It may just be the middle of winter, but baseball is right around the corner, and it's now time to preview Conference USA and the Big Ten. CUSA is looking to cement itself as the best league outside of the "big four" (ACC, SEC, Big 12, and Pac-10). It features potentially the nation's top team, along with several other quality squads. The Big Ten isn't the big-time league on the diamond that it is on the gridiron and hardwood, but it does have a few Regional-worthy teams and could be in store for another Ohio State-Michigan battle for the top spot.
Rice is not only the favorite to win Conference USA, but the Owls are also the #1 team in the country entering the season. Most other teams would be in a bind after losing guys like pitchers Eddie Degermann and Craig Crow, and hitters like Josh Rodriguez and Greg Buchanan. But not Rice. With almost everyone else back, including four preseason All-Americans plus a veteran pitching staff and a talented recruiting class, the Owls are loaded. Junior shortstop and All-American Brian Friday gets it done every day of the week. He was Rice's leading hitter in '06 (.353/9/57). Junior outfielder Tyler Henley can just plain hit, too, and led C-USA in four offensive categories. Aaron Luna was a Freshman All-American last year, after hitting .322 and bashing 16 homers, breaking Lance Berkman's freshman record. The team's biggest name is two-way star Joe Savery. His pitching production was limited by injuries, but he can't let that happen this year. The nation's best closer, Cole St. Clair, relinquishes that title to take over one of the other rotation spots. Bobby Bell and Will McDaniel are both excellent pitchers who could fill in that third starter role, and Bobby Bramhall has the stuff to slot in as the new closer. If the Owls play to their ability, then they just may be the last man standing in June.
It wasn't that long ago when Tulane was the class of C-USA. After making a run to Omaha in '05, last year was a rebuilding year, in multiple ways. Losing several members of that '05 team was hard enough, but Hurricane Katrina made those losses seem trivial. Still, the team overcame those obstacles and a couple of key injuries, going 43-21 and advancing to the final of the Oxford Regional. Now Turchin Stadium is fixed, and the Green Wave look to have a big year. Top hitters Mark Hamilton and Nathan Southard are gone, but most of the lineup and pitching staff remain intact. Outfielder Warren McFadden was a Freshman All-American last season after hitting .382, and former Freshman All-American Brad Emaus looks to rebound after a sophomore slump. Sean Morgan anchors a solid rotation, along with Brandon Gomes, and Virginia transfer and Cape Cod star Shooter Hunt will fit right in. There are also a couple of newcomers who should immediately contribute, namely utility man Preston Claiborne, who has a powerful bat and a powerful arm. Two returnees from injury could help Tulane give Rice a run. Infielder Jonny Weiss hit .444 in last year's first nine games before a shoulder injury ended his season. Also, pitcher J.R. Crowel returns after missing last season. He won 10 games in '05, behind first-round picks Micah Owings and Brian Bogusevic.
Houston finished second in the league last year behind Rice, but went two and through in the Norman Regional. The biggest piece of last year's success, Mr. Everything Brad Lincoln, racked up honor after honor and was the fourth overall pick in the draft by the Pirates. Two other leaders are also gone, Matt Weston (16 homers, 51 RBI) and Isa Garcia (.357). Those are some big losses, but Houston's returnees should help them make a push in the league, including a new two-way threat in sophomore Luis Flores, who should excel both as a starting pitcher and a catcher. Three .300+ hitters are back, and junior pitcher Ricky Hargrove was a Cape Cod League All-Star and won eight games in '06. Rayner Noble has built a successful program in the shadow of the big Texas schools, and with Rice in the same town. He should have another Regional-worthy club in '07. If Flores can be at least a little Lincoln-like, and the lineup produces enough to support a solid pitching staff, then it could be another 1-2 Rice-Houston finish.
The top three seem pretty set, but spots four through six are pretty interchangeable, with East Carolina, Memphis, and Southern Miss likely jostling for those positions. Lsat season was a bit of a down year for East Carolina in the first year of the Billy Godwin era. Johnny Bench award winning C Jake Smith is gone, and so is Adam Witter (14 homers in '06). But, ECU returns plenty of talent that should make them a quality team and a regional contender again. Three good starting pitchers return, and most of their lineup does as well, including two .330 hitters in Harrison Eldridge and Stephen Batts.
This year, the Memphis Tigers could be more like lions. Last year, UM tied for fourth in the conference under first-year coach Daron Schoenrock. All signs point to things only getting better. The Tigers have a potent lineup, led by All-American senior Adam Amar. Memphis returns seven of its top eight hitters, who all hit over .300 in 2006. The key to how far the Tigers can go is pitching. The staff gave up a lot of runs in '06, but returns most of its contributors, led by Scott MacGregor. If the staff is adequate, the Tigers could and should find themselves in the postseason.
Southern Miss has become a perennial Regional team, and last year was no exception, as Corky Palmer's squad won 39 games and advanced to the Tuscaloosa Regional. This year, USM will have to overcome some big losses to be in the hunt for the regionals. Sluggers Marc Maddox and Toddric Johnson are gone, so the power must come from elsewhere. But, with the pure hitters that they have, opportunities to score should be plentiful. The question, as with ECU and Memphis, is pitching. USM lost starters Cliff Russum and Scott Massey, and stud closer Daniel Best, so starters Ryan Belanger and Barry Bowden must be sharp. The Golden Eagles could give C-USA another regional team, but it won't come easy, especially with ECU and Memphis improving.
UAB has a new, quality coach in Brian Shoop, who quickly found a new home after Birmingham Southern eliminated their Division I program. He brought along four talented players to bolster a team that went 19-38 in Larry Giangrosso's final season. The Blazers also return many of last year's starters so they'll be an improved squad, but it'll likely be another season or two before the Blazers have a shot at cracking the top six.
UCF struggled last year, but have returning hitters Tyson Auer, Steve Stropp, and Ryan Williams to count on, and starters Mitch Houck and Kyle Sweat on the mound who could make the Golden Knights regional hopefuls in another season. This year,however, Jay Bergman's boys will be pushing UAB for the 7th spot, at best.
Marshall has a star slugger in Brendan Murphy, and a new coach in Jeff Waggoner, but it will still be a struggle to stay out of the cellar. But, being competitive in Waggoner's first go-round will be a step in the right direction for the Thundering Herd.
The Preseason Standings Projection
Projected NCAA Tournament Teams: Rice, Tulane, Houston, East Carolina
The All-Conference Team
C: Brendan Murphy, Marshall
Preseason Player of the Year: Joe Savery, Rice
Rice has added a great deal to a solid conference and they are undoubtedly the league's best, but it's a good, deep league that's only getting better.
Bob Todd enters his 20th season in Columbus with yet another quality Ohio State team. The Buckeyes have won seven Big Ten regular season titles and gone to 11 regionals under his watch, and those numbers should become eight and twelve this year. Last year, OSU won 37 games but missed out on the postseason. Despite losing conference Player of the Year Ronnie Bourquin (third-round pick) and another leading hitter in Jedidiah Stephens, the Buckeyes are well-positioned to ensure that they don't miss the postseason two years straight. In fact, this could be their best team since the 2003 Super Regional team. OSU returns five regulars who hit at least .325, including catcher Eric Fryer, outfielder Matt Angle, and outfielder Jacob Howell, who hit .402 in a season limited by injury. The bats are good, but the pitching is even better. The top four starters return, including national award nominees Dan DeLucia, and the multi-talented Shuck. And when it gets to the final frames, OSU has a reliable closer in Rory Meister.
Michigan will be right up there with the Buckeyes, however. The Wolverines are the defending regular season and tournament champions, and they're not goingto give up their crowns easily. The 2007 Michigan baseball team has a solid mix of youth and veteran leadership, and plenty of returning talent at the plate and on the mound. Veterans Nate Recknagel, Doug Pickens, and Eric Rose are among the conference's best hitters, and sophomores Adam Abraham, Chris Fetter, and Zach Putnam anchor a young but experienced pitching staff, along with sophomore closer Ben Jenzen. The Wolverines play a solid non-conference schedule, so an at-large berth is a strong possibility.
OSU and Michigan are undoubtedly the two best teams in the conference, but there are a couple of teams who could potentially create a stir in Illinois and Purdue. If there is a team capable of legitimately challenging the top two, it's Illinois. In coach Dan Hartleb's first season, the Illini went 29-29 and finished tied for fifth in the league with a 15-17 mark. But with a number of returnees, they're set to move up at least a couple of notches. Six .300+ hitters return, led by senior outfielder Ryan Snowden who led the team in average, hits, runs, and doubles in '06. Senior shortstop Shawn Roof hit .336 and stole 25 bases, but the key cog in the Illini engine could be sophomore outfielder Kyle Hudson. In only 35 games last year, Hudson hit .375 and stole 10 bases. He also happens to be a key player for Ron Zook's football team, having led the team in receptions and receiving yards the last two seasons. Did I mention he runs a 4.4 40-yard dash? Sophomore pitchers Tanner Roark, Scott Shaw, and Ben Reeser will play an integral role in making sure the offense's production doesn't go for naught.
Purdue was expected to make some noise last year, but instead found themselves in the middle of the pack, eight games behind Michigan. They lost four of their leading hitters, including Mitch Hilligoss, and four top pitchers as well. But Ryne White and Spencer Ingaldson were both all-conference performers in '06, along with pitchers Dan Sattler and Ricky Heines, and all four of those guys return. Purdue's rotation will also be greatly bolstered by Tennessee transfer Josh Lindblom, who returns to his hometown after a year with the Vols. Allen Donato is also a pitcher to keep an eye on. Purdue plays three-game series at Georgia and Auburn in the first few weekends of the season, and that will help see who has what it takes to step up and help the Boilermakers fight for a top-three finish.
Penn State has a brand new, state of the art ballpark, and they look to break it in in style with an improvement upon last year's 20-36 record. Coach Robbie Wine is in his second season. The Nittany Lions lost a few of last year's top players, but there are a few returnees that will be counted on to produce, including Wine's son, sophomore first baseman Cory. The younger Wine was a top recruit out of high school before following his dad to Penn State, and he is the team's leading returning average hitter (.306). He didn't hit any homeruns last year, but he has plenty of pop in his bat, just like his dad, so look for him to not only hit his first collegiate homer this year, but several more afterwards. The Nittany Lions play a very tough non-conference schedule, with series at North Carolina, Wichita State, and Oral Roberts, along with a game against Kansas. That slate may see them take a few lumps, but it will prepare them well for conference play.
Northwestern was the surprise of the league last year, topping the standings deep into the season until Michigan overtook them in the end. However, it'll likely be a drop back to the pack this year, as the Wildcats lost too much production to replicate last year's achievements. They do, however, return the Big Ten's top returning power hitter in junior DH/RF Antonio Mule (.357/11/47).
Mineesota finished fourth in the conference and was one win away from an automatic bid in '06, but lost two in a row to Michigan to fall short. John Anderson's ballclub lost a lot of top players as well, but have some returnees that they will rely on to have a respectable year. This looks to be a down year for the Golden Gophers, but they will still be very competitive.
Michigan State was an excellent hitting ballclub last season, but poor pitching doomed the Spartans to a bottom-half finish in the league. With the departure of five of their seven .300+ hitters from '06, the pitching staff is going to have to shore up its weaknesses to prevent a bottom finish.
Indiana finished last in the conference last year at 22-34, 11-21, and returns leading hitter Keith Haas but not a lot else to a team that will have to rely on a number of newcomers to bolster a team depleted by graduations and transfers. The Hoosiers may depend heavily on a large group of freshmen.
Iowa will likely be battling it out with the Spartans and Hoosiers to stay out of the cellar. The Hawkeyes return their only two .300 hitters in Travis Sweet and Jason White, but at this point, look like the favorite to bring up the rear in the conference.
The Preseason Standings Projection
1. Ohio St.
Projected NCAA Tournament Teams: Ohio State, Michigan
The All-Conference Team
C: Eric Fryer, Ohio State
Preseason Player of the Year: J.B. Shuck, Ohio State
So it looks like the bitter rivals will be fighting it out for yet another title, but there could be a few surprises in store.