2016 College Conference Preview: Conference USA

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

Members: Alabama-Birmingham, Charlotte, Florida Atlantic, Florida International, Louisiana Tech, Marshall, Middle Tennessee State, Old Dominion, Rice, Southern Mississippi, Texas-San Antonio, Western Kentucky.
Team to Beat: Rice. The Owls’ streak of consecutive conference championships reached the full two decade mark last season, the 20th straight year they’ve won a regular-season and/or tournament title—in 2015’s case, it was also their sixth straight in the regular-season. Stretching the streak to 21 won’t come without challenges, but the Owls remain C-USA’s favorite. They have to replace two weekend starters, but big-armed righthander Jon Duplantier has returned to health after missing all of last season and senior lefty Blake Fox provides a steadying presence whenever he’s on the mound. The lineup has a chance to be more physical than last season even as Rice has to replace its top three hitters. Sophomores Dane Myers—a two-way player who could also pitch at the end of games—and Tristan Gray and freshman Ford Proctor all bring solid power potential to go with a core of quality hitters in outfielders Charlie Warren (.311/.384/.364) and Ryan Chandler (.302/.382/.379) and catcher Hunter Kopycinski (.309/.358/.342).
Other Projected Regional Teams
Southern Mississippi. The Golden Eagles have won at least 30 games in all six of coach Scott Berry’s seasons in charge, but they also haven’t been to regionals since 2011. They had C-USA’s best pitching staff last year (3.13 team ERA), but this year’s group figures to be more predicated on offense as they bring back four of their top six hitters while losing their top two weekend starters, including C-USA pitcher of the year James McMahon. Senior first baseman Tim Lynch is the ringleader, showing potential plus power from the left side (nine home runs in 2015), and USM will also look for a breakout year from junior catcher Chuckie Robinson.
Player of the Year: C.J. Chatham, ss, Florida Atlantic. A .323 career hitter through his first two seasons at FAU, the toolsy junior will be a driving force as the Owls try to get back to regionals for the third time in four years.
Pitcher of the Year: Jon Duplantier, rhp, Rice. Duplantier sat out the entire 2015 season with shoulder problems, leading him to go undrafted as an eligible sophomore. But he didn’t miss an outing in the fall and has looked strong in intersquads, topping out at 96 mph with a nice, hard curveball.
Freshman of the Year: Steven DiPuglia, ss, Western Kentucky. An unsigned 37th-round pick of the Nationals, DiPuglia’s a quality athlete with range and instincts for the shortstop position, where he should make an immediate contribution for the Hilltoppers.
Notable Storylines: Florida Atlantic had C-USA’s most punishing offense last season, leading the conference and ranking 22nd in the nation in scoring (6.8 runs per game). C-USA player of the year Brendon Sanger left in the draft, but plenty of firepower remains with the returns of Chatham, first baseman Esteban Puerta (.305/.432/.487, 7 HR), and outfielder Christian Dicks (.268/.374/.448, 8 HR). The offense should be good enough to give the Owls some margin for error while the pitching, which has to replace two starters and a closer, sorts itself out … Middle Tennessee State has been competitive in its first two seasons since coming over from the Sun Belt, finishing in fourth place in C-USA in both 2014 and 2015. They did it last year despite finishing 12th—dead last—in the conference in ERA (5.12). The Blue Raiders do expect to be better on the mound this year with seniors Nate Hoffmann and Tyler Troutt fronting the rotation, but they can take comfort in the return of standout outfielder Brad Jarreau (.338/.396/.380) and middle-of-the-order presence Kevin Dupree (.301/.426/.377) at first base. The up-the-middle defense should also be solid with Jarreau in center field, junior catcher Will Schnure and junior college transfer Riley Delgado at shortstop . . . Western Kentucky coach John Pawlowski was arrested in January and charged with a DUI, but that charge was recently dismissed. Otherwise it would’ve been an inauspicious start for the veteran coach’s first year at WKU, as he inherits a club that went just 10-19 in C-USA a season ago. They do expect to be improved though. Getting juniors Thomas Peter, a first baseman with power, and Zach Janes, a speedy center fielder, back from last year’s season-ending injuries will help, while DiPuglia and third baseman Danny Hudzina, who’s also the team’s best hitter, give them a pair of quality defenders on the left side of the infield.
Tournament: Eight teams, double-elimination, May 25-29 at Hattiesburg, Miss.
Best Pure Hitter: C.J. Chatham, Florida Atlantic
Best Raw Power: Esteban Tresgallo, Alabama-Birmingham
Best Strike-Zone Discipline: Esteban Puerta, Florida Atlantic
Best Athlete: Corey Bird, Marshall
Fastest Baserunner: Connor Myers, Old Dominion
Best Baserunner: Connor Myers, Old Dominion
Best Defensive C: Brent Diaz, Louisiana Tech
Catcher, Best Arm: Brent Diaz, Louisiana Tech
Best Defensive 1B: Connor Teykl, Rice
Best Defensive 2B: Grayson Lewis, Rice
Best Defensive 3B: Danny Hudzina, Western Kentucky
Best Defensive SS: C.J. Chatham, Florida Atlantic
Best Infield Arm: Tristan Gray, Rice
Best Defensive OF: Robert Fajardo, Marshall
Best Outfield Arm: Ryan Chandler, Rice
Best Fastball: Jon Duplantier, Rice
Best Breaking Ball: Nate Hoffmann, Middle Tennessee State
Best Changeup: Chase Boster, Marshall
Best Control: Blake Fox, Rice

1. Jon Duplantier, rhp, Rice
2. C.J. Chatham, ss, Florida Atlantic
3. Corey Bird, of, Marshall
4. Danny Hudzina, 3b, Western Kentucky
5. Ben Morrison, rhp, Western Kentucky
6. Blake Fox, lhp, Rice
7. Colyn O’Connell, rhp, Florida Atlantic
8. Cody Livingston, lhp, Southern Mississippi
9. Charlie Warren, of, Rice
10. Jake Winston, rhp, Southern Mississippi
11. Chuckie Robinson, c, Southern Mississippi
12. Sam Finfer, c, Marshall
13. Stephen Kerr, 2b, Florida Atlantic
14. Nate Hoffmann, rhp, Middle Tennessee State
15. J.D. Hammer, rhp, Marshall
16. Austin Solecitto, lhp, Rice
17. Christian Dicks, of, Florida Atlantic
18. Dylan Burdeaux, of, Southern Mississippi
19. Chris Mourelle, rhp, Florida International
20. Tim Lynch, 1b, Southern Mississippi
1. Glenn Otto, rhp, Rice
2. Tristan Gray, ss, Rice
3. Zach Rutherford, ss, Old Dominion
4. Alex House, rhp, Florida Atlantic
5. Ryan Chandler, of, Rice
6. Kaleb Duckworth, of, Western Kentucky
7. Dane Myers, 3b/rhp, Rice
8. Tyler Ratliff, 3b/rhp, Marshall
9. Brett Smith, rhp, Old Dominion
10. Jake Wyrick, lhp, Middle Tennessee State


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