Conference Tournament Previews
When: Tuesday to Sunday.
Where: Hoover Metropolitan Stadium, Hoover, Ala.
Participants: 12 teams (listed by seed) — Florida, Mississippi, Georgia, Arkansas, South Carolina, Vanderbilt, Auburn, Louisiana State, Mississippi State, Kentucky, Texas A&M, Missouri.
Format: Single-elimination play-in games followed by double-elimination bracket play feeding into single-elimination semifinals.
Top seed: Florida. The Gators have been the best team in the country all year and cruised to their second straight regular-season conference title. Florida last weekend hit a speed-bump when it had nothing to play for and was swept at Mississippi State, which was fighting for its postseason life. With the Gators now riding a four-game losing streak the question becomes how quickly can they turn it back on? Florida clearly has the talent to claim its second straight SEC Tournament title. The Gators are led by their impressive pitching staff that features starters Brady Singer (10-1, 2.25) and Jackson Kowar (9-3, 3.01), both of whom are likely first-round picks next month, and closer Michael Byrne (2-1, 2.06, 12 SV). They also have plenty of offensive firepower with third baseman Jonathan India (.365/.506/.730, 16 HR) and catcher J.J. Schwarz (.325/.404/.601, 12 HR) anchoring the lineup and shortstop Deacon Liput (.293/.372/.489, 7 HR) finding his groove at the top of the order. If the Gators are over their struggles from Starkville, they’ve already proven to be the conference’s most dangerous team.
Something to gain: Auburn, Vanderbilt. Much of the SEC has already sorted itself out for the most part. Florida, Mississippi, Georgia and Arkansas are projected to be top-eight seeds and don’t need to do much to hold onto those spots. The conference doesn’t currently have another projected host, but Auburn and Vanderbilt are capable of playing their way onto the host line. Auburn is the best positioned to do so thanks to its top-15 RPI, but Vanderbilt isn’t far behind. Both the Tigers and Commodores must first win their play-in games Tuesday. Auburn likely would only need one more win after that, while Vanderbilt needs to be playing in Saturday’s semifinals.
Desperation time: Kentucky, Missouri, Texas A&M. All three teams have built impressive resumes—except for their conference records. The Tigers went 12-18 in the SEC and need to play for the championship, if not win the automatic bid, to reach regionals. Kentucky and Texas A&M have easier paths thanks to top-25 RPIs and going 13-17 in conference play. Still, both must win their play-in game Tuesday and then need at least one and probably two more wins. It’s a tall order, but both teams have the talent to make a run in Hoover.
When: Wednesday to Sunday.
Where: Chickasaw Bricktown Ballpark, Oklahoma City, Okla.
Participants: Eight teams (listed by seed) — Texas, Oklahoma State, Texas Tech, Oklahoma, Baylor, Texas Christian, West Virginia, Kansas
Top seed: Texas. The Longhorns took an unconventional path to the Big 12 title, clinching its first such title since 2011 in a drama-filled final weekend. Junior second baseman Kody Clemens (.344/.437/.703, 19 HR) played the role of hero, as he’s done for the most of the season, and he leads an offense that has found its groove over the final stretch of the season. Redshirt freshman Zach Zubia (.293/.430/.538, 10 HR) and shortstop David Hamilton (.308/.422/.495) add protection around Clemens. Pitching, as is often the case at Texas, is a clear strength for the Longhorns. Ace Nolan Kingham (7-2, 4.21) has had some inconsistency this spring, but he is coming off a complete-game victory over TCU and gives Texas a durable horse, while Andy McGuire (2.20, 7 SV) has been steady in the back of the bullpen. At No. 14 in the RPI, the Longhorns are a lock to host, but they could potentially play their way into the national seed discussion this week.
Something to gain: Oklahoma State, Texas Tech, Oklahoma, Baylor. The Cowboys led the Big 12 up until the final weekend, and after getting swept by Texas Tech, their hosting chances look slim. That could change with a Big 12 tournament title, which these Cowboys won a year ago. Texas Tech has an odd resume at No. 5 in the RPI but in third place in the Big 12. The Red Raiders could potentially earn a national seed with or without a strong tournament, but a strong tournament would certainly help. Oklahoma and Baylor are out of the hosting race and should be fairly safe for at-large bids, but they can secure their respective statuses and perhaps improve their seeding with good showings.
Desperation time: TCU, West Virginia, Kansas. After making four straight trips to Omaha, the injury-ravaged Horned Frogs will need to fight just to make the NCAA Tournament this year. Getting swept by Texas last weekend did TCU no favors. At 10-13 in the conference and No. 64 in the RPI, the Frogs will need to make a deep push and may need to win the tournament to ultimately get in. West Virginia and Kansas both flashed glimpses of being regional teams throughout the season, but neither has an at-large case at this point. They’ll need to play for the auto-bid.
Atlantic Coast Conference
When: Tuesday to Sunday.
Where: Durham Bulls Athletic Park, Durham, N.C.
Participants: 12 teams (listed by seed) — North Carolina, Clemson, North Carolina State, Duke, Louisville, Florida State, Miami, Georgia Tech, Wake Forest, Virginia, Notre Dame, Pittsburgh
Format: Pool play.
Top seed: North Carolina. The Tar Heels overcame a 7-7 start to the season to surge to the top of the ACC standings and claim the regular season title on the season’s final day. The No. 2 overall seed in last year’s NCAA Tournament, the Tar Heels should be a national seed lock with the No. 6 RPI in the country. UNC is a balanced club with both offensive and pitching depth. Sophomore first baseman Michael Busch (.305/.450/.502, 11 HR) and junior third baseman Kyle Datres (.344/.435/.493) have paced the Tar Heels offensively, and the emergence of outfielder Brandon Riley and sophomore Ashton McGee in recent weeks has made the UNC lineup all the more potent. On the mound, UNC lost ace righthander Gianluca Dalatri just two starts into the season, but Dalatri returned in the season’s final game, giving the Tar Heels a huge boost heading into the postseason. In Dalatri’s absence, junior righthander Cooper Criswell (4-2, 2.84) claimed the Friday night role and excelled. Sophomore righthanders Tyler Baum (4-1, 4.62) and Austin Bergner (6-2, 4.41) have been inconsistent, but both have the stuff to dominate hitters on any given night. The staff’s strength is its bullpen, led by versatile closer Josh Hiatt, senior righthander Brett Daniels and hard-throwing freshman Joey Lancellotti.
Something to gain: N.C. State, Duke, Louisville, Florida State. The Wolfpack and the Seminoles should be fairly secure in their hosting status, but both teams could conceivably push themselves into the national-seed discussion with a strong tournament or a tournament title. FSU sits at No. 10 in the RPI and N.C. State at No. 14, giving both teams plausible paths to a top-eight seed. Duke’s hosting status is a little shakier, especially coming off a series loss to Georgia Tech in the final weekend. The Blue Devils are within RPI range at No. 17, but they could use a win or two in the tournament to firm up their chances. Louisville is on the outside looking in for a hosting nod and, at No. 27 in the RPI, would have to make a sizable jump. If the Cardinals won the tournament, however, they’d almost certainly host.
Desperation time: Miami, Georgia Tech, Wake Forest, Virginia. Miami and Georgia Tech are the least desperate of this foursome, but as it stands neither club is on track to earn an at-large. Sitting at No. 46 in the RPI but 14-16 in the ACC, Georgia Tech could greatly help its at-large chances with a good showing. Miami, at No. 63 in the RPI and only two games over .500 (27-25), will need a deeper push to make the NCAA Tournament in head coach Jim Morris’ final year. Wake Forest and Virginia have played themselves into deep holes and would need to win the tournament to advance to regionals. The same holds true for the teams seeded below them.
Off The Bat: ACC Depth Stands Out, Pac-12 Teams Make Big Moves
The ACC this weekend staked its claim as the deepest conference in the country, while some Pac-12 teams gathered early momentum.
American Athletic Conference
When: Tuesday to Sunday.
Where: Spectrum Field, Clearwater, Fla.
Participants: Eight teams (listed by seed) — Houston, South Florida, Connecticut, East Carolina, Central Florida, Cincinnati, Wichita State, Tulane.
Top seed: Houston. The Cougars had little margin for error in their climb up the AAC standings, but they weren’t fazed. They swept then-conference leader ECU on the road and won a series against UConn on the road down the stretch to solidify first place. The Cougars’ No. 48 RPI gives them little hope of hosting, but whether they host or not, the Cougars will be a dangerous club in the postseason. Houston has a stellar lefthanded one-two punch at the top of its rotation in the form of Trey Cumbie (6-3, 3.46) and Aaron Fletcher (6-2, 1.86), both of whom give the Cougars a chance to win on any given weekend. Third baseman Jared Triolo (.360/.437/.477) is the team’s leading hitter, while thick-bodied junior Joe Davis packs most of the power (.296/.362/.466, 7 HR).
Something to gain: South Florida, UConn, ECU, UCF. South Florida (No. 22 RPI), UConn (No. 19 RPI) and ECU (No. 13 RPI) all have RPIs within hosting range, and any of the three could come away with a hosting nod depending on which team rises to the top this week. ECU would seem to have the strongest case, although a No. 4 seed in the AAC and series losses to Houston, South Florida and UConn hold the Pirates back. That could change over the next few days. UCF likely would need to make the championship or win the tournament to host, but the Knights appear safely in the at-large conversation.
Desperation Time: Cincinnati, Wichita State, Tulane. None of these teams have at-large cases. Wichita State at one point did and still has a respectable No. 49 RPI, but the Shockers are hamstrung by a 9-14 conference record. It’s do-or-die for all three teams this week.
When: Wednesday to Sunday.
Where: TD Ameritrade Park, Omaha.
Participants: Eight teams (listed by seed) — Minnesota, Purdue, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Ohio State, Michigan State.
Top seed: Minnesota. The Golden Gophers have won two of the last three Big Ten regular-season titles and this year rolled through the conference. They are the only Power Five conference team not to have lost a conference series this year and have likely already done enough to host a regional for the first time since 2000. Minnesota has a deep, experienced lineup led by shortstop Terrin Vavra (.387/.455/.618, 9 HR). With seniors such as Luke Pettersen (.327/.415/.410, 11 SB) and Micah Coffey (.293/.371/.429) also producing solid seasons, the Gophers are a formidable offense. They aren’t as experienced on the mound, but closer Max Meyer (1-2, 1.60, 14 SV) and starters Reggie Meyer (6-3, 3.03) and Patrick Fredrickson (8-0, 1.80) have stepped into significant roles this season and impressed. The Gophers don’t have many weaknesses and aren’t going to beat themselves, two qualities that will serve them well throughout the postseason.
Something to gain: Indiana, Michigan. Could Indiana host if it captures the Big Ten Tournament title? It doesn’t seem like a scenario that’s out of the realm of possibility. The Hoosiers have a solid non-conference schedule and rank in the top 25 in RPI. Getting on a roll in Omaha could push Indiana up to the host line. Michigan, meanwhile, is trying to play its way into the field. The Wolverines got back into the tournament picture thanks to a 20-game winning streak that helped them overcome a slow start to the season. But they haven’t won a series against a projected tournament team and are a bit light in some metrics, including RPI. A few wins in Omaha can change that outlook.
Desperation time: Iowa, Michigan State. This is a familiar place for the Hawkeyes, which went into last year’s Big Ten Tournament needing to win it to advance to regionals and did so. Iowa appeared to have raised itself off the bubble three weeks ago with a series win against Oklahoma State, only to fall back out of the field when it lost a series at Northwestern, a weekend that crushed its RPI. Outside of their No. 66 RPI, the Hawkeyes have a solid resume, but they may have left themselves with too much work to do, short of repeating as tournament champions. Michigan State is in clear must-win territory with a 20-30 record.