Three Strikes: May 19

Strike One: Punch Those Tickets

Two more teams joined Ivy League champion Columbia in the field of 64 over the weekend–one perennial power and one upstart. Bethune-Cookman continued its traditional dominance of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, winning the sweeping three games to win the conference tournament. And in the Patriot League, Bucknell toppled preseason favorite Navy.

Bethune-Cookman has been the class of the MEAC all season, going 17-1 in conference play and winning the regular-season crown by 5 1/2 games over North Carolina A&T. The Wildcats breezed through the conference tournament, winning two games by a combined 26-3 score and squeaking out a 3-2 win over A&T in between. BCU coach Mervyl Melendez said early in the year that he felt like his team’s pitching gave it a chance to compete in a regional, and the numbers bear it out. Few teams have weekend rotations that can compare statistically to Hiram Burgos (9-1, 1.20), Joseph Gautier (6-2, 2.00) and Eric Thomas (9-0, 2.04).

Bucknell won a pair of one-run games against the Midshipmen to sweep the best-of-three Patriot championship series. Senior outfielder/righthander Jason Buursma, the Patriot League player of the year, did it all for the Bison, going 5-for-10 with a triple and a homer in two games at the plate and working three shutout innings to win both games. Buursma entered all four of Bucknell’s Patriot League playoff games with the score tied (including two against Army) and picked up the victory in all of them. Bucknell needed a run in the ninth to break a tie and win both games against Navy, and Buursma singled to lead off the ninth and scored the winning run both days.

One more team will join the field of 64 today as preseason favorite Prairie View A&M takes on Texas Southern on ESPNU. The Panthers swept a doubleheader against Western Division champion Southern on Sunday, sending the Jaguars packing in a wild 15-14 win in the second game. Texas Southern, meanwhile, beat Eastern Division champions Jackson State twice to reach the championship unblemished. The Tigers finished in fourth place in the West during the regular season, going 7-17 in conference play, and they’re just 15-32 overall. But they’re one win away from a regional.

Strike Two: Coaching Wheel Starts Spinning

The first Southeastern Conference job opening this year happened at Mississippi State, with Ron Polk announcing his retirement. Polk coached his last game (for now) on Saturday, a 15-10 loss to Arkansas that may have saved the Razorbacks’ NCAA tournament hopes. Leave it to Polk to take one for the Southeastern Conference in his final game. 

The Mississippi State rumors all center around Polk’s coaching tree, with names such as Kentucky’s John Cohen, Alabama-Birmingham’s Brian Shoop, and current MSU assistant Tommy Raffo among the primary rumored candidates. The Jackson Clarion-Ledger aimed a bit higher in its rumors, including former Bulldogs player Nat "Buck" Showalter, who of course has been a big league manager of the Yankees, Diamondbacks and Rangers and currently contributes to ESPN’s "Baseball Tonight."

Now Tom Slater has resigned at Auburn, which comes at no surprise. Slater’s Tigers missed the SEC tournament for the fifth consecutive season, including all four of Slater’s seasons, a huge no-no. Slater had a four-year overall record of 115-113 and an SEC record of 43-77. If he hadn’t resigned, he would have been fired, and frankly he would have had no argument.

Now the question is, who replaces Slater? Twice since Hal Baird retired after the 2000 season, the Tigers have chosen a coach with Baird ties, first Steve Renfroe and now Slater. It would seem that Auburn might go in a different direction this time if it wants to go in a different direction than, say, missing the SEC tournament.

One direction it could go would be to follow the SEC trend and hire a former Jack Leggett assistant. The Clemson coach has placed three of his coaching progeny in the SEC—Tim Corbin (Vanderbilt), Todd Raleigh (Tennessee) and Kevin O’Sullivan (Florida). One that makes sense for Auburn would be John Pawlowski, a former big leaguer who has built an excellent program at College of Charleston. He’s got Leggett ties and head coaching experience.

Another fast-rising coaching star is New Orleans’ Tom Walter, who has guided UNO to a regional last year and another likely bid this year, despite the devastation and aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which hit soon after Walter arrived from George Washington. Walter’s not an SEC guy per se, but he’s clearly on the rise, as his teams have won 37 or more games seven of the last nine years. If he doesn’t land at Auburn, he probably should land at a BCS-league program sooner than later.

If Auburn wants to land a hot assistant coach, however, as Florida did with O’Sullivan, it could choose from several excellent candidates. Chad Holbrook has helped North Carolina become a monster program as recruiting coordinator. Coach Mike Fox has said he has two outstanding assistants, and with Holbrook directing recruiting and pitching coach Scott Forbes, he does. Both will be excellent head coaches someday. Billy Jones at Oklahoma State also has helped build winners in his last two gigs, at North Carolina State and now with the Cowboys, and is highly regarded as a recruiter as well.

BA’s 2006 Assistant Coach of the Year, Baylor’s Mitch Thompson, has SEC ties as a former Polk assistant and is also highly regarded for his ability to identify talent and bring it to campus. Tulane’s Mark Kingston could become the next Rick Jones assistant to become a successful head coach, following Jim Schlossnagle’s footsteps. And if you’re talking about Leggett’s tree, Vanderbilt assistants Derek Johnson (one of the nation’s best pitching coaches) and Erik Bakich could start the Corbin coaching tree. (Wait, though, Bakich played for LeClair at East Carolina, and five former LeClair players are Division I assistants, so which tree is he on? This is getting confusing.)

The point is, as the regular season ends, the coaching rumor season begins. Last year brought the saga of the Oregon hire, which ended up shaking up the West with George Horton leaving Cal State Fullerton for the Ducks job, starting the drama at Fullerton that brought Dave Serrano back to the Titans and Mike Gillespie, replacing Serrano at UC Irvine, back to college baseball.

The big story this year probably won’t be at one of the obvious openings. Will Augie Garrido retire at Texas? If so, will Texas again look to the Atlantic Coast Conference for a head coach, as it has for football (former North Carolina coach Mack Brown), and both basketball teams (former Clemson men’s hoops coach Rick Barnes and former Duke women’s hoops coach Gail Goestenkors)? Is Arizona State’s Pat Murphy looking to leave with the Sun Devils’ program under investigation, and his team having one of its best seasons?

It’ll be fun to watch and more fun to report.

–JOHN MANUEL

Strike Three: Stock Report

Last week we projected the 64-team NCAA tournament field, but a lot can change in a week. Here’s a look at some teams whose stock either rose or fell significantly over the weekend.

Stock Up

• North Carolina laid a claim for the No. 1 overall seed by winning two of three at Miami. The Tar Heels finished third in the ACC but also went undefeated in weekend series, including sets against the first-place Hurricanes and second-place Florida State. Whichever team fares the best in the ACC tournament could get the NCAA tournament’s top seed, but UNC looks to be in the best position right now.

• Missouri swept Nebraska and has won five of its last six series. All of a sudden, a No. 3 seed looks far too conservative for the Tigers, who are vying for a No. 1 seed and a regional host in the Big 12 tournament.

• Oklahoma State just keeps on winning weekend series, and with Nebraska and Texas A&M both being swept, the Cowboys are in position to leapfrog both of them for a national seed if they can win a couple of games at the Big 12 tournament. OSU has series wins against Texas A&M, Nebraska, Missouri and Texas to its credit.

• Kentucky, which we projected as a No. 3 seed last week, won two out of three against Mississippi and looks certain to be at least a No. 2 seed, and maybe a No. 1. The Wildcats have moved up to 27th in the RPI, according to warrennolan.com, and are in position to earn the SEC’s third regional host (after Georgia and Louisiana State) with Vanderbilt losing its last two series of the year.

• Florida has an even stronger RPI (9) and swept Vanderbilt to finish third in the SEC, a game ahead of Kentucky and Alabama. The Gators have also won series against Georgia, LSU and Ole Miss, though they lost the head-to-head against Kentucky. Florida could secure a host site by winning a couple of games at the SEC tournament.

• UCLA put itself back into the regional hunt by winning a midweek game against UC Irvine and then sweeping Washington State. All of a sudden the Bruins are tied for third place in the Pac-10 with California, heading into next weekend’s Cal-UCLA showdown in Berkeley. First the Bruins have a midweek game at Cal State Fullerton. A 2-2 finish in those last four games should get UCLA into the NCAA tournament.

• UC Santa Barbara swept UC Riverside and sits alone in third place in the Big West. The Gauchos still must go to UC Irvine next week, but they have passed UC Davis in the race for the Big West’s fourth regional bid (after Cal State Fullerton, Long Beach State and UC Irvine). With a mediocre RPI (62), the Gauchos probably need to win two out of three against the Anteaters to feel good about their chances, but one win might be enough.

• Long Beach State swept a road series at Cal Poly and only trails Fullerton by one game heading into next weekend’s showdown at Blair Field. The Dirtbags are now higher than Irvine in the RPI (28 for LBSU, 32 for UCI) and ahead of Irvine in the Big West standings, so it seems likely the Dirtbags will pass Irvine for the Big West’s second host site, whether they win the conference title or not.

• Dallas Baptist made its case for a regional bid by going to San Francisco and sweeping the Dons. The independent Patriots have a strong RPI (34) and quality wins against league champions Rice, Oral Roberts, Louisiana-Monroe and Texas A&M. They should be in as the first independent (other than Miami) since Cal State Northridge in 1992.

• Georgia Tech went on the road and won two out of three at Virginia. With a strong finish that includes series wins against Coastal Carolina, Clemson and Virginia, to go along with a sterling RPI (6), the Yellow Jackets are in position to host a regional if they can win a couple of games in the ACC tournament. And one win in Jacksonville might be enough.

Stock Down

• Georgia’s national seed hopes took a hit this weekend, as Alabama went into Athens and took two out of three. The Bulldogs need to win at least a couple of games in Hoover to nail down a national seed.

• Likewise, Nebraska and Texas A&M need to have solid showings in the Big 12 tournament to secure national seeds, although both are still locks to host regionals. The Aggies have lost six straight and must regain some momentum heading into the NCAA tournament if they are to secure one of the top eight seeds.

• The door was wide open for Southern Mississippi to host a regional, but the the Golden Eagles dropped two of three to Alabama-Birmingham. While they are still No. 2 in Conference USA, USM probably needs to make a run in the league tournament to get back into the hosting picture.

• Virginia dropped two of three at home to Georgia Tech. The Cavaliers still have a strong RPI (21) but have not won a series all year long against a regional contender–their best series win is against Wake Forest, which isn’t close to being a regional team. Virginia and Clemson are both playing for their NCAA tournament lives this weekend in Jacksonville.

• Oregon State is living dangerously. The Beavers were swept at Southern California and are now 50th in the RPI, behind fellow Pac-10 bubble-dwellers Arizona (18) and UCLA (40). Moreover, the Beavers are the Pac-10′s eighth-place team right now. Oregon State does have quality series wins against Georgia, Pepperdine, Arizona State and Arizona, which should enough to get them into a regional as long as they can sweep lowly Pacific next weekend. But Oregon State’s margin for error is gone.

College | #Three Strikes

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