On Campus: Biggest Questions Of Second Half

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The college baseball season has reached its midpoint, with regionals beginning eight weeks from today. It has been an eventful first half of the season so far, but there is plenty more baseball to be played. With that in mind, today we look at seven of the biggest questions to be answered in the season’s second half.

Q: Who are the national title contenders?

At the front of the pack is top-ranked Oregon State (25-1), which last lost in February and leads the nation with a 1.73 team ERA. Arizona (21-7), last season’s runner-up, again looks formidable with its potent offense. Clemson (25-5), Louisville (25-3) and North Carolina (23-6), a trio of Atlantic Coast Conference teams, all look the part. Florida (20-9) has the pitching for a sixth trip to the College World Series in 10 years under coach Kevin O’Sullivan. South Carolina (20-9) should as well, but hasn’t fired on all cylinders yet this season. Surprise Southeastern Conference division leaders Arkansas, Auburn and Kentucky still need to prove they can hold up for a whole season. Texas Christian (23-5) is eyeing a fourth straight trip to Omaha and Big 12 Conference rival Texas Tech (26-6) could make it three trips in four years. Both have the talent to win it all. Big West Conference archrivals Cal State Fullerton (18-10) and Long Beach State (17-11) have both been battle tested this season and won’t be phased by anything the postseason throws at them. St. John’s (21-3) has emerged as this season’s dark horse, if it can maintain its impressive start to the season.

Q:Will Oregon State enter the NCAA tournament as the No. 1 national seed?

The Beavers have certainly played like the No. 1 team in the country, running off 20 straight wins behind a deep, talented pitching staff and an explosive offense. They are No. 1 in RPI and are the first team to start Pacific-12 Conference play 9-0 since the league eliminated its division format in 1999. Oregon State has already opened a three-game lead in the Pac-12 over second-place UCLA and have already swept Arizona and Stanford, two of the league’s expected contenders. So all signs point to yes, Oregon State is in line to be the No. 1 national seed. The ACC champion, whether it is Clemson, Louisville or UNC, will likely be Oregon State’s biggest challenger, particularly UNC, which has played the second-hardest schedule in the country to this point. The Big 12 is the top RPI conference, and it’s champion could also get into the mix, as could the SEC champion, though many SEC contenders have work to do to improve their RPIs to that level.

Q:Can Arizona join Clemson football and North Carolina men’s basketball as teams to win a national title in 2017 after losing in the 2016 championship game?

The Wildcats have successfully reloaded following last year’s CWS runner-up performance. Freshmen such as third baseman Nick Quintana (.350/.444/.573, 4 HR) and lefthander Randy Labaut (1-0, 2.70) have made quick adjustments to the college game and returners such as J.J. Matijevic (.385/.431/.658, 5 HR) and lefthander Cameron Ming (4-0, 2.05) have taken on larger roles, while lefthander J.C. Cloney (6-0, 1.75) remains a force at the front of the rotation. Arizona has played the hardest schedule in the country so far, and, aside from a weekend in Corvallis, has navigated it well. The Wildcats’ pitching staff isn’t especially deep, but it wasn’t last year either. If Arizona can identify one or two more reliable arms in the second half, it could join Clemson’s and UNC’s redemption tour.

Q:Who will challenge Louisville first baseman/lefthander Brendan McKay to win College Player of the Year?

McKay looks every bit like the frontrunner for College Player of the Year, as he is hitting .409/.522/.659 with five home runs and is 4-1, 1.18 with 57 strikeouts and nine walks in 38 innings on the mound. He is positioning himself to be the first college player taken in the draft—and there is still no consensus on whether it will be as a hitter or a pitcher. But who else is in the race? Mississippi State first baseman Brent Rooker (.436/.524/.949, 12 HR, 14 SB) is challenging for the SEC’s triple crown, pushing him firmly into the race. UNC ace J.B. Bukauskas (5-0, 0.96, 70 K, 47 IP) has been nearly unhittable, as has Oregon State ace Luke Heimlich (5-0, 0.52). Virginia outfielder/lefthander Adam Haseley (.410/.507/.718, 9 HR, 7 SB; 4-1, 3.43) is a two-way standout in his own right.

Georgia Tech catcher Joey Bart, Missouri State third baseman Jake Burger, Texas Tech lefthander Steven Gingery, Vanderbilt outfielder Jeren Kendall, South Carolina righthander Clarke Schmidt, Virginia first baseman Pavin Smith and Auburn righthander Keegan Thompson all deserve mention as well.

Q:Is the Big 12 this year’s best conference?

The Big 12, much maligned in recent years, has come out of the gate swinging this year and ranks first in conference RPI. The SEC is No. 2, followed by the ACC and the Pac-12. The Big 12 only has three teams ranked in the Top 25 this week, while the SEC has seven and the ACC has six. But, in RPI, the ACC and Big 12 have three top 10 teams, while the SEC has only one (Florida). To this point, the nod has to be given to the Big 12, which also went 7-2 against the SEC at the Shriners Hospitals for Children College Classic in Houston. But teams such as Baylor and Oklahoma State will need to break out of their midseason malaises to keep the Big 12 ahead of the ACC and SEC in the second half.

Q:Which traditional powerhouse(s) will bounce back from disappointing starts to make the NCAA tournament?

Arizona State, Miami and Rice are all very much used to playing in regionals. In a year it was eligible, Arizona State last missed the NCAA tournament in 1999. Miami last missed in 1972 and Rice has made it every season since its first appearance in 1995. All three are in danger of not making the tournament this season, but none is out of it yet. All three still have top 100 RPIs and the games necessary to improve them. Rice (10-21) is in the most trouble, but also plays in the most wide open conference, which makes for an easier run in the conference tournament. Miami (12-16) seems most likely to get off the mat as its schedule lightens in the second half. Arizona State (12-15) has already played Oregon State, but still has a tough four-week stretch beginning in late April that includes series at Oregon and Washington and home series against Stanford and archrival Arizona. The Sun Devils will need a strong showing in that stretch.

Q:Who is this season’s Coastal Carolina?

A popular parlor game in the last year has been trying to identify the next Coastal. The reality is that part of the fun of the Chanticleers’ run to the national title last year was the rarity of such an occurrence, but there are some dark horses capable of making deep NCAA tournament runs this season. Florida Gulf Coast (24-7) and St. John’s (21-3) are two mid-majors who have started the season strong. FGCU has stumbled in the last week, losing four of five games, while St. John’s lost for the first time in a month. Still, the Red Storm do bear some resemblance to the Chanticleers. They also have a mature, veteran lineup and coach Ed Blankmeyer is battle-tested and well-respected like Coastal coach Gary Gilmore. And the Red Storm will be ready to go on the road in the NCAA Tournament, having spent the first month playing away from home. There’s also a chance this year’s Coastal is Coastal, which is heating up after a slow start. The Chanticleers have won seven of their last eight games and 10 of their last 13.

News and Notes

Atlantic Coast Conference: The ACC and NCAA announced this week that it will return championship events to North Carolina after the state repealed its controversial House Bill 2. The move clears the way for the ACC Tournament to return to Durham and the Division II College World Series to return to Cary next spring. The NCAA’s decision never affected regionals and super regionals. . . No. 23 Virginia again shuffled its rotation this weekend. Junior righthander Derek Casey (2-0, 2.01) has statistically been the Cavaliers’ best starter this season, but was pitching in midweek games. He will move to Friday night this week as Virginia hosts Pittsburg. Freshman righthander Noah Murdock (1-1, 5.93) made his rotation debut last Friday and moves to Saturday. Lefthander Adam Haseley remains on Sunday.

Big 12 Conference: Oklahoma righthander Jake Irvin, the Sooners’ Opening Day starter, returns to the rotation this weekend at Texas after missing the last two weeks. Irvin was a key part to the No. 9 Sooners’ strong start to the season, and is 5-0, 1.16 with 42 strikeouts and eight walks in 31 innings this season. . . Texas Christian senior righthander Mitchell Traver made his season debut Wednesday at Texas-Arlington. Traver, who has dealt with injuries throughout his college career, threw two scoreless innings in a 5-4 victory for the No. 3 Horned Frogs. He struck out four batters, allowed two hits and threw 37 pitches. If Traver can stay healthy in the second half, he would give TCU’s pitching staff a boost.

Big Ten Conference: No. 24 Maryland is 11-1 at home this year, possibly thanks in part to a squirrel that lives in Bob “Turtle” Smith Stadium. The Terrapins have named the squirrel, who has lived there for multiple years, Crumbs. Sophomore outfielder Mary Costes (.358/.450/.587, 6 HR), who is the team’s leading hitter, explained the situation on the Big Ten Network this week.

Pacific-12 Conference: With an 8-4 victory Wednesday against archrival California, Stanford coach Mark Marquess became the fourth Division I coach to reach 1,600 wins, joining Augie Garrido, Mike Martin and Gene Stephenson. Marquess’ milestone win came against Golden Bears coach David Esquer, who played and coached under Marquess at Stanford before taking over at Cal. Marquess is in his 41st and final season as head coach of his alma mater.

Southeastern Conference: No. 22 Mississippi State (20-11) has endured several injuries to its pitching staff, but the Bulldogs have found a formula that works. Lefthander Konnor Pilkington (2-3, 3.05) and righthander Peyton Plumlee (3-1, 3.67) have settled into the first two spots in the rotation, with outfielder/lefthander Jake Mangum (2-1, 4.72) moving into the Sunday spot in recent weeks. Behind them, the Bulldogs have an array of pitchers they can mix and match with to get to righthanders Spencer Price (3-1, 1.45, 9 SV) and Riley Self (4-0, 2.38) at the back of the bullpen. Coach Andy Cannizaro said pitching coach Gary Henderson got the young Bulldogs pitchers ready for the SEC season. “I want to give a ton of credit to Gary Henderson for developing these young arms,” Cannizaro said. “He does such a great job calling pitches, working in bullpen with guys and getting them to buy in.” . . . Missouri was one of several teams to run into travel problems this week as storms swept through the Southeast. The Tigers flight to Georgia was cancelled Wednesday, leaving them to scramble to get to Athens in time for Thursday’s series opener. They eventually landed in Georgia just a few hours before first pitch, which was pushed back to 9 p.m. Missouri lost, 3-0, in the series opener.

Other conferences: Following Central Florida’s 6-1 victory Sunday to clinch a series win against then-No. 23 Houston, coach Greg Lovelady got two tickets to Wrestlemania, which was happening that night in Orlando. He tweeted that going to Wrestlemania was a “life goal,” and the event did not disappoint. “It’s just a spectacle,” he said. “It’s amazing how much they put into this one night. It’s probably cooler to watch on TV in terms of the matches, but just the spectacle crowd was hilariously funny, some people how they dressed up. It’s crazy. It was just cool to be there.”

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