This weekend's final game vs. Iowa has become much more interesting over the last few days. Iowa and KU came into 2008 fairly comparable teams. Last year KU finished with a disappointing RPI ranking of 116, while Iowa was a team on the rise, finishing at 102. In 2004 the Hawkeyes finished ranked as low as #204. Their improved play last year had them pegged as part of a conference wide Big-10 effort to make their baseball programs competitive on the national scene. The Big-10 has a long way to go before they can be considered in the same neighborhood as the big four baseball conferences (ACC, SEC, Big-12 and Pac-10) but they are at least no longer an afterthought in the world of NCAA baseball.
This year the Hawkeyes were predicted to finish anywhere from 4th to 6th in the Big-10 by Collegiate Baseball, Rivals and Baseball America. Baseball America described the Hawkeyes as having "gained some momentum, as last season's 31-23 mark was the program's first winning season since 1995 and first 30-wins effort since 1993." Big-10 Hardball wrote Iowa's bottom line like this: "Iowa has all the elements necessary to return to the Big Ten Tournament in 2008 - a balanced lineup, albeit lacking in some power and a pitching staff with some experience and expected to improve."
What this all means to me is that Iowa has a very respectable program now, and that they probably compare fairly well with Kansas. The Jayhawks need to beat teams much like Iowa in order to make the case that they are not just part of the big middling pack in NCAA baseball and instead are a post-season club.
The Iowa - Kansas game is bigger then it looks on paper for both schools. And for Kansas, the events of the last two weeks have even further amplified the weight of this game. While the Jayhawks have stumbled out of the gate, loosing a five game series in Hawaii-Hilo and failing to record an upset in two earlier high-profile games at Arkansas and Vanderbilt, Iowa has made some noise. The Hawkeyes have a 3-2 record coming into today's contest. Yesterday they shocked much of the nation by defeating #7 Vanderbilt in Nashville 6-3. On Friday night Vandy handled KU easily, limiting the Jayhawks to three hits en route to a 7-1 beat-down.
KU sends Sam Freeman to the mound today. This will be Freeman's second NCAA D-I start. He looked great in his first, and the Jayhawks hope that was no fluke. Iowa counters with Steve Turnbull. Last year Turnbull went (2-4, 5.26 ERA). Bkmhoxx had this evaluation of Turnbull earlier this week in the main preview article: "Steve Turnbull who is a 6'3" right handed power pitcher who struggled in his first outing against Notre Dame. He pitched 3 innings giving up 7 runs. He is however a strikeout pitcher as he had 44 last year but he also had a 5.15 ERA so I'm guessing he may have trouble with his command. The way the Jayhawks are hacking right now, may fall right into his strengths but that will remain to be seen."
So, if you are working around the house this afternoon, I highly encourage you to tune into the baseball game. There will be a free live audio web-cast which you can link to through kuathletics.com. If KU knocks off Iowa they will head back to Lawrence for next weeks homestand with a fair degree of optimism intact for 2008. If the Jayhawks lose to Iowa today they will have sunk the early season hole they have been digging one more very big shovel full.
[Update]Big win for the Jayhawks today! Final KU 9 - Iowa 5