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It's been way too long since I wrote about something besides basketball and football. Softball is 12-4 in the Big Ten right now (two games out of first in the loss column) with six remaining, so if they sweep Indiana and Penn State they have a decent chance of finishing on top of the regular season standings. Baseball is also in third, one game back in the loss column, and the three remaining series' are against Indiana (4-8 in the Big Ten), Nebraska (5-7), and Penn State (7-8). So there's a decent chance of finishing on top there as well.
But for today let's talk golf. I did two different Pick My Posts on golf last summer, but I don't think I've written about it since. Let's start with a few paragraphs to get you caught up.
The Illini finished very strong last May. Won the Big Ten (again), finished 2nd at the Stillwater Regional, and then finished 5th after stroke play at the NCAA's. But then, in the 4-5 matchup with Oklahoma during match play quarterfinals, a tough 3-2 loss. Giovanni Tadiotto lost the opening match, Michael Feagles and Adrien Dumont de Chassart (ADdC) both won big, but Tommy Kuhl and Jerry Ji both lost on the 17th hole and that was that.
Feagles (who finished 4th in the individual competition at the NCAA Championships, three strokes behind the winner) and Tadiotto graduated. So as I wrote last summer, the fall season was all about finding two replacements in the lineup. One replacement seemed clear - Piercen Hunt. He was the "sixth man" for both the NCAA Regional and the NCAA Championships (you bring a sixth guy in case you need to go to the bullpen), so it was likely that he'd grab one of the two open spots in the lineup. And he did.
But the second spot was up in the air. There were five candidates:
- Senior Luke Armbrust
- Junior Nico Lang (a transfer from West Virginia)
- Freshman Dylan Keating (from Ireland)
- Freshman Jackson Buchanan (from Georgia)
- Freshman TJ Barger (from Bloomington, IL)
Four of the five got a chance at being that guy during the fall season (NCAA golf has tournaments in the fall and spring but the fall is kind of like the pro-am while the spring is the real tournament). In the Hoosier Invitational, Luke Armbrust was the fifth guy. He finished T18 in a small field. In the Fighting Illini Invitational two weeks later (up at Olympia Fields CC), Nico Lang got a shot. But he finished T78 (behind three other Illini who were playing as individuals).
Then it was Dylan Keating's turn, but he was the drop score all three days at the Blessings Invitational. And in the final fall tournament, Jackson Buchanan got a shot and after a rough first round he finished 73-72 in the final two rounds as the Illini nearly won. (TJ Barger competed as an individual in that Tournament but he finished 14 strokes behind Buchanan.) This put Buchanan in the driver's seat for the 5th spot coming into the spring.
One other note for the fall: Piercen Hunt was en fuego. He finished 4th overall at the loaded Blessings Invitational in Arkansas and then he won the Isleworth Invitational. A sophomore winning a tournament like that is a very big deal. Teams from the current top-25 who were at Isleworth: Arizona State (#4), Auburn (#14), Florida (#16), Illinois (#20), South Carolina (#22), and LSU (#25). That was Hunt's breakout moment.
Then everyone took the winter off. Once the spring season began, it was Buchanan holding down that fifth spot. And he's been the story of the spring. I don't think I'm exaggerating when saying that. Mike Small needed to find a fifth guy and he did a lot better than that.
I need to think of a good way to articulate my point here. Maybe I'll just go with the overview explanation for those who aren't familiar with college golf and then give you actual numbers.
In college golf you send out five guys and then take the four best scores each round. Because it's golf, you can't just count on your top guys to be consistent every round. Someone is going to blow up here or there, so those teams that have four solid golfers and then a fifth guy who is almost always the drop score are in big trouble when that inevitable blow-up happens. You go -2, -1, +1, +2, +11 in the first round but then in the second round your top guy blows up with a +8. The hope there is that your fifth guy helps you out with a +3 that day so you don't have to count your top guy's blow-up score. But if the fifth guy goes +11 again, he's no help and now all those blow-ups hurt you.
I don't think I explained that very well.
Anyway, here's my point. At the Blessings Invitational in October, Dylan Keating was the fifth guy (just a true freshman in his first-ever tournament, so this isn't picking on Keating at all). The five Illini scores for the three rounds (with Keating's score in bold):
When Jerry Ji shot a 75 the second day, or when Tommy Kuhl shot the 77 the third day, you'd kinda hope that there was a 73 or 74 coming in from your fifth guy so that you can drop the 75 or the 77. But Keating was the drop score all three days, meaning it was just a golf tournament played with four guys. Even if they have a bad round, their score is going to count.
Now let's just look at the final scores for the Illini in the last four Tournaments. These are the individual scores at the end of each Tournament (all three rounds):
NIT (March 18-19, Tuscon)
Haskins Award Invitational (April 2-3, Augusta)
Boilermaker Invitational (April 9-10, West Lafayette)
Robert Kepler Intercollegiate (April 23-24, Columbus)
That's not a "fifth guy". That's a five-man team. And this gives me a perfect way to say what I've been trying to say. The team that finished first and the team that finished third:
Illinois: -8. -8, -5, -4, -4
Northwestern: -9, -2, +1, +6, +10
Former Illini Varun Chopra put up a -9 for Northwestern, beating all five of his former teammates. But it doesn't matter when all five Illini finish with a better score than the #2 Northwestern guy. Teamwork makes the dream work.
Anyway, golf clap for Jackson Buchanan. He's not really even the #5 at this point. If you just count the last four tournaments, and you're only looking at the five Illini scores, he's T2, 4, 3, T4. That's fairly incredible for a true freshman playing on a team that goes senior-senior-junior-sophomore at the other four spots.
Now the real season begins. Big Tens this weekend in French Lick. Then the NCAA Regional two weeks after that. And then, as long as the Illini get through regionals, NCAA's back at Grayhawk in Scottsdale on Memorial Day weekend. The Illini are ranked #20 at the moment (in both the Coaches Poll and on Golfstat's computer rankings), but with the win this past weekend plus maybe another Big Ten title this coming weekend (while the SEC and Big 12 teams beat up on each other at their conference tournaments), I could see a seeding somewhere around 15th going into regionals.
Seeding doesn't really matter, given that you're not going head-to-head against anyone at regionals. They seed the top six teams and spread them out in the six regionals, and then they take 7-12 and do the same. So being 13-18 is basically the same seeding. You'd be the third team seeded into that region and favored to advance to the NCAA Championships. I think that's where Mike Small's squad will eventually end up (in that 13-18 range, so a "three seed").
One last thing since I have Golfstat open. The Illini have won six consecutive Big Ten titles and 11 of the last 12 (the only loss - finishing 2nd behind Minnesota in 2014). We will be favored again this year (duh), but there's always teams gunning to end the streak (like Iowa last year - they finished one shot back). If you're wondering who the contenders are, here's the Golfstat rankings for the entire Big Ten (think of this as the NET rankings going into the BTT):
35 Ohio State
37 Michigan State
88 Penn State
Yes, we just beat Purdue by eight strokes in West Lafayette and Ohio State by 13 strokes in Columbus. But this is golf. Last year, at the Robert Kepler Intercollegiate, the Illini beat Iowa by 11 strokes. And then, a week later, at the Big Ten Championship, the Illini trailed Iowa by eight shots on the back nine in the final round. Before, you know, storming back to clip them at the finish line.
Purdue might be the team that will try to pull an Iowa this year. Three weeks ago, at the Calusa Cup in Naples, Florida, Purdue finished one stroke behind #1 Oklahoma (the Sooners finished 4th and Purdue 5th). And Purdue beat #12 Georgia and #23 Clemson at that tournament. They have three solid seniors playing well, so like Iowa last year, they get one shot at this before they have to rebuild again. Every Big Ten golfer goes to the Big Tens with one single goal: beat Illinois. Five teams (Purdue, Ohio State, Michigan State, Northwestern, and Indiana) will give it their best shot this year.
But as I learned while walking the back nine at Crooked Stick last year, though, even a team playing the tournament of their lives is sometimes not good enough to take down Mike Small's gang of mental toughness warriors. Here's hoping it happens again this weekend.