Hoosiers ready to host Big Ten Tournament, face Gophers

Chris Lemonis knows how it feels.

As a player — and later as a young assistant — at The Citadel in the 1990s, his school was the longtime host of the Southern Conference Tournament in Charleston, S.C. Around this time each spring, the league would descend upon his hometown for a week of postseason baseball, giving Lemonis experience with the position of tournament host.

It’s experience he’s passed on to his No. 6 seed Indiana baseball team during the days leading into Wednesday morning’s Big Ten Tournament opener against No. 3 Minnesota at Bart Kaufman Field.

“It’s a lot of fun if you’re playing well,” Lemonis said. “That’s my advice to our guys. When your fans are behind you and you’re playing well, it is a comfort to you. But you’ve got to get out there (and deliver).”

Indiana, which closed the regular season with six consecutive series wins, has the benefit of familiarity this week in Bloomington.

Though not everything will feel like normal.

Against the higher seeded Golden Gophers, the Hoosiers will wear their road uniforms and operate from the opposing, first-base side dugout at Bart Kaufman Field. The team will also be housed in a local hotel and will have minimal use of their clubhouse down the left field line.

“In some ways, it’s very different,” Lemonis said. “You’re in a different dugout, you’re in your gray uniforms at home, so there’s things that you overcome, but I think for our guys it’s about playing good baseball. I don’t know if the venue’s going to change our results as much as how we play the game.”

The venue does, however, mark a significant change for the Big Ten Conference, which alternated tournament sites between Target Field, home of the Minnesota Twins, and TD Ameritrade Park, home of the College World Series, from 2013 to 2016.

For a large chunk of the Big Ten Tournament’s life, the event was staged on the campus of the regular season champion. That changed in 2009.

Minnesota coach John Anderson, now in his 36th season at the helm of the Gophers’ program, says bringing the tournament back to campus offers the league a nice change of pace from recent seasons.

The tournament will return to TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha for five years, beginning next spring.

“What I’ve learned from my experiences in the league, and playing like we used to have it where the champion used to host, I think like Chris mentioned, when you get on the field, it’s about playing baseball,” Anderson said. “I don’t think the venue (matters as much), or whether you’re the home school here or the visiting school. I think it really just comes down to your kids being able to go out and execute the fundamentals of the game.”

Indiana took two of three games from Minnesota during a series at Bart Kaufman Field April 14-16.

The first of those games was a contest that Lemonis — and Friday starter Jonathan Stiever — tried to forget.

Stiever allowed seven runs on 13 hits during 4 1/3 innings, while Gophers starter Lucas Gilbreath held the Hoosiers scoreless on two hits, pitching into the eighth inning to lead Minnesota to an 11-0 win.

Stiever and Gilbreath will meet again in Wednesday’s rematch.

“We got thumped on Friday night, but I give our kids credit for persevering,” Lemonis said. “That was the biggest piece of our season — just bouncing back was a big part for us.”

Indeed, Indiana bounced back to win the next two games against Minnesota that weekend. That included a Saturday matchup that saw the Hoosiers and Gophers combine for 39 hits and seven home runs before IU prevailed, 13-12.

Pauly Milto pitched Indiana to a 4-0 win in the rubber game of that series.

“It was an outstanding, very competitive series,” Anderson said. “I think we’ll find the same tomorrow. It’ll be a very competitive game. They have an outstanding team and we feel like we’ll show up and compete and see what happens.”