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2004 Conference Tournament Preview
By Will Kimmey
There's not a much more exciting time of the college season that right now. It's like the weeks leading up to Christmas or Hanukah or Festivus--the anticipation rises each day. Look at what's just ahead: Regional site selections are announced at 3:10 p.m. ET on Sunday. The 64-team field gets unveiled Monday at noon ET. (Both events are on ESPN, by the way.) And then the race to Omaha officially begins next Friday with regional play.
For those of you who like to open your presents early, we've got a regional field projection, and then there are this week's conference tournaments, most of which begin today.
These games are a nice appetizer for the upcoming main dish. The only hope here is that a bad oyster Rockefeller doesn't spoil the prime rib. Or, more clearly, some team doesn't gun through its pitching staff to win its conference title and end up with nothing left once regionals start.
In many cases teams must win at least four games in four days to take home the conference crown. Battling out of the loser's bracket could mean seven games in five days in leagues like the Big 12 and SEC. Pitchers aren't accustomed to this type of workload during the regular season, when a normal week includes a three-game weekend series and a midweek game or two. Relievers who work an inning or two early in the week generally get a day or two off between appearances. Not so in the postseason, as teams often have to play two games in a day late into the proceedings.
"Pitching is the thing that jumps out at you the most," said Minnesota coach Frank Anderson, whose team won the Big 10 regular-season title. "It's not as likely you're going to out-slug somebody than it is to limit scoring opportunities. Depth is important unless you get lucky and you have three or four guys pitch deep into games. But how often does that happen?"
Coaches will have two alternatives. Hope that their best arms can keep getting outs on shorter than normal rest, or go to less proven pitchers who might not have worked as many innings during the regular season.
The choices could end up being based on just how important the win is. Some coaches might feel secure in their team's chances at regionals or seeding there and not take risks with bringing starters back on short rest. Others don't have that luxury and need to win just to make the NCAAs.
"I don't necessarily think we're a lock for anything," said Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin, whose team went 39-16, 16-14. "We just have to continue to play well and do our job. I think if the tournament didn't mean anything then they wouldn't have it."
Certainly, pitching depth will serve as a major key, along with not allowing big innings to the opponent--which can quickly rip through a pitching staff in one game.
Even coaches with the deeper staffs can be a bit worried. South Carolina developed depth when junior righthander Billy Buckner's mononucleosis forced freshman lefty Arik Hempy into the rotation. Hempy proved his skill as an SEC starter, and Buckner's return last week gives the Gamecocks four quality starters heading into the postseason.
"This one is pretty deep right now," South Carolina's Ray Tanner said. "We haven't been deep throughout. If we get deep into the tournament that might give us an edge. I hope we can get deep into the tournament and get a chance to use some of those guys."
AROUND THE NATION
Tanner's 12th-ranked South Carolina team enters what should be an interesting SEC tournament in Hoover, Ala. It begins Wednesday and includes six ranked teams, all of which have a shot at serving as a regional host. So each needs some kind of good showing to avoid being the odd team out in a league that realistically can expect to provide four host sites. The Gamecocks open against No. 13 Mississippi. No. 8 Arkansas, the eight-team tournament's top seed, faces Tennessee. No. 3 Louisiana State didn't play Florida during the regular season, but gets a crack at the No. 21 Gators now with sophomore righthander Justin Meier a surprise starter for LSU against junior righthander Justin Hoyman, the league's pitcher of the year. And Vanderbilt faces No. 11 Georgia, a team the Commodores swept at home to open conference play.
Birmingham-Southern dethroned Coastal Carolina in the Big South Conference this year by winning a league-record 21 conference games to earn the top seed in the league tournament. The Panthers should feel safe in regard to an NCAA bid even if they don't win the tournament. A strong RPI and decent Big South tourney showing should give Birmingham-Southern, which faces sixth-seeded Charleston Southern on Wednesday, a bid in its first year of postseason eligibility.
That said, the Big South likely gets two bids, with Winthrop and Coastal Carolina the front-runners for the other spot. Winthrop, the tournament's host team in Rock Hill, S.C., finished tied for second in the league with Coastal Carolina, but gets the second seed and a date with North Carolina-Asheville. Coastal plays Radford.
The Big East tournament, held in Bridgewater, N.J., for the fifth straight year, features four teams with legitimate regional aspirations in a league that's not likely to get more than three bids. No. 7 Notre Dame, the top seed, plays Boston College while St. John's plays Pittsburgh. That ND-BC game will feature two of the nation's best righthanders and top 100 draft prospects in Grant Johnson and Chris Lambert.
The first team eliminated from this tournament might also be the first eliminated from a berth in next week's tournament. Play starts Thursday.
The six best teams in the Colonial Athletic Association gather in Wilmington, N.C., from Wednesday to Saturday. Top-seeded George Mason faces Delaware. North Carolina-Wilmington looks like the most likely team to get a second bid from the league, and it faces Old Dominion, which it just took two of three from last weekend. The other matchup features Virginia Commonwealth against William & Mary, which enters the tournament with eight straight wins.
The Atlantic Coast Conference tournament takes place in Salem, Va., which would be a great place for the event if Virginia Tech was in the league this year. But when the Hokies join the ACC in 2005, the league tournament shifts down to Jacksonville, Fla. Among teams actually in the conference, No. 10 Georgia Tech takes the nation's longest winning streak at 17 games into the tournament as the top seed. On Wednesday, the Yellow Jackets face Maryland, which beat Wake Forest last night in the play-in game, then oppose the Clemson-North Carolina winner the next day.
North Carolina State plays Florida State, the No. 3 seed, in a game between two teams trying to improve their positioning in regionals. The Seminoles still have a shot at serving as a host because of a top 15 RPI, third-place league finish and six straight wins entering the event. The Wolfpack probably sealed their invitation to the postseason by winning two of three at North Carolina last weekend, but could assure itself of a No. 2 seed rather than a 3 with a good showing. No. 18 Virginia, the second seed, and Duke join the two States on that side of the bracket.
Minnesota plays host to the Big 10 tournament for the third straight year. Ohio State has won the event both times, so the Golden Gophers would like to reverse that trend. No team has won both the season and tournament titles since the Buckeyes did so in 1995.
Minnesota faces the lowest seed that advances from the Wednesday games between Michigan State and Purdue, and Michigan and Penn State. Ohio State gets the higher-seeded club.
The tournament should be pretty wide open," Ohio State coach Bob Todd said. "When you came down to last to the last two weekends of the Big Ten race (and) there were still four or five teams competing for the regular season title, it is evident that it is a tightly bunched league. The other thing that was highly unusual that the conference schedule made it to the last weekend without losing a game to rain."
One of the Saturday games will be televised by CSTV, but we don't know yet who will play or the time of that game. Guess you'll have to check those local listings and stay tuned.
No. 6 East Carolina should have a host spot locked down even before the Conference USA tournament begins Wednesday in Houston. The Pirates play Louisville, which earned a dramatic sweep at South Florida last weekend just to get into the event. Houston is the team to watch here. The host Cougars open against Texas Christian and are a game over .500 heading in. They must finish over that mark to be eligible for the NCAA field. With a top 50 RPI, it says here Houston's in if it goes just 2-2 in the event. The Cougars got a bid under similar circumstances with a 29-28 record in 2001.
Second-seeded Tulane plays Alabama-Birmingham, and the nation's No. 19 team probably needs to win the darn thing if it wants to play host to a regional next week. The league's other ranked team, No. 24 Southern Mississippi, faces Memphis.
Maine is holding the America East tournament at its home park, and that might give the Black Bears an edge in a tight race. (In fact, Maine has put in a bid to be a regional host, which it last did in 1991.) They finished tied for second with Albany, their first-round opponent in the four-team event, at 14-7. Northeastern won the regular-season with a 14-6 record and will face Stony Brook.
Middle Tennessee State and South Alabama tied for the Sun Belt's regular-season title, and the Blue Raiders get the top seed in this week's eight-team tournament because they beat the Jaguars twice during the regular season. So MTSU faces Arkansas State while South Alabama gets Western Kentucky, but the Jags still get a bone (or whatever jaguars like to chew on) in that they are playing the role of host in this year's tournament. Middle Tennessee State, meanwhile, looks like the only Sun Belt team that could grab an at-large bid in the tournament, if it fails to win the automatic berth. Other games feature Louisiana-Lafayette against New Mexico State and New Orleans against Florida International.
Loyola Marymount posted the West Coast Conference's best record at 20-7 to win the Coast Division title. LMU gets home-field advantage against West winner Pepperdine (17-10) in the best-of-three series because the Lions won the regular-season series against the Wave. Pepperdine has appeared in the WCC title series in all six years of its existence, but won only in 2001.
Lamar won the Southland Conference regular-season crown for the second straight year and 10th time overall and gets the top seed in the six-team league tournament, where it opens play Wednesday against Texas-San Antonio. Northwestern State has the second seed and plays Louisiana-Monroe, while third-seeded Texas State goes against Texas-Arlington. The action takes place at Alumni Field in Hammond, La., the home of Southeastern Louisiana, which was one of three 11-16 teams that tied for seventh in the league and missed the tournament.
The Southern Conference plays its tournament in Charleston, S.C., so it's sort of a home weekend for top-seeded College of Charleston, which faces Western Carolina on Wednesday, and third-seeded The Citadel (the tourney's host), which plays East Tennessee State. Georgia Southern plays Davidson and Elon faces North Carolina-Greensboro in the other game. It's hard to see this as anything more than a one-bid league, but College of Charleston certainly would have a great argument at 42-12, 25-5 if it doesn't win the tourney.
The Big 12 Tournament takes place at the Ballpark in Arlington, a place that hasn't seen postseason baseball in some time, thanks to the Rangers. Nebraska enters the event as the eighth seed seeking to avoid the same fate. The Huskers lost their last seven league series and probably need to win this thing to write NCAA next to their 2004 season. That task won't be easy, not with No. 1 Texas as Nebraska's opening-round opposition.
Baylor is in a similar water vessel. The Bears got swept away at Texas Tech last weekend to fall two games under .500. If they can't go 5-2 this weekend, starting against those same No. 22 Red Raiders, it's over.
No. 17 Oklahoma finished second in the league and faces surprise seventh seed Missouri, which swept Oklahoma State last weekend to hop over Nebraska in the standings. The Cowboys finished fourth as a result and play No. 23 Texas A&M.
Austin Peay State earned the top seed in the Ohio Valley Conference tournament, which begins Wednesday at Brooks Stadium in Paducah, Ky. The Governors face sixth-seeded Samford, which is no patsy as it won 15 of its last 16 conference games. Eastern Illinois faces Southeast Missouri State, and Eastern Kentucky plays Jacksonville State.
San Diego State needed two New Mexico wins over Nevada-Las Vegas last weekend to captured the Mountain West title and got them. So Tony Gwynn's crew heads to Las Vegas for the league tourney as the top seed. The Aztecs and Lobos each earn first-round byes as the action opens with UNLV playing Air Force, which has lost 33 straight games. Brigham Young plays Utah in the other game.
Wichita State should be comfortable in its NCAA hopes heading into the Missouri Valley tournament in Springfield, Mo., but 34-22 Creighton is the team to keep an eye on here. The Omaha-based Blue Jays really would like the chance to take the most circuitous route home known to man by travelling to regionals and super-regionals before a returning home. Creighton, which finished 22-9 in the MVC, plays Indiana State in the first round, while Wichita State gets Evansville, which it swept last weekend. Southern Illinois plays defending champ and tourney host Southwest Missouri State in the other matchup. Wonder if the MVC fans can fill the 8,000 seats at Hammons Field for the title game? This is a challenge to you folks.
Shreveport-based Centenary will play host to the Mid-Continent Tournament. No. 15 Oral Roberts enters as a prohibitive favorite after losing just one league game all year, and should be an NCAA lock even with a slip up here. It opens Thursday with fourth-seeded Southern Utah. No. 2 seed Western Illinois plays Centenary in the other game.
The four-team Metro Atlantic tournament takes place in Fishkill, N.Y., at Dutchess Stadium. LeMoyne rolled up a 24-3 league mark to take the top seed and faces Marist. Niagara and Manhattan play in the other game, a battle of two 16-9 teams.
Miami (Ohio) mailed out a nice poster of junior first baseman Mike Ferris standing in front of a Ferris Wheel this week as a All-America campaign tool, which leads to one question: What did the RedHawks media relations staff superimpose behind quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for his Heisman Trophy campaign last fall? Miami won the Mid-American Conference's Eastern Division and plays Northern Illinois in the first round of the tournament, held in Mount Pleasant, Mich. Western champ Central Michigan gets Kent State while Ball State plays Eastern Michigan.
Top-seeded Illinois-Chicago earned a bye in the first round of the Horizon League tournament. Second-seeded Butler faces Youngstown State, Cleveland State plays Detroit Mercy and Wright State takes on Wisconsin-Milwaukee in action beginning Wednesday in Niles, Ohio.
No. 25 Central Florida plays Campbell in the first game of the Atlantic Sun's six-team tournament in Deland, Fla. Earlier this week, Golden Knights coach Jay Bergman earned coach of the year honors while junior righthander Matt Fox won the pitcher of the year award. In other league action, Stetson plays Troy State and Florida Atlantic faces Gardner-Webb, which finished the year with 13 wins in 16 games.
Fordham-St. Bonaventure and Richmond-Duquesne matchups decide who faces Division winners Rhode Island and George Washington in the Atlantic 10 tournament in Norwich, Conn.
No. 4 Miami, an independent, faces No. 14 Long Beach State. The first game of the series comes Thursday at 7 p.m. ET, and CSTV switched off televising the Friday game for this one because junior righthander Jered Weaver will be starting for the Dirtbags. Weaver and Co. might have lost a shot at serving as a regional host by getting swept at home by Cal State Fullerton last weekend to end Big West Conference play. Taking two or three on the road against the Hurricanes could force them back into that discussion. Miami views the series as a chance to work its way up the ladder of national seeds.
UC Irvine finished its Big West season in a three-way tie for fourth place at 10-11. That's not as appealing as the team's top 30 RPI and 34-18 record. The Anteaters can erase any doubt in the minds of the NCAA selection committee by getting a pair of wins at No. 20 Washington this weekend.
The Huskies, which lost two games against UCLA last weekend to fall out of first place in the Pacific-10 race, could use a series win of their own to further their case as a possible No. 1 regional seed. Winning the Pac-10 would likely earn Washington that right, but it needs No. 16 Arizona State to take two games at No. 2 Stanford this weekend for that to happen. Look out for the Sun Devils, who have won 11 of 12 and have junior Jeff Larish finally getting back into the, uh, swing of things. Larish has his average over .300 and hit three homers last weekend against Arizona, doubling his season total.
In other Pac-10 action, UCLA travels to Oregon State for three games. The Bruins might need two wins to rest easier about their tournament fate in coach Gary Adams' final season. A UCLA sweep combined with Arizona State sweeping Stanford would actually give UCLA the league title as UCLA, ASU and Washington would all finish 15-9, and UCLA won the season series against the other two teams. Oregon State, meanwhile, probably needs a sweep to keep its fleeting tournament hopes alive.
There's no tournament in the Western Athletic Conference, either. No. 5 Rice wrapped up the league two weeks ago. But the Owls have dropped two of their last three conference series and will be looking to get back into a better mindset against Louisiana Tech before heading to regionals.