2014 College Preview: AAC

BA breaks down the AAC, including our projections for regional teams, player of the year, pitcher of the year and top prospects.

1. Nick Burdi, rhp, Louisville
2. Joe Filomeno, lhp, Louisville
3. Eric Skoglund, lhp, Central Florida
4. Aaron Garza, rhp, Houston
5. Casey Mulholland, rhp, South Florida
6. Tommy Williams, ss, Central Florida
7. Jeff Gardner, of, Louisville
8. Jared Ruxer, rhp, Louisville
9. Connor Walsh, rhp, Cincinnati
10. Cole Sturgeon, of/lhp, Louisville
1. Ian Happ, 2b/of, Cincinnati
2. Kyle Funkhouser, rhp, Louisville
3. Jake Lemoine, rhp, Houston
4. Justin Montemayor, 3b, Houston
5. Anthony Kidston, rhp, Louisville

American Athletic Conference
Baseball Members (First Year): Central Florida (2014), Cincinnati (2014), Connecticut (2014), Houston (2014), Louisville (2014), Memphis (2014), Rutgers (2014), South Florida (2014), Temple (2014).

Checking out: None.

Conference Tournament: Eight teams, pool play. May 21-25 at Clearwater, Fla.

Team to Beat: Louisville.
The Cardinals have plenty of key parts to replace, but their pitching staff is still loaded with premium arms, and the lineup is filled with veterans.

Player of the Year: Ian Happ, 2b/of, Cincinnati.
A 2013 freshman All-American and the No. 2 prospect in the Cape Cod League, Happ is a switch-hitter with power, speed and a natural feel for hitting.

Pitcher of the Year: Kyle Funkhouser, rhp, Louisville.
Like Happ, Funkhouser followed a strong freshman year with a good summer in the Cape League, showing a 92-94 fastball that reaches 97 and a promising slider.

Freshman of the Year: Kam Gellinger, 3b, Central Florida.
An athletic, versatile defender with the arm strength, range and hands to play anywhere on the infield, Gellinger also has a nice lefthanded stroke.

Top 25 Teams: (20) Louisville.

Other Projected Regional Teams

Houston: The Cougars made real progress in coach Todd Whitting's third season, cracking the Top 25 midway through the season for the first time since 2006 and flirting with a regional bid despite playing five to seven freshmen most games. Now those players are seasoned sophomores, and three of them are key cogs in the offense: sweet-swinging run producer Justin Montemayor and spark plugs Josh Vidales and Kyle Survance. Getting two physical seniors back from injury (Casey Grayson and Jacob Lueneburg) will provide a big boost, and three more quality seniors (Frankie Ratliff, Caleb Barker and Landon Appling) make this a deep lineup—and the AAC's best offense. The rotation has a potentially stellar one-two punch in So. RHP Jake Lemoine (who can pitch at 93-94 with a heavy sinker and mixes in a solid slider) and Jr. RHP Aaron Garza (a strike-thrower with an 88-91 fastball and outstanding command).

Ian Happ

Ian Happ (Photo by Tomasso DeRosa)

Notable Storylines: A brand-new conference whose champion will earn an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, the AAC is a blend of refugees from the Big East and Conference USA, with one former Atlantic 10 school (Temple) mixed in. Other than Louisville, the only AAC teams to make regionals in the last five years are Connecticut (2010, '11 and '13) and Central Florida (2011 and '12). The 2014 Knights have some upside but lots of question marks, as 24 newcomers this fall gave the roster an overhaul. UCF has two junior breakout candidates: LHP Eric Skoglund has a 6-foot-6 frame, an 89-93 fastball and a developing 80-84 slider, while SS Tommy Williams is a versatile, athletic defender who has added strength at the plate . . . UConn went just 9-15 in the Big East last year but caught fire in the conference tournament. The Huskies' strength this spring should be its experienced pitching staff, led by upperclassmen Anthony Marzi, Jordan Tabakman, Brian Ward and David Mahoney. But UConn suffered a blow this week when it announced that ace Carson Cross will have shoulder surgery and miss the season . . . South Florida must replace the No. 2 through No. 5 hitters in its lineup, leaving its offense as a question mark. Two sons of former big league catcher Pat Borders should help, as So. C Levi Borders rates as one of the team's top prospects for this year's draft, and brother Fr. OF Luke Borders was the team's best hitter in the fall. A veteran pitching staff is headlined by RHP Jimmy Herget, a freshman All-American last year, and Jr. RHP Casey Mulholland, whose three-pitch mix includes a fastball that flashes plus . . . Temple's first season in the AAC is likely to be its last, as the school announced it will cut the sport at the end of the season. Supporters are fighting to save it, but the odds look long. Meanwhile, four of Temple's top arms transferred to other schools this winter, leaving the Owls very thin on the mound.