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After tight regular season race, wide open Big Ten tournament set to start in Omaha
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After tight regular season race, wide open Big Ten tournament set to start in Omaha

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OMAHA — Darin Erstad, like every other Big Ten baseball coach in Omaha this week, will tell you what happened in the regular season doesn't matter one bit when it comes to who will be the last team standing at TD Ameritrade Park on Sunday at the end of the Big Ten Tournament.

But that doesn't mean there isn't something to be learned from the 24-game march through the league schedule.

Namely, any one of the eight teams in the field could win the whole thing.

"There’s a team that finished last in our conference that could come here and win the first three games of the tournament with their pitching staff," Erstad said. "That’s the depth of this conference. It’s just fantastic. It’s just going to boil down to who plays good baseball and gets hot and gets the key hit. It’s pretty wide open."

No. 5-seeded Nebraska opens with the final game of Wednesday's session, taking on No. 4 seed Minnesota in a game scheduled to start at 9 p.m.

The matchup provides the perfect example of just how even the league was in 2019. In the second conference series of the season, the Gophers took two of three from Nebraska in Minneapolis, winning the first and third games of the series with walk-offs.

"We're definitely a more confident ball club (now)," Nebraska senior infielder Alex Henwood said. "We believe in ourselves a little bit more. We think we can beat anybody out there, and hopefully we can do that."

Minnesota, which had won the previous two Big Ten titles and last year's Big Ten Tournament, is this year's No. 4 seed.

"But all that stuff is out the window — they’ve got a great team. They won the last two Big Tens, won this tournament last year, went to a super regional," Erstad said. "So a ton of experience there. We’re going to have our hands full."

Every team figures to have its hands full. Four teams finished within two games of first-place Indiana by the time the regular season ended, and the Hoosiers won the title only after Nebraska took two of three games from league-leading Michigan to end the season.

"You can only control what you can, and that's the moment you're in right now," senior pitcher Matt Waldron said. "Tomorrow whenever we start the game, that's what we're going to do is really grind it out pitch by pitch and give our best effort in that moment."

Illinois started 1-5 in the league and rebounded to tie for third with Nebraska and Minnesota, earning the tiebreaker over both teams for the No. 3 seed in the tournament.

Nebraska, which is the No. 5 seed, went into its final game of the regular season still with a shot to win the conference title. And the Huskers didn't even play three of the teams in the tournament field: Ohio State, Maryland and Indiana.

"Who knows what the heck is going to happen. Just because you swung the bat well or pitched well a couple days ago has no bearing on what happens now," Erstad said. "It’s tournament time. It’s playoff time. You’ve got to do little things and certain guys step up that maybe haven’t done stuff throughout the year."

Nebraska's players did some of those little things over the final two weeks of the season, winning series over Arizona State and Michigan to not only build some positive momentum, but also move closer to locking up a spot in the NCAA Tournament.

As of Tuesday morning, the Huskers were solidly in, according to D1baseball.com, as a No. 2 seed in the Stillwater Regional.

Still, a strong showing in Omaha wouldn't hurt anything for NU on that front, even if the Huskers' coach isn't much for projections.

"I'm projecting that I'm going to find a way to get home and go to practice and that's about as far as my projection goes," Erstad said Tuesday morning. "It's nice to be in those conversations, but that will take care of itself with how we play."

Reach the writer at 402-473-7436 or cbasnett@journalstar.com. On Twitter @HuskerExtraCB.

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Husker basketball reporter

A Ravenna native, Chris covers the University of Nebraska men's basketball team and assists with football coverage. He spent nearly 10 years covering sports at the Kearney Hub and nearly four years at the Springfield News-Leader in Springfield, Mo.

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