2014 College Preview: Conference USA

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

1. Jeff Hoffman, rhp, East Carolina
2. Zech Lemond, rhp, Rice
3. Aramis Garcia, c, Florida International
4. Mason Robbins, of, Southern Mississippi
5. Austin Gomber, lhp, Florida Atlantic
6. Jordan Stephens, rhp, Rice
7. Bradley Roney, rhp/3b, Southern Mississippi
8. Skyler Ewing, 1b/c, Rice
9. David Lucroy, rhp, East Carolina
10. Randy LeBlanc, rhp, Tulane
11. John Clay Reeves, c, Rice
12. Ryan Butler, rhp, Charlotte
13. Mitchell Morales, ss, Florida Atlantic
14. Tyler Bolton, rhp, East Carolina
15. Michael Aquino, of, Rice
16. Connor Barron, of, Southern Mississippi
17. Drew Jackson, rhp, Florida Atlantic
18. Ryan Yarbrough, lhp, Old Dominion
19. Connor Fisk, rhp, Southern Mississippi
20. Tyler Rocklein, of, Florida Atlantic
1. Edwin Rios, 2b, Florida International
2. Jon Duplantier, rhp, Rice
3. Leon Byrd, ss, Rice
4. Connor Myers, of, Old Dominion
5. Kevin McCanna, rhp, Rice

Conference USA

Baseball Members (First Year): Alabama-Birmingham (1996), Charlotte (2014), East Carolina (2002), Florida Atlantic (2014), Florida International (2014), Louisiana Tech (2014), Marshall (2006), Middle Tennessee State (2014), Old Dominion (2014), Rice (2006), Southern Mississippi (1996), Tulane (1996), Texas-San Antonio (2014).

Checking out: Central Florida (to American Athletic), Houston (to AAC), Memphis (to AAC).

Conference Tournament: Eight teams, double-elimination. May 21-25 at Southern Miss.

Team to Beat: Rice.

Ace Jordan Stephens and stopper Zech Lemond carried the Owls to a super regional last year, and both are back to lead the staff, while the balanced lineup has some speed and some power.

Player of the Year: Aramis Garcia, c, Florida International.

A physical slugger who mashed 11 home runs a year ago, Garcia is also a good receiver with a plus arm and excellent leadership qualities behind the plate.

Pitcher of the Year: Jeff Hoffman, rhp, East Carolina.

The No. 2 prospect for the 2014 draft entering the season, Hoffman's four-pitch arsenal includes two double-plus offerings—a 94-97 heater and a 79-84 hammer curve.

Freshman of the Year: Jake Rogers, c, Tulane.

Physically and mentally mature beyond his years, Rogers is an athletic backstop with promising catch-and-throw skills and righthanded pop in his bat.

Top 25 Teams: (15) Rice.

Other Projected Regional Teams

Jeremy Strawn

Jeremy Strawn (Photo by Alyson Boyer Rode)

Florida Atlantic:  After pushing No. 1 national seed North Carolina to the limit in the Chapel Hill Regional last year, FAU heads into its first Conference USA season brimming with confidence. The Owls have a strong one-two punch on the mound, as Jr. LHP Austin Gomber works downhill with a fastball that reaches 93 and fifth-year Sr. RHP Jeremy Strawn has loads of experience and moxie. But replacing closer Hugh Adams won't be easy; FAU will look first to athletic Sr. RHP Kevin Alexander to handle that duty. Slugger Tyler Rocklein and leading hitter Brendon Sanger are back to anchor the lineup while Sr. C Levi Meyer and slick-fielding Jr. SS Mitchell Morales are the leaders of the defense.

East Carolina: For all his electric stuff, Hoffman went just 6-7 last year, and he must mature into a dominant Friday ace as a junior. If he does, ECU's rotation should be outstanding, as Jr. RHP David Lucroy (the brother of big league catcher Jonathan Lucroy) should be a rock-solid No. 2 starter with good command of a fastball that reaches 93 and three quality secondary offerings. Fr. RHP Davis Kirkpatrick and Jr. RHP Tyler Bolton (the No. 2 prospect in the Coastal Plain League last year) give ECU two more good starting options, and two-way star Drew Reynolds gives the bullpen a shut-down stopper. With leading home run hitter Chase McDonald gone, Sr. 3B Zach Houchins must emerge as the lineup's primary power threat. And most importantly, freshman Kirk Morgan has to fill stalwart Jack Reinheimer's shoes at shortstop.

Southern Mississippi: USM's third-ranked 2011 recruiting class has yet to help the Golden Eagles make a regional, but the coaches are optimistic they are ready to do so as juniors. The biggest name in that class out of high school was unsigned third-round pick Connor Barron, who is finally completely healthy, has found a home in the outfield and looks poised to bring power to the middle of the lineup. Jr. 3B/RHP Bradley Roney has the most raw power on the team and also has nasty stuff off the mound, making him the likely closer once again. The Eagles also have a gifted pure hitter in Jr. OF Mason Robbins, but question marks abound in the infield and behind the plate. Bulldog Sr. RHP Conor Fisk is the only returnee to the rotation, and Southern Miss expects the bullpen to be the strength of the staff.

Notable Storylines: Conference USA gets a dramatic makeover this year, with three schools leaving and seven schools entering. The net effect should leave C-USA stronger, as FIU and FAU were powers in the Sun Belt, and Charlotte was a force in the A-10. The Panthers figure to be very offensive in 2014, led by the slugging trio of Garcia and infielders Edwin Rios and Josh Anderson, who combined for 27 long balls last year. Smooth-fielding SS Julius Gaines brings speed, along with OFs Roche Woodard and Tyler Hibbert, giving FIU a multi-faceted attack. Jr. RHP Mike Franco, who flashes 94 mph heat, must emerge as a Friday ace . . . Hard-throwing righties coming off Tommy John surgery will be key for Charlotte and Tulane. Ryan Butler, a juco transfer for the 49ers, generated buzz this fall with a 93-94 mph fastball that touched 96 and the makings of a plus changeup, but his feel for pitching is still a work in progress. Tulane's Randy LeBlanc ran his heater up to 94 and showed a superb changeup and improved breaking ball this fall. Fellow righties Alex Massey, Tyler Mapes, J.P. France, Kyle McKenzie and Ian Gibaut also showed 90-plus fastballs in the fall, and if they can all stay healthy, the Green Wave should be outstanding on the mound. Dynamic freshmen Jake Rogers and Stephen Alemais and lightning-fast So. OF Richard Carthon should make Tulane strong up the middle.