2012 Conference USA Preview

See also: Preseason Top 25 Capsules

*2011 automatic qualifier. 2011 NCAA regional participants in bold (2011 records listed; 2012 national rankings in parentheses)

Conference Overall
*Rice (6) 16 8 42 21
Central Florida (21) 12 12 39 23
East Carolina 14 10 41 21
Southern Mississippi 16 8 39 19
Tulane 10 14 31 26
Memphis 12 12 30 27
Houston 12 12 27 32
Alabama-Birmingham 9 15 29 28
Marshall 7 17 20 31
Projected NCAA Teams (4): Rice, Central Florida, East Carolina, Southern Mississippi.
Conference Schedule: 24 games; begins March 23.
Conference Tournament: Eight teams, May 23-27 at Pearl, Miss.
Player of the Year: Michael Ratterree, of, Rice.
Pitcher of the Year: Aaron Kubitza, rhp, Rice.

1. Austin Kubitza, rhp, Rice (2013)
2. John Simms, rhp, Rice (2013)
3. Randy LeBlanc, rhp, Tulane (2013)
4. J.T. Chargois, rhp, Rice
5. Michael Ratterree, of, Rice
6. Dan Langfield, rhp, Memphis
7. Ronnie Richardson, of, Central Florida
8. Aaron Blair, rhp, Marshall (2013)
9. Jeremy Rathjen, of, Rice
10. Chase Jensen, ss, Houston
11. Darnell Sweeney, ss, Central Florida
12. Ivan DeJesus, of, Alabama-Birmingham (2013)
13. Ben Lively, rhp, Central Florida (2013)
14. Matthew Reckling, rhp, Rice
15. Jeremy Schaffer, c, Tulane

1. Connor Barron, ss/2b, Southern Mississippi (HS—Sumrall, Miss.)
2. Mason Robbins, of/lhp, Southern Mississippi (HS—Lucedale, Miss.)
3. Eric Skoglund, lhp, Central Florida (HS—Sarasota, Fla.)
4. Jordan Stephens, rhp, Rice (HS—Alvin, Texas)
5. Alex Massey, rhp, Tulane (HS—Baton Rouge)
6. Aaron Garza, rhp, Houston (HS—Galveston, Texas)
7. Bradley Roney, 3b/rhp, Southern Mississippi (HS—Wetumpka, Ala.)
8. Deshorn Lake, rhp, East Carolina (HS—Newport News, Va.)
9. Garrett Nuss, rhp, Central Florida (HS—Sorrento, Fla.)
10. Taylor Nunez, rhp, Southern Mississippi (HS—Slidell, La.)

• East Carolina has had a string of off-field issues in recent years ranging from player suspensions to the January suspension of coach Billy Godwin without pay for the first two weeks of practice. The university found improper benefits were given to volunteer assistant coaches for seven seasons, dating back to Godwin’s predecessor, Randy Mazey. The 2012 club will try to put the focus back on the field with an experienced lineup and a pitching staff led by Sr. LHP Kevin Brandt, who has 19 wins in his career and was part of the 2009 club that won a regional. He’s joined by an inexperienced but talented rotation that could include Virgin Island native RHPs Jharel Cotton, a transfer from Miami-Dade JC, and Deshorn Lake, an unsigned 12th-round pick (Red Sox). The rotation key may be Jr. LHP Tyler Joyner, who was suspended last season but thrived in the New England Collegiate League in 2010 (1.97 ERA, 53 strikeouts in 46 IP). He’s gotten all of four outs in two years for the Pirates.

• Southern Mississippi staggered to regionals last season after having to dismiss two-thirds of its weekend rotation due to academics. The Golden Eagles regrouped with a stellar recruiting class, led by unsigned Marlins third-rounder IF Connor Barron, who will play second base as a freshman in deference to steady Sr. SS Ashley Graeter, and RF/LHP Mason Robbins, the Mets’ 20th-rounder. Rotation stalwart Todd McInnis, the staff ace since its 2009 College World Series run, moved on, and the new projected Friday starter, Sr. RHP Chase Horn, pitched just 36 innings out of the bullpen

• Tulane has made only one regional trip since 2006, missing three straight seasons. Last year’s club fell victim to a lack of depth and injuries that crippled the pitching staff. Fr. RHP Randy LeBlanc took a redshirt year after tearing his ulnar collateral ligament, which required surgery, while RHP Kyle McKenzie had a similar injury in March. Both are slated to return to the rotation, along with RHP Tyler Mapes, the ace of Navarro (Texas) JC’s national championship club last spring. Three JC transfers also are penciled into the lineup in 1B/RHP Tucker Oakley (Weatherford, Texas), 1B/OF Sean Potkay (Western Nevada) and 3B Troy McCartney (McClennan, Texas). They’ll join Sr. C Jeremy Schaffer (.338/.447/.552), the team’s lone power threat a year ago and the league leader with 23 doubles.

• Alabama-Birmingham has posted three straight winning seasons under coach Brian Shoop and has an experienced team to take the next step to a regional. Friday starter Sr. RHP Dillon Napoleon returns after going 5-3, 2.87 last season and tossing 85 innings, walking just 26. The offense loses 44 stolen bases from Jamal Austin and Nick Crawford, but returns its top run producers. Sr. 3B Patrick Palmeiro (son of Rafael) led the team with eight homers last season while batting .284/.342/.462. Jr. 1B John Frost (.246/.301/.318) bounced back from a rough spring to hit .282 in the Cape Cod League last summer, and Sr. Keith DePew (.276/.338/.352) takes his steady glove from second base to shortstop. He made just three errors last spring at second.

• Houston started anew with first-year head coach Todd Whitting last season and turned in its third straight losing record. The Cougars have 20 newcomers in Whitting’s second season, headlined by projectable Fr. RHP Aaron Garza, the Blue Jays’ unsigned 10th-rounder. The return from surgery of Sr. RHP Jared Ray (1-1, 3.28 in 25 IP) and an influx of junior-college talent means some freshmen can be brought along slowly. Navarro transfers such as RHP Austin Pruitt (the national JC ERA leader at 0.81) and 1B Casey Grayson (.340) should make an impact, as will DH Jacob Lueneburg (.433 at Kishwaukee, Ill., JC). Jr. SS Chase Jensen (.320/.344/.430), a lanky athlete whose performance keeps improving as he adds strength, remains the Cougars’ top player and prospect.