Previewing The One-Bid Leagues
Division I Conference Tournament Previews
In Tuesday's Stock Report
, we broke down what is at stake in conference tournaments in leagues where multiple teams have chances to earn at-large bids. Now let's take a look at what to watch for in the conference tournaments where only the champion is likely to advance to regionals.
Binghamton is the clear favorite in the AEC tournament, having won the regular-season crown by four games over Maine and six over Stony Brook. After a 6-14 start to the season, the Bearcats caught fire down the stretch, winning their last 14 games. Binghamton's bats do its heavy lifting; the Bearcats led the conference with a .334 average, led by freshman third baseman Mike Thompson (.392). Binghamton also boasts two of the league's top draft prospects in athletic junior outfielders Corey Taylor (.363/.431/.682 with 14 homers and 65 RBIs) and Henry Dunn (.344/.408/.626 with 10 homers and 51 RBIs). Maine, though, could be the spoiler if it gets strong performances from the league's two best power arms, sophomore righty Jeffrey Gibbs (5-3, 3.71 with 69 strikeouts and 34 walks in 70 innings) and freshman righty Steve Perakslis (4-4, 6.33 with 53 strikeouts and 28 walks in 58 innings). That duo combined to beat North Carolina 5-3 in February, and scouts say Gibbs touched 97 mph at Oregon State in March.
After a one-year blip in 2009 when it finished fourth, Charlotte has returned to its customary perch as the class of the A-10. The 49ers won the conference by two games over defending tournament champion Xavier and three games over pesky Rhode Island. No team in the league has the pitching to stop Charlotte's high-powered offense, which ranked eighth in the nation in scoring (9.5 runs per game) in the NCAA's most recent statistics report. The heart of the lineup is particularly formidable: junior second baseman Corey Shaylor (.401/.485/.545), junior first baseman Ryan Rivers (.360/.457/.616 with 11 homers and 59 RBIs) and junior outfielder Justin Wilson (.372/.460/.437 with 20 steals in 22 attempts) form the best 3-4-5 combination in the league. And Charlotte has a dependable young ace in freshman righty Corey Roberts (6-2, 3.39 with 74 strikeouts and 21 walks in 80 innings). But keep an eye on Xavier, which finished strong with eight consecutive wins, starting with the last two games of a series against Charlotte three weeks ago.
This league belongs to preseason favorite Florida Gulf Coast, which cruised to a 25-5 conference record and won the regular-season crown by 7 1/2 games in its first year of postseason eligibility. Everyone knows about ace lefthander Chris Sale (10-0, 1.97 with 135 strikeouts and 12 walks in 96 innings), who lived up to his preseason first-team All-America billing and will likely be drafted in the top 10 picks in June. But the Eagles also have a dynamic offense powered by juniors Mikel Alvarez (.398/.470/.532 with 11 steals in 13 tries), Zach Maxfield (.371/.494/.609 with 10 homers and 56 RBIs) and Tim Roberson (.331/.390/.562 with 13 homers and 63 RBIs). With a 37-18 overall record and a solid RPI (No. 43, according to WarrenNolan.com), Florida Gulf Coast stands a good chance to snag an at-large bid even if it fails to win the conference tournament, provided it wins a game or two this week. But that point should be moot, because FGCU is an A-Sun juggernaut poised to roll through the conference tourney.
In the most volatile conference in the country all season, one of the preseason favorites finished in first place (Minnesota) while another actually missed the conference tournament altogether (Ohio State). The Golden Gophers rebounded from a disappointing 14-23 start to finish a game ahead of second-place Michigan after taking two of three at Ohio State in the final weekend. Run prevention is Minnesota's calling card; it led the Big Ten in ERA (4.63) and ranked second in fielding percentage (.972 as of last weekend). The Gophers are scrappy and competitive, but they also boast two of the league's top draft-eligible prospects in catcher/outfielder Mike Kvasnicka (.346/.454/.561 with seven homers and 45 RBIs) and righthander Seth Rosin (7-4, 4.47 with a sublime 82-10 strikeout-walk mark in 87 innings). And power-armed freshman righty T.J. Oakes (4-3, 3.82) is an emerging talent who has established himself as a potential high pick in 2012.
The Gophers are the slight favorites this week, but Michigan would have finished atop the standings if not for a couple of heart-breaking defeats, including a 6-5 loss to Penn State on Friday when the Nittany Lions rallied for five runs in the bottom of the ninth. Michigan has a solid collection of power arms and a good offense centered around the league's best overall player, junior outfielder Ryan LaMarre (.403/.440/.661), and a stellar senior catcher, Chris Berset (.377/.449/.563 with seven homers and 46 RBIs). Regardless of who wins the conference tournament, the Big Ten will be a one-bid league, a year after sending three teams to regionals.
Colonial Athletic Association
Preseason favorite James Madison entered the season as a sleeper candidate to win a regional, so in that context JMU's 29-21 season was a bit of a disappointing. But the Dukes finished strong, winning their final three series and a midweek game at East Carolina, and they edged high-powered Georgia State (the defending champion) by a half-game for the conference title. It appears James Madison is peaking at the right time, and that makes it the favorite this week. While not quite as offensive as Georgia State, which led the nation in scoring (11.1 runs per game) through last weekend, JMU has a formidable, powerful lineup in its own right. The lineup contains home run threats up and down the order, led by Matt Browning, Trevor Knight and Matt Townsend, who each reached double figures in long balls. JMU's starting pitching underachieved, but if it has the lead late, the game is over—thanks to junior closer Kevin Munson (7-1, 1.23 with 67 strikeouts and 21 walks in 51 innings), who should be drafted in the top three to four rounds thanks to a 92-94 mph fastball and good slider. No doubt Munson will be a key to James Madison's conference tournament title hopes.
Perennial powers Wright State and Illinois-Chicago had a visitor near the top of the standings this year, as Wisconsin-Milwaukee went 17-8 to finish a game out of first place, and a game and a half ahead of third-place UIC. But preseason favorite Wright State remains the team to beat, even after getting swept at Marshall in the final weekend. The league's best offensive team is built around a strong core of seniors: sweet-swinging Casey McGrew (.397/.453/.575), who played for Team USA last summer, and powerful Quentin Cates (.361/.397/.583 with eight homers and 65 RBIs). Look for the Raiders to slug their way through the Horizon League tournament.
Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference
Canisius took control of the MAAC with a sweep of Manhattan three weeks ago and cruised to the regular-season crown by three games. The Golden Griffins will go as far as their high-powered offense carries them; they led the conference and ranked 14th nationally in scoring (nine runs per game) through last weekend. Veterans Steve McQuail (.413/.488/.784 with 18 homers and 78 RBIs), Ian Choy (.379/.504/.547 with seven homers and 55 RBIs) and Brian Burton (.371/.445/.680 with 16 homers and 65 RBIs) picked up the slack for departed sluggers Kevin Mahoney and Kevin Mailloux, giving Canisius the MAAC's most fearsome lineup. But the Griffs' most important player might be senior two-way player Shayne Willson, who hit .344 with 10 homers and also anchors the back of the bullpen (2-0, 3.60 with five saves). Canisius has come close to breaking through to its first regional over the last two years; this looks like its best shot yet to finally get over the hump.
Perhaps no conference tournament is more wide open than the MAC's. Bowling Green State, Kent State and Ball State entered the season as essentially tri-favorites in the MAC, and none of them disappointed. Kent and Bowling Green tied atop the Eastern Division standings at 18-9, while Ball State finished 19-8—tied for second in the West with Toledo, a game behind Central Michigan. The Chippewas surged to the best record in the league with a 9-1 finish behind the conference's best pitching staff. But this is an offensive league, and one of the four most potent offenses in the league (BGSU, Toledo, Kent State and Ball State) figures to mash its way to the crown. We're sticking with our preseason pick, Bowling Green, whose deep, experienced lineup features six seniors, led by shortstop Jon Berti (.425/.484/.575).
Wichita State finished the season in its customary perch atop the MVC standings, but it had unexpected company in the form of upstart Illinois State, which tied the Shockers with a 15-6 conference record. First-year head coach Mark Kingston was a deserving choice for MVC coach of the year honors, but the Shockers still must be considered a fairly heavy favorite, because of their talented pitching staff if not because of their track record and mystique. The league's best pitcher, sophomore righthander Jordan Cooper (9-2, 1.59 with 87 strikeouts and 20 walks in 96 innings), anchors the league's best pitching staff, and senior Logan Hoch (2-1, 2.27 with three saves) provides a dependable veteran at the back of the staff. Offensively, Wichita has plenty of speed as usual (88 stolen bases), but it also has more thump in the lineup than it has in recent years, with three players in double digits in homers, led by indispensable senior catcher Cody Lassley (.364/.435/.620 with 10 home runs and 42 RBIs).
Bryant won the regular-season title by five games over Sacred Heart in its first year in the league, but the Bulldogs are not yet eligible for the conference tournament as they transition from Division II. That's good news for the rest of the NEC. Preseason favorite Wagner slumped mightily in the second half before rebounding with a sweep of Quinnipiac in the final weekend to get into the conference tournament, but we're picking No. 2 seed Central Connecticut State to slug its way through the tourney. The Blue Devils went 9-3 against the other three teams in the field during the regular season, winning three out of four games against all three. CCSU's potent offense ranked fourth nationally in batting and 13th in scoring in the NCAA's most recent report. Veterans Sean Allaire (.456/.515/.804 with 13 homers and 70 RBIs) and Pat Epps (.413/.496/.776 with 17 homers and 66 RBIs) provide most of the power in an offense that batted .353 as a team.
The OVC was bunched together at the top, with four teams finishing within two games of first-place Tennessee Tech. Preseason favorite Eastern Illinois rebounded from a brutal 4-19 start to the season to finish 11-12 in the conference, good enough for fifth place. But defending champion Tennessee Tech is the team to beat. The Golden Eagles have a dependable anchor on the mound in senior righthander Lee Henry (6-3, 2.77), who thrives off his good breaking stuff, plus flamethrowing closer Stephen Pryor, whose fastball reaches 98 mph, and one of the league's most fearsome hitters in powerful junior A.J. Kirby-Jones (.378/.528/.846 with 24 home runs and 66 RBIs). Tennessee Tech also has the league's best defense; its .966 fielding percentage led the OVC by a wide margin.
Surprise! Perennial juggernaut Oral Roberts is not the top seed in the Summit League tournament, as the Golden Eagles finished tied with South Dakota State atop the standings, just a game ahead of Centenary. The Jackrabbits won three of four against ORU three weeks ago to control the tie-breaker. If ORU's stranglehold on the Summit (which has lasted 12 consecutive years now) is ever to loosen, this is the year. The Jackrabbits have the power bats to blast their way to the conference title in coach Ritchie Price's second year at the helm, particularly if mashers Eric Cain (.391/.447/.644 with 15 homers and 79 RBIs) and Jesse Sawyer (.370/.511/.721 with 18 homers and 69 RBIs) get on a roll. But this league still belongs to Oral Roberts until somebody drives a stake through its heart. The Golden Eagles have their own group of power plants in Tyler Saladino (.382/.467/.707 with 15 homers and 59 RBIs), Seth Furmanek (.289/.403/.673 with 17 homers and 46 RBIs) and Nick Baligod (.396/.494/.691 with nine homers). And they have the weight of tradition on their side.
Defending champion and preseason favorite Southern finished a half-game behind Texas Southern in the Western Division, but the team to beat is Eastern Division champion Jackson State, the top seed after going 19-6 in conference. The Tigers put together a 17-game winning streak before dropping their regular-season finale at Grambling State, and they simply run opponents ragged. Jackson State topped the nation with a ridiculous 210 stolen bases in 234 attempts (4.1 per game), led by national stolen base leader Willie Wesley (.352/.462/.474 with 51 steals in 56 tries). JSU also boasts the nation's lone 13-game winner in sophomore righthander Quintavious Drains (13-3, 4.35 with 87 strikeouts and 34 walks in 112 innings).
Three weeks ago, New Mexico State looked poised to finally topple nemesis Fresno State. After sweeping Louisiana Tech the first weekend in May, the Aggies sat atop the WAC standings at 13-2—and then the wheels fell off. Fresno swept a four-game series against NMSU the following weekend, and Hawaii took three of four against the Aggies in the final weekend. Fresno wound up winning the league by a game and a half over New Mexico State and Nevada, and it would be foolhardy to bet against the perennial WAC power. The Bulldogs' offense is centered around junior first baseman Jordan Ribera, who is tied with Siena's Dan Paolini for the national lead in home runs (26). Ribera also has a flair for the dramatic, having hit game-winning home runs in back-to-back games in the WAC finals against New Mexico State last year. Talented outfielders Bobby Coyle (.344 with 10 homers and 62 RBIs) and Dusty Robinson (.326 with 14 homers and 54 RBIs) also provide power, and second baseman Danny Muno (.318/.439/.462) remains a sparkplug atop the order, just as he was in Fresno's run to the national title two years ago.