HOOVER, Ala.—Conference tournaments are in full swing, and before we look at how Wednesday's action affected the NCAA tournament picture, here are a few observations from the two evening games at the SEC tournament.
• Kentucky has had to overcome injuries to two of its best arms this spring, as Kyle Cody and Chandler Shepherd missed 21 days apiece. That duo combined to hold Florida to a pair of runs in Wednesday's 4-2 win, giving the surging Wildcats plenty of reason for optimism heading into the NCAA tournament.
It was a long road back for Cody, a projected weekend starter who eased his way back to action over the course of 12 relief appearances, then threw 4.1 shutout innings in his first SEC start last week against Georgia. The hulking sophomore righthander earned the win Tuesday with 5.1 strong innings of work, allowing two runs on four hits and a walk while striking out four. When we saw him opening weekend in Wilmington, Cody worked at 90-91 mph, but Wednesday he showed more of the big velocity UK coaches were raving about in the fall. His fastball sat at 90-93 and bumped 94-96, and his breaking ball showed promise, sometimes showing bigger break at 74-75 and landing for a strike, other times showing tighter spin and more power at 77-78.
"He's back to what we thought he was going to do at the beginning of the year," Kentucky coach Gary Henderson said. "I think that's a shot of adrenaline for the kids, and the program. That's the kind of outing that Kyle is capable of having for the team. I'm really happy for Kyle and all of us. It's been quite the tip-toe getting him back. It's just been very cautious, an inning at a time, don't throw any breaking balls for six weeks."
Shepherd also began the season as a starter but seems brings some stability to the bullpen; he was able to make big pitches with runners on base to thwart Florida rallies, prompting Henderson to laud him for his poise.
The Wildcats are one of the nation's most explosive offensive teams, and with Cody and Shepherd back at full strength, they look like a balanced club that could make a deep postseason run.
• Mississippi State is also peaking at the right time, as it showed in a 12-0 throttling of South Carolina that was shortened to seven innings by the run rule. Brett Pirtle's three-run homer in the seventh broke open a 4-0 game, highlighting an eight-run inning.
But junior lefthander Jacob Lindgren stole the show for the Bulldogs. He entered with two on and no outs in the third inning and proceeded to shut down the South Carolina rally with a groundout and two strikeouts. He retired all 12 batters he faced over four sterling innings of work, striking out six. Lindgren's stuff was simply electric: he worked at 92-94 with runners on base in the third before dialing it back to 90-92 in subsequent innings, and his slider was unhittable, an 82-84 mph wipeout pitch that bumped 86. He back-footed it against righthanded hitters but also got several righties to chase it down and away, unusual for a lefthanded slider with so much tilt. Lindgren has just three saves—Jonathan Holder is still the closer, of course—but the lefty has an awfully strong case for an All-America reliever spot. He is now 6-1, 0.88 with 93 strikeouts and 21 walks in 51 innings—an incredible 16.4 strikeout per nine innings rate.
"It's just not surprising because he's done it all year," MSU coach John Cohen said. "The game's in the balance and he wants the ball."
MSU coach John Cohen went out of his way to also praise freshman catcher Gavin Collins for handling Lindgren's nasty slider when he buried it, helping the pitcher throw it with confidence.
Results With At-Large Implications
• The top two seeds in the Missouri Valley Conference tournament, Evansville and Indiana State, both went 0-2 in the tournament, as the Aces lost 8-6 to Wichita State, and the Sycamores were blasted by Missouri State, 9-1. Evansville's season is over; the Purple Aces have tumbled all the way to No. 74 in the RPI, so their regular-season crown won't preserve their at-large hopes. The Sycamores remain No. 23 and remain in great shape for an at-large spot. If Dallas Baptist (which won its first game Tuesday and led Bradley 6-4 in the seventh inning Wednesday before play was suspended) can win the conference tournament, the Valley will be a two-bid league. Other bubble teams need to root for that outcome, because if another team wins the MVC, it could get three bids, with Evansville as another potential at-large team.
• San Diego State got off to a good start in the Mountain West tournament, blasting San Jose State 15-1. At No. 47 in the RPI and as the third-place team in the MWC, the Aztecs could use a couple more wins to shore up their at-large case, but right now they remain in decent shape.
• Top-seeded Western Carolina lost its SoCon tournament opener, 3-2 against Furman. If the Catamounts can't make a run through the loser's bracket and win the tournament, the SoCon should become a two-bid league, because the Catamounts have a solid at-large case.
• Top-seeded Sam Houston State won its Southland conference opener, 10-4. The Bearkats are an at-large lock, so bubble teams need to root for them to win the tournament.
• More good news for bubble teams: Louisiana-Lafayette won its Sun Belt opener, 7-3. If the Cajuns win the tourney, the Sun Belt will get just one bid.
• Conference USA favorite Rice won its tournament opener 9-2 over Florida International. But the other top at-large contender in C-USA, Old Dominion, lost to Middle Tennessee State, 3-2. The Monarchs dropped four spots to No. 41 in the RPI, and as the fourth-place team in the league, an 0-2 showing could potentially knock them out of at-large position, making C-USA a one-bid league. Stay tuned.
• The Big Ten's two at-large locks both won Wednesday, as Indiana beat Iowa 5-2 and Nebraska topped Ohio State 7-6. But bubble team Illinois lost to Michigan State, 2-1. The Illini need to bounce back with a couple of wins to keep their at-large hopes in decent shape.
• The Big 12's lone bubble team, West Virginia, earned a desperately needed win against third-seeded Kansas, 10-9. At No. 29 in the RPI, the Mountaineers remain in the thick of the at-large race, but another couple of wins would help erase the bad taste of their regular season-ending seven-game losing streak.
• In the ACC, bubble teams Georgia Tech and Clemson won, while North Carolina lost. The Tar Heels and Yellow Jackets are probably safe regardless, but the Tigers need every win they can get, starting with Wednesday's 5-3 victory against Duke, which moved them up just one spot to No. 50 in the RPI. Georgia Tech's 6-3 win against top-seeded Miami should cement the Jackets' place in the field of 64. Miami needs to avoid a poor showing in its next two games against Clemson and Duke to keep itself in strong national seed position; an 0-3 showing would be very costly.
Results With National Seed Implications
• Both teams battling for a second (and potentially third) national seed out of the SEC lost Wednesday, as the aforementioned Gamecocks were blasted by Mississippi State, while Mississippi lost to Arkansas, 2-1. The team that bounces back for a better showing in Hoover might have the inside track; stay tuned.
• The wins by Indiana and Louisiana-Lafayette kept both of those teams in good shape for national seeds.
Results With Hosting Implications
• As we see it, six teams are currently battling for the final two hosting spots, and four of them won Wednesday, while Louisville was idle. Louisiana State run-ruled Vanderbilt, 11-1. Rice, as mentioned above, also won easily. Those are the last two hosts in our latest Stock Report from Tuesday morning, and they held their ground.
• Houston (No. 9 in the RPI) beat Temple 3-0 in its AAC opener. The Cougars have a strong case but could use a deep run in the conference tournament to offset their third-place finish in the regular season.
• The lone host candidate to lose Wednesday was Texas Tech, which was knocked off by Texas, 8-3. The Longhorns could sneak back into the hosting mix with a strong run, because they are No. 10 in the RPI and 16-12 against the top 50. But they have plenty of work left to do this week to overcome their sluggish finish and fifth-place showing in the Big 12.