Breaking Down the Schedule

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After overcoming a 12-21 start to win a share of the 2011 Big Ten regular-season championship, sweep through the Big Ten Tournament and advance to the championship game of the NCAA Fullerton Regional last season, the Illini head into 2012 with a new blend of talent and a much more difficult schedule. While Coach Hartleb anticipated last year's slate to result in a solid Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) rating, many non-conference foes underachieved and Illinois ended with a ranking of 118 in one of the key tools that the NCAA selection committee uses.

bigten-bigeast-baseball-challenge-2012.JPGBut this year's schedule is stacked with teams receiving quite a bit of preseason buzz, including a pair of teams ranked in the top 15 of Collegiate Baseball's preseason poll and two more ranked in the top 30. The Illini start the season with their toughest slate in the four years of the Big Ten/Big East Challenge as they face preseason No. 11 St. John's, No. 15 Louisville and Notre Dame on the season's first weekend.

The next week, Illinois travels to Beaumont, Texas, for the YMBL Cardinal Classic, hosted by Lamar. The Illini's first two games will be against Gonzaga, which finished 32-19-1 a year ago and returns six position starters and two weekend starting pitchers for 2012. The following weekend, Illinois travels to Myrtle Beach, S.C., for the Coastal Carolina Invitational. The Chanticleers have reached the NCAA Tournament in 10 of the last 11 seasons, advancing to the Super Regional round in 2008 and 2010. The Illini wrap up that weekend by facing St. John's for a second time on the young season.

Illinois' final long trip of the early part of the 2012 campaign may be the most intriguing item on the schedule as the Orange and Blue travel to Oregon for the Nike College Showcase, hosted by Oregon and Oregon State. The Ducks, heading into their fourth season since being reinstated after a 26-year absence, reached the NCAA Tournament in 2010 and are ranked No. 27 by Collegiate Baseball. OSU reached the NCAA Vanderbilt Super Regional last season and takes a No. 24 ranking into 2012. The Illini also will face Connecticut, which reached the NCAA South Carolina Super Regional last season, and West Virginia during the tournament. It also marks Illinois' first early season trip to the west coast since 2001.

Hawks Field.jpgThe Big Ten schedule also will have a new wrinkle in 2012 because of the addition of Nebraska to the conference. Each team will still play eight conference series, but that will now take place over a nine-week span because the league has 11 baseball-playing members. The Illini open conference play by traveling to Lincoln for three games from March 23-25, which will be the first time Illinois has ever played baseball at Nebraska. The Illini hold a 3-0 edge in the all-time series in three games played in 1897, 1903 and 1905.

Following its trip to face the Huskers, Illinois will return home to host Mississippi Valley State in the Illini's "open" week in the conference schedule. It will be the first time that Illinois and the Delta Devils have ever played, and MVSU becomes the fifth team that the Illini will face for the first time in school history in 2012 along with Gonzaga, Oregon, Oregon State and Connecticut.

The difficult early slate will provide Illinois with plenty of opportunities to build a strong résumé and gain the attention of the national media. By the time the Illini open their home slate against MVSU on March 30, the Orange and Blue are scheduled to have played 24 games - roughly half of the season - and could be set up for another run at the Big Ten title.

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