Tuesday’s Big Ten Tournament coaches’ press conference had a light moment or two, including Mark Wasikowski’s comment that he hadn’t received a gift bag from Darin Erstad and Nebraska for his team’s winning twice at Minnesota to enable the Huskers to win the conference regular-season title.
“It’s in the mail,” said Erstad, who was seated to the right of Purdue’s first-year head coach, with Iowa Coach Rick Heller and Maryland Coach John Szefc in between.
Those three teams are in the top-seeded Huskers’ bracket. Nebraska is scheduled to play Purdue at 4 p.m. (CT) on Wednesday, followed by Maryland-Iowa at 7:30 p.m.
That’s assuming the weather in Bloomington, Indiana, cooperates. As of Tuesday afternoon, the National Weather Service forecast showed a high of 64 degrees with an 80-percent chance of showers during the day, dropping to 60 percent in the evening and carrying over to Thursday.
Weather isn’t the coaches’ first concern, of course. The opposition is. And “it’s going to be an unbelievable tournament,” Erstad said during a Monday teleconference. “I mean, don’t let your guard down because you’re going to be whooped if you do. It’s going to be very interesting to see how it plays out, but (there are) some very, very quality teams in this tournament.”
Michigan State, a team “capable of winning the tournament,” isn’t in the eight-team field. “That’s crazy to me,” said Erstad. “So that just speaks to the depth of the conference.”
In the pre-season, Purdue was picked to finish last. Yet the Boilermakers won the Minnesota series to finish with a 12-12 record in Big Ten play and qualify as the eighth seed.
Nebraska and Purdue didn’t play during the regular season, but “we pay attention throughout the year and see what they’re doing and keep an eye on it,” Erstad said. “We’ll be prepared just like they will. Coach ‘Woz’ . . . Wasikowski, has done just an awesome job there in that turnaround in a short period of time, so ‘Woz’ is going to bring everything that we want.”
Purdue plays with a “very blue-collar mentality,” said Erstad.
The Huskers plan to approach the tournament as they would a weekend series, with a pitching rotation of Jake Hohensee (6-3, 4.01), Derek Burkamper (6-4, 3.05) and Jake Meyers (8-1, 3.09). “For sure Hohensee and Burkamper and then we’ll just kind of have to see how it goes,” Erstad said.
Nebraska has gone two-and-out the last two tournaments.
Purdue’s top pitcher, sophomore left-hander Gareth Stroh, is from Kearney, Nebraska, Gibbon High School, by way of Coffeyville (Kan.) Community College. He was 4-2 with a 2.41 earned-run-average in eight conference starts to earn third-team All-Big Ten recognition.
Success in the Big Ten hasn’t come as easily as some might have thought when the Huskers began play in Erstad’s first season as head coach, 2012.
“There’s been some tremendous teams, and to see the depth of this conference from the time we’ve gotten here until now, I’m so excited about the direction that the Big Ten Conference baseball-wise has gone, and you’re seeing years in a row of multiple regional teams,” Erstad said.
“That just hasn’t happened historically in the Big Ten, so it’s one thing to do it one year, but to see years now here where we’ve had multiple teams make regionals, I’m just excited about, and I would anticipate we’ll have multiple teams in regionals this year as well.”
The Huskers have advanced to regionals in two of the last three seasons, and they’re in position to do so again, despite their RPI dropping to 41, fourth-best in the Big Ten behind Indiana (28), Michigan (29) and Maryland (33). But first, they have business in Bloomington.
Mike is in his 40th year covering Husker athletics, after seven years of community-college teaching. He has written and edited a dozen books, all on Nebraska football except one, a brief history of Husker basketball. He previously wrote for the Lincoln Journal and Star and Huskers Illustrated. He enjoys music, from the Grateful Dead and Jack Johnson to Van Morrison, Bob Wills, Glenn Miller and pretty much anyone else.