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AND DOWN THE STRETCH THEY COME!
May 10, 2006

SCS.comItís crunch time, and a number of conference races all around the country are as tight as can be. Some of them are compelling, not just for the title hunt, but for spots in the various conference tournaments as well.

Hereís a look at some of the races from the larger conferences, as well as how some of the more interesting (or confusing) races from a few of the other, lesser-known leagues around the country are shaping up.

SEC

The SEC is up in the air, but hey, there are few years when it isnít. Right now, surprise Kentucky (16-8, 37-11) leads the overall picture by one game over Alabama (15-9, 34-16). The Tide got swept last weekend at Arkansas, which puts the Razorbacks right back into the title picture at 14-10 (34-16 overall). Behind them, South Carolina (32-16), Georgia (31-16), and Ole Miss (31-18) are all at 13-11. Vandy sits at 12-12 (28-20 overall), so a top three or four finish isnít out of the question for them, and the same can be said for former #1 Mississippi State (11-12, 33-16) and LSU (11-13, 32-17).

Kentucky hosts MSU this weekend, while ĎBama has Florida at home. Arkansas goes to Oxford, and South Carolina hosts Tennessee, who at 9-14, still has a shot at making it to Hoover for the SEC tourney. Georgia goes to Auburn, who mathematically isnít out of it either at 9-15. Vandy trips to LSU in a series that could push the Tigers closer to Hoover while knocking Vandy even closer to the Hoover and NCAA bubble.

More storylines, possible outcomes, and drama than a daytime soap. Gotta love it, right?

ACC

In the Atlantic Division, Clemson (17-6, 35-13) has a two game lead over Wake Forest (15-8, 31-15). Florida State (14-9, 37-12) is three back, and NC State is an additional half-game back. CU finishes with FSU and Wake at home, which will go a long way in deciding the division. Wake goes to Miami this weekend, which wonít be easy. FSU finishes out at home against the Wolfpack, so itís imperative that they have a good showing this weekend at Clemson if they want to have a shot at the division crown.

In the Coastal Division, top-ranked UNC (18-6, 39-8) has a two-game cushion over Virginia (16-8, 39-10), and the two teams square off this weekend in Charlottesville in what will ultimately determine who gets the top spot in that division. The Cavaliers could use a sweep, but even if they don't get it, they still wonít be out of it. That's because they have the comparatively easier final series (vs. 3-21 Virginia Tech, while UNC has to play Boston College, whoís been tough as of late).

Seeding for the conference tournament is at stake as well, and Miami (14-10, 32-16) and Georgia Tech (14-10, 36-12) will be looking to move up in that regard over these final two weeks. The two square off at Russ Chandler Stadium to finish the season.

Big XII

With Nebraska dropping two of three at Oklahoma State and Texas sweeping Kansas at home, the balance has switched into the Longhornsí favor going into the homestretch. UT (19-4, 36-15) now has a two game lead over the Huskers (16-5, 37-8). Nebraska isnít out of it yet, though, since they have two series left (UT has only one remaining, at Missouri). However, the Huskers do have a tough series at Baylor this weekend, which they will need to sweep if they want to have a realistic shot at toppling Texas. The ĎHorns could very well slip up at Missouri, but it may be that the Huskersí hopes lie on holding off Oklahoma (15-6, 37-13) for second (and a top eight national seed, though NU looks like a lock for one, while the Sooners donít, as of yet). Those two teams play the final weekend in Lincoln.

Pac-10

Defending champion Oregon State (11-4, 34-11) is once again the class of the conference, boasting a 2.5 game lead over second-placed USC (10-8, 24-22), who they have a series in hand against. Arizona State (8-7, 30-16) and UCLA (8-7, 25-19) are tied for third, and Washington is at 9-9, 32-19. Washington State is 7-8, 31-17 and needs a very strong finish in their last three series to cap a great turn-around season with an NCAA bid. OSU and ASU are basically locks, while Washington will need to go at least 4-2 in their last two series (vs. Stanford and WSU) to definitely secure a bid. UCLA will likely make it four with a conference finish over .500 and a RPI in the top 25. USC is iffy right now, but that could change if they finish well.

Conference USA

It doesnít matter if Rice switches conferences; they win regardless of who the opposition is (unless itís Texas, but thatís another matter). The Owls have won 17 conference games in a row since dropping their opener against East Carolina. Houston has done all they can to stay close, and a 17-4 record would probably win the whole thing most years, but not this one. But if the Cougars could somehow win this weekendís series at Reckling Park, you never know. Then again, Rice finishes out the season at 6-15 Marshall, so itís a longshot for UH either way.

Sun Belt

Troy looked like they were going to run away with the Sun Belt title in their first year in the league, but Louisiana-Lafayette has other ideas. The Raginí Cajuns (32-16) took two of three from the Trojans (35-14) this past weekend, and now both are tied atop the SBC at 14-4. South Alabama is lurking right behind at 14-6 (34-16). Troy goes to 4-14 Arkansas-Little Rock this weekend, while ULL has a tough trip to Middle Tennessee State. South Alabamaís final series is this weekend against 6-11 Arkansas State, and if the Jaguars can sweep, they could very well steal the conference title if the top two slip up. Either way, USA has a good shot at an at-large bid, if they can take care of business this weekend.

The Sun Belt has taken multiple teams to the NCAA Tourney every year since 1988, so that bodes well for at least one of three, provided the tourney doesnít produce a shock, which it has done a few times in the past.

Big South

Winthrop had a small slip-up when they lost a series 2-1 to Radford at home a couple of weeks ago, but the Eagles regained the league lead with a sweep of Charleston Southern last weekend. High Point (12-6, 24-25) has been a quiet surprise, and they took two of three from Birmingham Southern (12-6, 27-20) to pull into a tie with the Ďotherí Panthers at 12-6, one game behind Winthrop (13-5, 37-12). HPU goes to Rock Hill this weekend to face off with Winthrop, and then the Eagles finish out at VMI, which wonít be easy. BSC has two sweepable series left against Charleston and Radford. But, Winthrop is pretty much a lock for an at-large bid even if they donít win the conference title, provided they donít crash and burn. Donít count out Liberty (33-15) whoís had a rough couple of weeks, but is only two games back at 11-7.

Big Ten

Northwestern and Michigan are tied atop the league standings with 16-8 records, and while the Wolverines (29-17) have a much better overall record, the Wildcats (19-27) have the head-to-head advantage, having beaten UM three of four in Ann Arbor in the conference opener. As is though, Northwesternís hopes lie in winning the Big Ten tourney.

Ohio State (31-15) is only one game back at 15-9, and if they can take care of business at home against Minnesota and Penn State, then make a run in the conference tournament, they could have a case for an at-large bid, given their decent non-conference schedule and past NCAA history. UM actually has the better at-large case, though, having taken all four from the Buckeyes and boasting a higher RPI (76 to 65). But to see both of those teams in the field of 64 wouldnít be a surprise.

Southern

It was a three-horse race going into last weekend, but Elon went to Furman and swept them right out of the hunt. Now, itís the Phoenix (19-5, 39-13) and two-time defending champion College of Charleston (17-4, 35-11) battling for the title. Itís CofCís turn this weekend to go to Furman, while Elon has the weekend off before finishing at UNC-Greensboro. Two of three is a must this weekend and will help the Cougars keep pace before their final series against The Citadel. Both Elon and Charleston will be in the regionals, but itís always nice to be able to say youíre a conference champion.

WAC

Apparently, the WAC is actually a pretty competitive conference now that Rice has gone to dominate someone elseís league. After winning 11 of their last 12 conference games, Hawaii (14-6, 37-12) currently holds the top spot, but Fresno State (12-6, 33-16) and San Jose State (12-6, 33-18) are only a game back. SJSU has the unfortunate (or possibly fortunate, if they take advantage of it) task of facing those two in the next to weeks (at Fresno, home vs. the Rainbows). With an RPI of 79, their hopes for an NCAA bid hinge on winning the inaugural WAC tourney, which is being hosted by the Bulldogs. Regardless of what SJSU does, the WAC will likely be a two-bid league this year (finally!), as both Hawaii (40 RPI) and Fresno State (45 RPI) have built up solid cases to be selected to the tournament field.

Southland

Two weeks ago, Lamar was in control of the Southland, but after dropping two of three at Texas State and then getting swept at Northwestern State this past weekend, the Cardinals (19-8, 31-18) are heading in the wrong direction. They now trail McNeese State (30-17, 17-7) by a half game in the standings, with UT-San Antonio and Texas State breathing down their neck, a half game back at 16-8. The Cardinals have the weekend off, while the Cowboys, winners of 13 of their last 15 in SLC play, host the pesky Demons; then the two face off at Lamar to finish the season. Texas State and UT-San Antonio play each other in the final weekend, and one of those two could very well sneak in and take the top spot.

Until their slide, Lamar had a chance at an at-large bid, but now their best shot stands at winning the automatic bid. UTSA (32-16) boasts wins over Texas A&M, Louisiana-Lafayette, and Texas, which could bolster their chances of an at-large bid if they can finish with a flourish.

West Coast

Preseason favorite Pepperdine has rebounded after a shaky start and sits atop the WCC standings with San Francisco (12-6, 32-19). The Dons took two of three from the Waves (12-6, 33-17) on the road, so they hold that advantage. San Diego is only a game back (11-7, 30-20), but the Toreros have dropped series to both Pepperdine and USF. The Dons take on a scrappy Loyola Marymount team (who, at 8-7, actually isnít out of it, because they have one more series to play, while the others finish up this weekend) this weekend, while the Waves have to go on the road to face St. Maryís. San Diego, meanwhile, takes on Gonzaga at home. The top two finishers face off in a three-game series to determine who takes the automatic bid.

Thereís a good chance the WCC could be a two-bid league, depending on how things turn out, but the most likely scenario for that to occur would be Pepperdine failing to take the automatic bid. With the Waves having an RPI in the top 20, itíd be hard to deny them a spot in the tournament field. San Diego commands a look because of their early season results, but their up-and-down form recently has them teetering on the bubble. And San Francisco, despite being one of the hottest teams in the country in the past month and a half, might not have enough going for them.

Atlantic Sun

Jacksonville has run riot through the A-Sun this year, and the Dolphins (18-6, 36-14) lead newcomer North Florida (18-9, 31-20) by a game and a half. The Ospreys are ineligible for postseason play, but they have made quite a name for themselves in their first year in Division I. The nearest actual competition for JU is Mercer, who sits two games back (16-8, 29-21). The Bears and Dolphins play in Jacksonville this weekend, and if the Dolphins take care of business, the A-Sun crown should be theirs.

The race for the final four spots in the conference tournament will be interesting to watch, as six teams are vying for those positions. Stetson and East Tennessee State are both at 12-12, so they should be fine. But, Florida Atlantic, Gardner-Webb, Lipscomb, and Campbell are in a four-way tie at 10-14. FAU and GWU both have Stetson and ETSU left, while Lipscomb has UNF and JU. Campbell may well actually have the easiest road to a spot, with series left at 8-16 Belmont and at home against 11-16 Kennesaw State. The SEC is pretty wild, but the A-Sun sure isnít far behind.

America East

Five of the AECís seven teams are at or above .500 entering the final two weekends of conference play, with Vermont (11-5, 13-29) currently holding a two-game lead over Maine (8-6, 27-16), Binghamton (10-8, 24-18), and Stony Brook (8-6, 18-24). Albany sits at 8-8 (14-28), three games back, and while they may be a longshot for the conference title, they still have plenty to play for.

The top four finishers qualify for the conference tournament, which will be hosted by the regular season champ. Vermont has series left at 4-10 Maryland-Baltimore County and at home vs. Maine, while the Black Bears (the defending AEC tourney champ) have last-place Hartford at home this weekend. Stony Brooks finishes with Albany (away) and UMBC, while Binghamton has only a series at home versus Albany. Vermont is the only team in the top four who hasnít had a rainout in conference play, and that may well end up working in their favor when the dust settles.

Atlantic 10

Five teams have a shot at the regular season title, and five more teams behind them are battling for the sixth spot in the conference tournament. Now thatís a jam if there ever was one. The A-10 went from two divisions to one this year and also added two teams, and the result is very, very interesting, with a hint of head-scratching confusion.

Defending regular season and tournament champ Rhode Island (14-5, 29-11) is tied with Dayton (15-6, 27-10) atop the league standings, with St. Bonaventure (14-6, 22-17) a half game back. Newcomers UNC-Charlotte (13-8, 29-17) and St. Louis (13-8, 26-21) are two games back. Those five teams are pretty much locks for the conference tournament.

As for the sixth spot, Fordham (11-10, 21-28) currently holds it, but Richmond (10-11, 19-28), George Washington (9-10, 18-30), red-hot Duquesne (10-11, 16-29), and UMass (9-12, 11-25) are hot on their tail. Even LaSalle (8-12, 16-29) and St. Josephís (8-13, 16-33) arenít quite out of it either.

Ivy League

Congratulations are in order for Princeton, who secured the first automatic bid of the year by defeating Harvard 9-3 and 8-2 in Cambridge over the weekend to win the Ivy League title.

Patriot League

The Patriot League will award their automatic bid this weekend in Bethlehem, PA. Regular season co-champ Bucknell will face Lafayette on Saturday to determine who will face host and #1 seed Lehigh in a best two-of-three championship series, which will be contested Saturday and Sunday afternoon.

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