The Ole Miss Rebels are hosting an NCAA regional for the second time in as many years, and its opponents were announced yesterday right about when your grill was fired up for Memorial Day.
So the Cup wanted to dive into the details on all the Rebels’ regional opponents as you slog through a four day work week that will definitely creep along and feel like six days.
First up is the Illinois Fighting Illini.
Yes, this is a team from the Big Ten, so your SEC ego is going to take over and assume this will be a team we don’t need to worry about in our regional. But there are no easy teams from here on out, and Illinois has a fairly interesting history.
The Fighting Illini have been playing some form of organized baseball since 1879, and before Augie Garrido was kicking ass and taking names at Texas, he was the coach of this program from 1988-1990 with two Big Ten titles and two NCAA tournament appearances.
Illinois’ current head coach Dan Hartleb has been fairly successful as well since he took over the program in 2006, winning two more conference titles and steering his team to the NCAA tournament four times. In its last NCAA trip in 2015, the program won a record 50 games(!) and boasted a 21-1 conference record en route to hosting the Champaign regional, winning there, and falling to Vanderbilt in two games in a super regional.
That Vanderbilt team, mind you, came only one win short of a national championship ultimately losing to Virginia.
So yeah, Illinois has a little bit of somewhat recent success, and last season even looked like a potential NCAA tournament team though were “snubbed” by the selection committee.
This season (36-19, 15-9 Big Ten) carried a renewed focus for the program and Hartleb who doesn’t have a single player on this team that has ever played in the NCAA tournament. The potential Ole Miss opponent was pretty good on the road this season. The Big Ten squad went 15-11 on the road this season, 11-6 against top 50 teams, and 17-11 against top 100 teams this season. But despite all that, they went 0-2 in the Big Ten Tournament.
In the non-conference, a win over Wake Forest and a mid-week sweep of Coastal Carolina bolstered the team’s resume. The Illini then notched a series win against Big Ten champion Indiana and a road series win at Nebraska, compiling an impressive 15-9 conference record. All that work closed out the number No. 28 RPI spot by season’s end.
And the way Illinois put together this successful season seems to be from three legit weekend starters — Andy Fisher (7-1, 2.57 ERA), Ty Weber (4-2, 2.97 ERA), and Cyrillo Watson (5-2, 3.65 ERA). As a team, Illinois sported a 3.66 ERA though granted against the 55th toughest schedule in the country.
Meanwhile, offense seems to be a little bit of a struggle at times for the Illini with only 284 runs crossing the plate this season — compare that to a whopping 418 for the Rebels. There is only one Illinois player with double digit home runs and only three hitter over .300 in the every day lineup. But, needless to say, when your arms are only allowing 3-to-4 runs per game, you don’t have to score a lot.
As a two-seed, Illinois seems fairly solid, and the key it seems is to get into their bullpen where there are a couple good options