Big weekend for several league races
By John Manuel
The news this week about college baseball's changing regionals landscape has coaches and fans talking. With the NCAA tournament fast approaching, uncertainty surrounds the selection process this year, similar to the situation in 1999.
That was perhaps college baseball's most tumultuous year, one consumed by the bat wars and by the change from a 48-team regional field to the current 64-team setup.
With the new format came a new round of postseason play, the super-regional. In the wake of the increased role of geography in the selection of regional host sites, speculation arose as to whether or not geography would also play a major role in super-regional site selection.
The NCAA's Jim Wright--who's been getting a lot of phone and email time this week, and who has been patient with all requests--said Thursday that to his knowledge, the Division I baseball committee had yet to discuss the matter.
But earlier in the week Wright also said a couple of important points about the NCAA tournament had not changed. The top 16 teams will still be ranked, so there's no chance of a perceived weak team from the Northeast being a No. 1 seed. Second, the committee will still select the top eight national seeds.
The tournament bracket will be set up so that those top eight national seeds would meet in Omaha if they all win their regionals and super-regionals. Nothing has changed with regard to how these top eight national seeds are selected.
And Wayne Burrow, the NCAA official who processes regional bids, said at the current time, there wasn't much for fans in the Southeast and West to worry about.
"We have not received a bid from the any schools in the Northeast," Burrow said. "At least none have their paperwork in, or have contacted me. The deadline for that was May 3 and the deadline for bids is (today, May 17), but we've been pretty liberal with that in the past. If somebody wants to make a bid after the deadline, the paperwork is online, and we usually direct them there."
Late paperwork or not, hopes for a Northeast host are dim. One rumored candidate, Boston College, does not expect to put in a bid. Coach Pete Hughes said Thursday the timing of the change in ownership in Boston, plus BC's unexpected strong season, make a bid this year too difficult to put together in a short time.
"With the changes and renovations going on over there with the new ownership, it's just not going to work out; we couldn't meet the deadline," he said. "Next year, when the owners are settled in and we expect to still have a good team, hopefully something can work out, either at Fenway or at Lowell or Brockton (both of which have minor league ballparks)."
Burrows said other regional bids were in from the "usual suspects," with some newcomers. Ohio State and Notre Dame had submitted bids, as had "Northern" schools such as Nebraska and Wichita State. New bids included proposals from Cal State Fullerton, Long Beach State and San Diego State.
West Coast schools worried about being concentrated into regionals have more options than they might otherwise have thought, as traditional powers (and hosts) Arizona State, Southern California and Stanford also had submitted bids. It looks more like Northeast schools will be the ones flying because there won't be a regional within the 400-mile bus trip distance.
"A lot of automatic qualifiers in that area are the ones that don't have a dance partner, so to speak," Burrow said. "The baseball tournament has a little more flexibility than softball because it has twice as many host schools. Some high-quality teams might have to travel, but that won't be precedent-setting."
In the meantime, Hughes said, teams can settle regional bids on the field in what is the last week of the regular season for most of the nation.
"I'm just worried about getting a bid," he said. "We could win our series this weekend (at Notre Dame) and be Big East regular-season champions and still not get a bid if we don't win our conference tournament."
Because it's that time of year, we'll just go conference by conference, finding important series almost everywhere. In the interest of time and sanity, we limited this listing to leagues where the final weekend will make a difference in the conference regular-season race.
Vermont has slumped of late, moving Maine back into first place in the America East Conference by one game. The Black Bears visit Binghamton this weekend while the Catamounts play host to third-place Northeastern.
The ACC race is just so tight. No. 13 North Carolina and top-ranked Clemson lead by a half-game over third-ranked Wake Forest and by one game over fifth-ranked Florida State. Georgia Tech, three games out and in fifth, isn't mathematically eliminated, either.
The other four clubs meet this weekend with the league title and possible regional host spots on the line. Florida State visits Clemson riding a 14-game win streak, having won 19 of its last 20. The Tigers have won their last four games since their worst stretch of the year, when they sandwiched three losses to Georgia Tech and Elon around a win against Wofford.
The Tar Heels visit the Yellow Jackets in the other matchup. The Jackets are 29-3 at home this season and have won consecutive home series against Clemson and Miami. North Carolina, though, has won seven straight and 13 of 14. Two wins this weekend would set a new school record for conference victories.
The Atlantic Sun race comes down to the last weekend thanks to consecutive series losses by Florida Atlantic. The Owls still have a one-game cushion over Central Florida, which plays host to Mercer. Third-place Stetson plays host to fourth-place Troy State, while Georgia State visits the Owls.
The Atlantic 10 begins its two-tiered conference tournament this weekend. Six teams are on hand at Norwich, Conn., with the two top finishers moving on next week in a best-of-three series at the home park of the higher seed. St. Bonaventure and defending league champ Temple join West Division teams Richmond, George Washington, Dayton and Xavier in the event.
Spiders coach Ron Atkins said his program did not put in a bid to have a regional at home, also saying next season would be more likely. He also expects to earn an at-large bid if Richmond doesn't win the tournament, in which it is a heavy favorite after going 22-2 in the regular season. If the Spiders win out in the event, they would enter regionals with a 50-6 record.
The other tournament on tap this weekend is the Northeast Conference, where four teams--in order of seeding Monmouth, Maryland-Baltimore County, Central Connecticut State and St. Francis (N.Y.)--meet in Lakewood, N.J.
The Big East race could be decided in South Bend, Ind., this weekend. No. 20 Notre Dame plays host to Boston College with the two teams tied for first. But also tied for first is Virginia Tech, with all three clubs 15-8 in the league. The Hokies play host to West Virginia (24-23, 9-13 Big East).
A couple of quick facts about Notre Dame senior outfielder Steve Stanley as he winds down a truly remarkable career. Stanley, hitting .459 this season, has started 238 consecutive games (every game of his college career), second in Division I history to Arizona's Chip Hale, who started all 255 from 1984-87. Stanley also ranks sixth in D-I history with 356 career hits, all coming after he started his career with an 0-for-17 slump.
The Big Ten regular-season has come down to two teams. Minnesota travels to Ohio State with a half-game lead over the Buckeyes. The question for those outside the league is whether the regular-season Big Ten champ will get an at-large bid if it fails to win the conference tournament.
Ohio State coach Bob Todd is a member of the selection committee, but obviously won't be allowed into the deliberations when the Buckeyes come up. "We're sitting on the bubble," he said. "We hope the committee will say the regular-season league champion should be an at-large team.
"I remember last year Southwest Missouri State and Eastern Illinois won their leagues and did not get bids. I did not like that."
The regular-season winner also gets to be the host of the league tournament, even more incentive. Todd said more than 5,000 tickets already had been sold as of Wednesday for Saturday's game alone, so expect big crowds in Columbus this weekend.
Speaking of big crowds, Creighton and Nebraska drew the third-largest regular-season crowd in D-I history to Rosenblatt Stadium on Wednesday, and the 18,500-plus fans got a show. Senior righthander Shane Komine made his first start in a month and threw five scoreless innings, giving up two singles and striking out seven in the Huskers' 9-1 victory.
The Huskers sit squarely in second place in the Big 12, where Texas leads by three games in the loss column. The league is full of crucial games this weekend, thanks to some convoluted standings. Baylor sits alone in third place at 13-10, ahead of three 13-11 clubs (Oklahoma, Texas A&M and Texas Tech) and 12-11 Oklahoma State. Even Kansas State (25-23, 10-13) has a shot at catching the Bears.
The Longhorns need a win during their three-game set with Texas A&M to clinch the regular-season title, which could also mean a regional host bid. If you haven't heard by now, Texas' leadoff hitter, sophomore second baseman Tim Moss, was arrested last weekend in a campus assault incident. Pending more information and an investigation, Moss played on Wednesday in Texas' 4-2 win against second-ranked Rice. You can imagine the vitriol Moss will hear from A&M's throaty, passionate and numerous fans.
Baylor visits Texas Tech in another crucial matchup, with the Bears coming off a loss to Houston. While the Red Raiders have been playing easier competition of late (UT Pan American last weekend), they also have been hot, winning their last 12 games to move to 37-16 overall.
Third but not least is the Bedlam Series, as Oklahoma and Oklahoma State meet in Tulsa. A sweep would force the loser of the series to have to win the Big 12 tournament to earn a regional bid. Oklahoma State tuned up for the set with a pair of wins against SWAC champion Southern, scoring 30 runs in the process.
K-State must sweep its series at last-place Kansas to have a shot at an at-large bid, but more likely the Wildcats are playing for league tournament position.
The Big West race is almost as convoluted, with five teams within two games of first place. As the league lacks a postseason tournament, two weeks remain in conference play. Cal State Northridge (37-15, 16-5 BWC), coming off a series loss to Long Beach State, plays third-place UC Irvine. The Matadors may need a series win to make their case as a No. 1 seed, as this is their last regular-season series. The Anteaters are one game back in the loss column at 12-6 and has UC Riverside next weekend.
Cal Poly and Long Beach State are tied for fourth at 11-7 in the league, but the 49ers get Pacific at home this weekend, while the Mustangs visit UC Riverside. Second-place Cal State Fullerton, coming off a midweek win against Southern California has the weekend off for finals.
No. 22 James Madison can wrap up the Colonial Athletic Association regular season with a series win at Old Dominion (24-26, 6-11). UNC Wilmington, which trails the Dukes by 1.5 games in the American Division, beat East Carolina in a midweek game and plays Virginia Commonwealth in a matchup of bubble teams.
VCU (11-7) trails George Mason by two in the loss column; GMU (11-5) visits red-hot William & Mary (10-8), which it leads by just two games. The Tribe has won 13 of its last 15 to get back into the race. Delaware, also on the bubble at 33-20, 12-7, must wait for the league tournament.
Conference USA is probably the closest league in the country this season, and the schedule maker did everyone a favor this weekend, as the top six teams play each other. That doesn't include South Florida, tied for sixth with Tulane and visiting last-place UAB.
First-place Houston (19-7 C-USA) plays host to Texas Christian. The Horned Frogs probably have to win the league to get a bid, don't they--they're just 29-24 overall, including 0-6 against Texas Tech. They trail the Cougars by one in the loss column but have the nation's fourth-leading hitter in sophomore outfielder Terry Trofholz (.463).
Same for Louisville, which visits fifth-place East Carolina. The Pirates are stumbling, having lost their last two series, but expect to have junior lefty Sam Narron back after he missed last weekend with what's being described as a tired arm. The Cardinals, meanwhile, are 37-13 overall and seem poised for an at-large bid unless they collapse this weekend.
Finally, Southern Mississippi visits Tulane. The Golden Eagles are a game back of Houston while the Green Wave (30-23, 14-13) is trying to keep its slim regional hopes alive.
The Horizon League (quick! Which teams are in the Horizon League? Didn't think so.) has a new name, but league power Wisonsin-Milwaukee is still in first place at 14-5. The Panthers visit second-place Illinois-Chicago (33-13, 11-4), which has one of the nation's leading hitters in junior outfielder Curtis Granderson. A possible second- or third-round pick, Granderson ranks third in the country in hitting at .474, behind Southern's Rickie Weeks (.506) and Clemson's Khalil Greene (.483).
Marist still leads the MAAC, with a 1 1/2 game lead over Le Moyne. The Dolphins visit third-place Siena with a three-game lead in that race, while the Red Foxes play host to seventh-place Rider.
The Mid-America Conference is once again jam-packed. For some reason, this 13-team league only gets one bid a year. While none of these teams ever racks up great RPI numbers, the league produces talent. Kent State's John VanBenschoten gave the league its third first-round pick in four years in 2001 (Ball State's Larry Bigbie in '99 and Jeff Urban in '98 preceded him).
This season, the MAC has as many first-round possibilities as any league. Ball State righthander Bryan Bullington may be the first overall pick, with a low-to-mid 90s fastball and slider that has improved greatly over the course of the year.
Junior lefty Luke Hagerty likely will go later in the first round, and some team will pop Miami (Ohio) lefty Chris Leonard in the first few rounds based on what he did last summer in the Cape Cod League. Leonard has struggled this season after ripping a fingernail on his pitching hand, hindering his ability to grip the ball.
Yet the league will likely get one bid, its tournament champion. Kent State has the inside track to be the site of the tourney, played at the regular-season winner. The Golden Flashes (16-6 MAC) visit Leonard and the Red Hawks this weekend with a 1.5 game lead over Bowling Green State in the Eastern Division. BGSU plays host to Akron.
In the West, Ball State (14-8) has a percentage-points lead on Eastern Michigan (15-9) and plays host to Central Michigan this weekend in Muncie, weather permitting. EMU visits Marshall as the teams jockey for tournament position.
Craighton trails Wichita State by 2 1/2 games in the Missouri Valley Conference, but has a shot to gain some ground this weekend at last-place Bradley. The Bluejays (27-21, 18-9) probably need to win the league tournament to get a bid, though. Same for Southwest Missouri State, snubbed last when it won the MVC regular season. The Bears (36-14, 18-10) visit Indiana State this weekend.
The league-leading Shockers, who beat Oklahoma in a midweek contest, play host to fourth-place Southern Illinois.
San Diego State has clinched the Mountain West as it visits UNLV. But do the Aztecs have to win the league tournament next weekend at Brigham Young to get a regional bid and presumed shot as a regional host in Jim Dietz' last hurrah? After getting swept at Air Force last weekend, the guess here is yes.
The same thing goes for the Ohio Valley, where Southeast Missouri has clinched the regular-season title and won a midweek game at Arkansas this week. But SEMO better win the league tournament; after all, Eastern Illinois went 19-1 in the OVC last year but didn't get an at-large bid.
How many bids will the Pac-10 get? With no league tournament to bail anyone out, we have to weeks for things to sort themselves out. League leader USC visits Arizona State in the weekend's marquee matchup. The Sun Devils are alone in fourth place, a game up on Oregon State, which plays host to second-place Washington. At 26-23-1 overall, the Huskies have to finish in the top three in the league, one would think, to earn a regional bid.
No. 7 Stanford, tied at 11-7 in league play with the Huskies, plays at UCLA, where sophomore lefthander/first baseman Wes Whisler has become the latest Bruins phenom. He's throwing 88-90 mph with good command of his breaking stuff on the mound, and showing plus power at the plate as a first baseman/DH.
The SEC race is over in the West, but that doesn't mean division champion Alabama's series at LSU is meaningless. The Tigers could usurp the Tide's presumed spot among the top eight national seeds with a sweep and a strong effort in the league tournament, and no team is hotter in the SEC than LSU right now. The other West teams are fighting for survival, with Ole Miss trying to stop a three-weekend SEC series losing skid at Mississippi State, which has lost six straight in the league and is in danger of missing the SEC tournament. Auburn visits Arkansas, with both teams needing to win the series to secure or extend regional hopes.
The East is tighter at the top, with division leader South Carolina visiting Georgia with a two-game lead on Florida in the loss column. Georgia probably has a regional bid sewn up unless it gets swept; the Gamecocks' lone series loss of the year came at Arkansas. Florida visits cellar-dwelling Kentucky, but could win the division with a sweep and a Georgia series win.
In the Southern Conference, two games separate the top five teams in the loss column, with The Citadel (19-8) as the leader, followed by Western Carolina (20-10) and two 17-10 clubs, College of Charleston and Georgia Southern. UNC Greensboro is next at 16-10 and plays host to Georgia Southern this weekend. The Citadel need only avoid the sweep at lowly VMI this weekend to claim the regular season, while College of Charleston plays host to Wofford. WCU has the weekend off.
Northwestern State stumbled against UT Arlington in the Southland last weekend, leaving the Demons only one game up on streaking Lamar and Louisiana-Monroe. Once again, thank the schedule-maker: NSU plays host to Southwest Texas State this weekend, with Lamar and visiting UL Monroe squaring off.
The Sun Belt race is cut and dry: South Alabama wins the league if it wins its series at third-place Western Kentucky. Louisiana-Lafayette, two back in the loss column, plays host to eighth-place Arkansas State.
The mediocrity of the West Coast Conference race comes to an end this weekend. San Diego at 18-12 leads the West, but if host Portland sweeps Loyola Marymount, the Pilots would pull off the shocker and win the division title. Portland was picked seventh in the eight-team league in the preseason.
Freshman outfielder Trevor Hahn has a 25-game hitting streak, a school record for the records the Pilots have.
The Coast division is closer, with all four teams still in it. Last-place Gonzaga trails first-place Pepperdine by three games, but would win the division with a sweep of the Waves and a 2-1 series win by St. Mary's against visiting Santa Clara. Who would ever have imagined a Portland-Gonzaga WCC championship series? It could happen.
Finally, the WAC champion, second-ranked Rice, plays at Fresno State. The Bulldogs probably need a second-place league finish for a regional bid and currently trail San Jose State by a half-game (16-8 vs. 18-9). The Spartans are off this weekend.
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