After getting off to its best start since 1988 and grabbing the program's first series victory over a top-ranked team, No. 25 Illinois (13-5) seeks its first regular-season Big Ten title since 2005 and first NCAA Tournament berth since 2000.

Illinois shortstop Brandon Wikoff is thinking big this spring.

After getting off to its best start since 1988 and grabbing the program's first series victory over a top-ranked team, No. 25 Illinois (13-5) seeks its first regular-season Big Ten title since 2005 and first NCAA Tournament berth since 2000. With the Illini opening play in the Big Ten against Michigan State Friday in a three-game weekend series at Illinois Field, Wikoff feels the Illini could return to the NCAAs.

"I truly believe we can,'' Wikoff said. "We have the talent and confidence we haven't had in the last few years. We had a better preseason than any since I've been here. We put ourselves in a decent position.

"Our first goal is to win the Big Ten, then win the Big Ten Tournament and get into the regional.''
 
The Illini likely need a sweep of the Spartans to stay in the rankings after losses in three of their last five games, including two to Central Connecticut State. The Illini, picked to finish fourth in the Big Ten by Baseball America, jumped to No. 21 in the Collegiate Baseball rankings after taking two of three games from then-No. 1 LSU in early March.

"You're always a marked team when you beat good people and you're ranked,'' said coach Dan Hartleb. "We had a letdown this past weekend. Our guys walked onto the field and thought we were just going to win.

"We're a marked team. We should be a team toward the top of the Big Ten. We're capable of being there. We have to perform at that level.''

The Illini got off to a hot start behind an offense that ranks third in the Big Ten in hitting (.324), first in on-base percentage (.414) and fifth in runs scored (138). Illinois' pitching staff carried a 4.61 ERA into the weekend after finishing last season at 6.44, but aces Ben Reeser and Phil Haig will miss starts this weekend.

A left-hander who began his Illini career as a scholarship quarterback, Haig is 3-0 and third in the Big Ten with a 1.67 ERA. Reeser is 3-0, with a 2.30 ERA.

A junior from Bartonville Limestone High School who may jump to professional baseball following the season, Wikoff raised his batting average by 64 points to second on the team at .397 with four multiple-hit games in the last five, including three games with three hits. Freshman second baseman Josh Parr, a Chillicothe IVC product, is hitting .391 to rank third on the team and hasn't logged an error.

Freshman outfielder-designated hitter Willie Argo earned Sports Illustrated recognition by becoming the second player in college history to hit home runs in his first three collegiate plate appearances. Argo earned 13 varsity letters at Davenport (Iowa) Assumption High School, set a state record with 83 touchdowns in football, twice placed third at the state wrestling meet and twice led the school to state championships in baseball. Argo also twice reached the state finals in the 100-meter dash.

Recruiters thought Argo might play college football, but he leads Illinois with five homers.

"I'm not sure Willie knew what he was going to do,'' Hartleb said.

Following a hot start, the Illini have an idea what they want to accomplish.

NOTE: The Big Ten Network will televise the Illinois-Michigan State game live at 6 p.m. Friday and 3 p.m. Saturday.

John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com.