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February 6, 2007

SCS.comThe Big XII was looking good going into the regionals last season. Seven teams were awarded regional bids, with Texas and Nebraska claiming national seeds. However, it would be a disappointing postseason for the conference, as five teams bowed out early, including the Longhorns and Huskers, and the Big XII didn't have a single representative in its backyard in Omaha. But things are looking good for the conference this year, and they will likely be well represented in the postseason yet again with seven, and possibly eight, teams getting into the regionals.

The Favorites

Last season, Texas underachieved, at least by their standards. The Longhorns failed to make it to Omaha for the first time in five seasons, getting eliminated in their own regional by NC State. Augie Garrido's squad looks well positioned to retain their spot atop the Big XII, and return to their summer vacation spot in Nebraska. Top hitters Drew Stubbs and Carson Kainer are gone, but every other starter is back. Kyle Russell and Jordan Danks were both beset by injury problems as freshmen, but were extremely impressive when they were healthy. If healthy this year, they can be lethal, along with fellow sophomores Bradley Suttle and Preston Clark, and senior Chance Wheeless who knows a thing or two about winning championships. Transfers Travis Tucker and Pat McCrory both were in the starting lineup against San Diego, and so was highly touted freshman Michael Demperio. Pitching was one of the team's shortcomings in '06, but has the talent to bounce back and be successful, with experienced pitchers Adrian Alaniz and Randy Boone. Sophomore Kyle Walker and JC transfer James Russell got starts over the weekend, and Riley Boening is a capable starter, so the rotation is very much up in the air right now. If Texas can straighten out their uncertainties with the rotation and their lineup stays intact, they should be in line to extend their record of Omaha trips.

Frank Anderson and his Oklahoma State club have high expectations for this season, with several stars returning from a team that finished as runner-up in the Fayetteville Regional, and a couple of newcomers who should contribute right off the bat. The Cowboys will have one of the best lineups in the country. Hitters like Jeromy Burnitz, Robin Ventura, and Pete Incaviglia have all called Stillwater home, and there's another great one there now in Tyler Mach. Mach moves from third to second this season to pave the way for another great hitter in NC State transfer Matt Mangini. Corey Brown, Ty Wright, and Rebel Ridling are all quality hitters as well. Oliver Odle and Matt Gardner will anchor the rotation. OSU was one of the hottest teams in the country in the second half of last season, and they hope to extend that to '07 and challenge Texas for the conference title.

Nebraska has been a mainstay at the top of the Big XII for several years, and this year's team will be no different. The power bats of Luke Gorsett and Brandon Buckman are gone from last year's club, which joined Texas as the other Big XII national seed to make an early postseason exit. However, their leading hitter returns in Ryan Wehrle, who is one of the nation's premier shorstops. Full-time starters Jake Opitz and Bryce Nimmo return, along with Andy Gerch, Jake Mort, and Andrew Brown, who all saw regular starts last season. The rotation is one of the nation's best, with All-American hopefuls Tony Watson and Johnny Dorn, and sophomore Charlie Shirek. The biggest task will be replacing standout closer Brett Jensen (31 career saves), but there are two viable candidates in sophomores Erik Bird and Zach Herr. Expect the Huskers to be in the running for a national seed yet again.

The Sleepers

Baylor made an Omaha run two years ago, and there's enough talent on this year's team for that to happen again. Steve Smith's Bears return several players from last year's regional squad, but also bring in one of the nation's best recruiting classes. Shortstop Beamer Weems (.297/8/47), a freshman All-American last season, leads the way at the plate, and four other position starters return. Slugging freshman Aaron Miller will start immediately in right, and another heralded freshman, Dustin Dickerson, may also become a regular right away. The weekend rotation will be new, but experienced. Senior Jeff Mandel looks to be the #1, with Randall Linebaugh a solid #2. Another talented freshman, Kendal Volz, could break into that #3 slot early on. The bullpen will definitely be a strength, with former starter Tim Matthews and setup man Jake Weghorst, along with standout closer Nick Casevecchia. There aren't any particularly glaring weaknesses on this team, outside of the inexperience in a few spots, so if the Bears' tremendously talented team can show it on a regular basis, the rest of the Big XII better watch out, this year and in the next few years.

Missouri underachieved for the first 50 games of last season, but rode a season-ending sweep of Texas and a solid conference tourney showing to sneak into the postseason, where they knocked off Pepperdine to win the Malibu Regional before falling at Cal State-Fullerton in the supers. Pitchers Max Scherzer and Nathan Culp are gone, but the Tigers have a postseason-worthy squad nonetheless. Three hitters that batted at least .327 return, along with leading power hitter Jacob Priday and Gary Arndt. Sophomores Rick Zagone and Aaron Crow will be the new anchors of the rotation, and transfers Scotter Hicks and Ian Berger will challenge for that third weekend spot. A group of talented newcomers will be in the picture from the outset, both at the plate and on the mound. The Tigers have made four straight regional appearances, and can make it five in a row, but it'll need to take more than a week's worth of good games at the end of the season this time around.

Oklahoma won 45 games and pushed Rice to the limit in the supers, but will be hard-pressed to repeat those lofty achievements. A lot of offensive production has got to be replaced, and that showed itself this past weekend when the Sooners scored only nine runs in three games, and were shutout on Saturday against Texas Pan-American. That issue is further compounded by the fact that the team's leading returning hitter, shorstop Aaron Reza, is already out for at least a month with a broken left hand sustained in pre-season practices. Several newcomers are in the starting lineup, including hotshot freshman Aaron Baker, who hit his first homer in Sunday's win over UTPA, speedster Aljay Davis (four steals in three games), and basher Devin Shepherd, who was a fifth round pick last June out of HS. Last season's main weekend rotation is gone, along with closer Will Savage. The new rotation of Ryan Mottern, Jimmie Rollins, and Joseph Hughes are all experienced pitchers, but are new in their roles as primary starters. Tulane transfer Stephen Porlier made his case for a rotation spot after excelling in relief in the shutout loss to UTPA. Sonny Golloway has done an excellent job in Norman thus far, and for the Sooners to reach last season's heights will require more great coaching and the unprovens to step up.

The Rest

In the '90s, Texas Tech was one of the top programs in the nation under legendary coach Larry Hays, but the Red Raiders have missed the postseason three of the last four seasons. It will be a tough task to get there this season, but there's a number of talented players who will be charged with leading Tech into June baseball. Freshman All-American outfielder Roger Kieschnick leads the way, and can't fall into a sophomore slump for the Red Raiders to fulfill their ambitions. All-conference catcher Matt Smith is back after leading the team in hitting last season. Tech also returns three other lineup regulars from last season, and JC stud Geoff Byrns is already making an impact, having homered over the weekend against Stephen F. Austin. Miles Morgan racked up 103 punchouts last season as a freshman on the way to garnering several conference and national accolades, and he'll need to be even better this year. Colt Hynes is a solid #2, with the other weekend spot up for grabs. The Red Raiders have the ability to be a good-hitting club, but scored only five runs in 20 innings over the weekend. If that becomes a season-long issue, the Red Raiders could be in trouble. But, if the offense does its job and takes a load off of the pitching staff on most days, Texas Tech could make a run towards the regionals.

Last season, Kansas won 43 games and the Big XII tournament. This year, the Jayhawks will be hard-pressed to hit those heights, but they have a club that will contend for another regional appearance. The likes of Jared Schweitzer and Gus Milner are going to be tough to replace, but John Allman returns, along with three legitimate power threats in Erik Morrison, Preston Land, and Ryne Price, son of coach Ritch Price. Robby Price is the third Price son to play for dad at KU, and he is already making an impact in the starting lineup. Last season's weekend rotation is gone, but the new Jayhawk starters turned in five solid performances against Hawaii-Hilo. Returness Nick Czyz and Andy Marks, along with newcomers Zach Ashwood, Andres Esquibel, and Wally Marciel, were the starters in Hawaii, with Czyz and TCU transfer Ashwood looking like the best bets to keep their spots in the rotation, with the other three battling it out for the other weekend spot. The Kansas baseball program has gradually improved under Price, and even though they're supposed to be reloading this year, they have a good chance to be in the postseason for the second straight season.

Texas A&M went through some growing pains last year in coach Rob Childress' first season at the helm. The Aggies pitched well last season, but the offense was horrendous. There will be a number of new faces in the Aggies' lineup, as Childress brought in 16 new guys who can hit, with five of those in A&M's opening-day lineup. Two of A&M's top starters return, including Jason Meyer who posted a 2.90 ERA last season. The bullpen also has some talented arms, with a couple of newcomers expected to figure in as well. The Aggies will make some noise this year, but it's likely that they are a year away from seriously making a push back towards the top.

Kansas State was a hot team at the beginning of '06, but conference play knocked them back to the bottom of the barrel. The going may be rough with the loss of five of their top seven hitters from a club that hit .318 last season, but sophomore Drew Biery is one to keep an eye on, along with fellow sophomore Byron Wiley. Pitching will keep KSU in a lot of games this season, with two of their main starters returning in Chase Bayuk and Brad Hutt, and a trio of young but experienced pitchers in sophomores Ben Hornbeck, Daniel Edwards, and Todd Vogel. The Wildcats were a competitive team despite their finish in the cellar, and should be again this year, even if their record doesn't indicate it.

The Preseason Standings Projection

1. Texas
2. Oklahoma State
3. Nebraska
4. Baylor
5. Missouri
6. Oklahoma
7. Texas Tech
8. Kansas
9. Texas A&M
10. Kansas State
Projected NCAA Tournament Teams: Texas, OSU, Nebraska, Baylor, Missouri
NCAA Bubble Teams: Oklahoma, Texas Tech, Kansas

The All-Conference Team

C: Matt Smith, Texas Tech
1B: Preston Land, Kansas
2B: Tyler Mach, Oklahoma State
3B: Matt Mangini, Oklahoma State
SS: Ryan Wehrle, Nebraska
OF: Corey Brown, Oklahoma State
OF: Jordan Danks, Texas
OF: Roger Kieschnick, Texas Tech
DH: Jacob Priday, Missouri
SP: Tony Watson, Nebraska
SP: Miles Morgan, Texas Tech
SP: Johnny Dorn, Nebraska
RP: Austin Wood, Texas
RP: Nick Casevecchia, Baylor
Preseason Player of the Year: Tyler Mach, Oklahoma State

The Big XII has been one of the nation's premier conferences since its inception a decade ago, and just two years ago, they had three teams in Omaha. But with the ACC's surge towards the top, there's a little something to prove. Texas, OSU, and Nebraska, along with Baylor, could end up in Omaha, and the league is steadily becoming more competitive top to bottom. Look for it to be a solid year for the Big XII.

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