of the season, they were 13-3.

But it didn’t last, as they went 9-24 the rest of the way and took their lumps in Big Ten play. For the third straight season, Penn State won four or fewer games in conference.

Led by an outstanding year from lefthander Dante Biasi, PSU’s pitching was good enough more often than not, as evidenced by a 4.30 team ERA. But an offense that hit just .234 as a team simply didn’t provide enough support.

Purdue (20-34, 7-16), no postseason ??

Thanks in large part to the departure of some foundational players like first baseman Jacson McGowan, catcher Nick Dalesandro and starting pitcher Tanner Andrews, Purdue wasn’t able to follow up their breakthrough 2018 season like it would have liked.

Injuries also played a role in the down season, and between the holes left by those who moved on after 2018 and the holes left by those on the mend during the season, perhaps the silver lining was the opportunities presented to those who figure to be key pieces of the 2020 team.

When that group tries to bounce back next season, it will be without Mark Wasikowski, who left after the season to become the head coach at Oregon. Tasked with guiding the ship now is Greg Goff, who has been on the Purdue staff the last two seasons as the volunteer assistant and who previously served as the head coach at Campbell, Louisiana Tech and Alabama.

Rutgers (20-31, 9-14), no postseason ????

Rutgers was more competitive in the Big Ten in 2019 than they have been in the past. Its nine wins in the league are tied for the most since it joined the league, and at 9-14, it was a half-game better than the 9-15 mark put up by the 2016 team.

As the regular season came to a close, it also had a chance to quality for the program’s first Big Ten Tournament, but losing five of six to wrap things up kept that from happening. And that’s why the 2019 season felt like all those before it, despite some of those successes.

Now, the Scarlet Knights will move forward with a new head coach, former Bryant skipper Steve Owens. All he did was turn that program into a perennial regional contender almost immediately after moving up from Division II. If anyone can turn Rutgers into a contender in this league, Owens seems like a good bet.

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