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Thursday, May 15, 2008
Miami hosts showdown of nation's, ACC's top teams

By Aaron Fitt
Baseball America

Alex White

AP Photo/Nati Harnik

North Carolina is counting on Alex White to keep Miami's sluggers in check.


North Carolina at Miami

It doesn't get much better than this: No. 1 vs. No. 2 in the regular-season finale, with the ACC championship and, in all likelihood, the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament on the line.

Either top-ranked Miami or second-ranked North Carolina is going to lose a series this weekend for the first time all year. The two teams are a combined 21-0-1 in weekend series, 42-9 in the ACC and 83-15 overall. Gaudy numbers, especially in this year of widespread parity in college baseball.

"It's unbelievable, actually. How many times in the same league do you end the season with No. 1 and No. 2?" UNC pitching coach Scott Forbes said. "Both teams have had such great years. I think both staffs have come to the realization that it's not going to make or break any team's season. … For me it's just going to be fun to watch the players compete against each other."

Forbes has the unenviable task of preparing his pitchers for a Miami lineup that scouts liken to a professional team; indeed, Yonder Alonso, Dennis Raben, Jemile Weeks and Blake Tekotte are all likely to go in the top three rounds in June's draft, and Mark Sobolewski, Ryan Jackson, Dave DiNatale and Adan Severino are all dangerous hitters in their own right. The Hurricanes rank among the nation's top 12 in batting, scoring and home runs.

Top 25 Schedule
• No. 2 North Carolina at No. 1 Miami
• Washington at No. 3 Arizona State
• No. 20 NC State at No. 4 Florida State
• No. 5 Nebraska at No. 15 Missouri
• No. 6 Rice at No. 25 Tulane
• Alabama at No. 7 Georgia
• San Diego State at No. 8 Cal State Fullerton
• Texas vs./at/at No. 9 Texas A&M
• No. 10 Oklahoma State vs. Oklahoma
• No. 11 San Diego: idle
• No. 12 UC Irvine at UC Davis
• No. 14 Stanford at Arizona
• No. 16 LSU at Auburn
• Northwestern at No. 17 Michigan
• No. 18 St. John's at Villanova
• No. 19 Vanderbilt at Florida
• Mississippi at No. 21 Kentucky
• Bradley at No. 22 Wichita State
• No. 23 Coastal Carolina at Radford
• No. 24 TCU at New Mexico

"I've watched them quite a bit on video, and you've just got to make pitches, you cant make mistakes," Forbes said. "You've got to be careful getting caught up pitching around guys. Their lineup is good top to bottom. The good thing is we feel like our lineup is the same, and we've faced our lineup a lot in scrimmages and such. You can't pitch around anybody, there's going to be somebody good up from one to nine hole.

"Our pitching staff, they're tough kids, we're not going to shy away from them. You've just got to get ahead of the count and make them swing at your pitches instead of getting into those 2-1, 3-0 counts, and Miami's really good at that. They've got a lot of lefties in the lineup, but fortunately we're prepared for that -- it seems like every team we play has five or six lefties. They've got three bats who are going to go in the first round or supplemental. It's not every day you face a team with that power, speed, patience."

Ever cautious, Hurricanes coach Jim Morris would almost have you believe his team is in a slump, even though Miami has won nine of its last 10 games and scored nine or more runs in five of them.

"We haven't been swinging the bat as well as we were at the beginning of the season," Morris said. "In baseball you go through streaks -- at one point we had all nine hitters hot. I feel good, but I don't feel as good as I did a month ago. The way we were playing, we were clicking on all cylinders a month ago -- we were dominating offensively, defensively, pitching. That's what you need to have happen, and hopefully we get that again in the postseason."

Morris can afford to nit-pick. His team is strong in every phase of the game and has proven slump-proof for the season's first 12 weeks. Of course, North Carolina is similarly balanced. It's easy to hone in on a pitching staff that leads the nation in ERA, fewest hits allowed per nine innings and strikeouts per nine innings, with a weekend rotation bookended by future high first-round picks Alex White and Matt Harvey. But as Forbes points out, UNC's batting average is just seven points lower than Miami's and has impact stars of its own in sophomores Dustin Ackley, Kyle Seager and Tim Fedroff.

The oft-overlooked, but critical component, of each team's success is the reliability of their bullpens. If you're going to beat the Tar Heels or Hurricanes, you'd better get to them early -- UNC is 39-1 when leading after eight innings, and Miami is 36-0. In one-run game, UNC is 6-1, Miami is 6-2.

"We firmly believe the strength of our team is our bullpen, and we hope that puts pressure on our opponent," Forbes said. "Obviously we've had Robert Woodard and Daniel Bard and Andrew Miller, but our bullpen's been so good the last two years that we feel if we're ahead we've got a good chance to win the game."

The Tar Heels don't have a power closer like departed Andrew Carignan anymore, but with a deep bullpen, UNC's philosophy is to use its best relievers in the most critical situations, whether it's the fourth inning or the ninth. The emergence of right-handers Tyler Trice and Colin Bates and lefty Brian Moran -- all of whom have added velocity to their fastballs and improved their secondary stuff and command since last year -- gives the Tar Heels confidence late in the game if they have to burn senior right-hander Rob Wooten in tough spot early in the game. And their X-factor is junior catcher/right-hander Tim Federowicz, who has thrown just six innings this year to keep his arm fresh for the stretch run. Perhaps the biggest power arm in the UNC bullpen, Federowicz will be a valuable one-inning strikeout pitcher going forward.

Miami has similarly planned for the postseason. One of the major questions in college baseball heading into 2008 was how the Hurricanes would respond to the compacted schedule after years of starting their seasons very early and playing essentially three games per week. But pitching depth has not been an issue for Miami, which has not been forced to bring a weekend starter back for midweek work one time in 2008. Miami's weekend starters -- Nick Hernandez, Eric Erickson and Enrique Garcia -- are still fresh heading into the postseason, partly because Morris used sophomore right-hander David Gutierrez as a bridge early in the year to get to untouchable setup man Kyle Bellamy and closer Carlos Gutierrez. But now David Gutierrez is a quality No. 4 starter (he threw six innings of one-run ball in Miami's midweek win against North Florida on Tuesday) as Morris has loosened up the reigns on his starters, allowing them to pitch deeper into games.

"We have no complete games, but that's typical of one of my clubs," Morris said. "I think the main thing is our starters have pitched well enough to get us to the bullpen. I think this compacted schedule is actually better for baseball, because hitters get their timing down, pitchers get to pitch -- all those things are important. The only thing I was worried about were classes, but I was pleasantly surprised -- our guys have done as well or better than we've done in the past. I haven't done this before, playing that many games during the week, so I didn't know how it would go. The guys have to be very focused and committed to academics to get it done. You've got to stay on top of them, no question, make sure you're strict on them to do what they need to do academically. Bottom line, that means you take away playing time. That's the reason they're here. You can run them or holler at them, but playing time is the key."

So Morris, it seems, has solved the major riddles of the compacted schedule. For now, all he needs to concern himself with is the big weekend at hand. With a 2 1/2 game lead over the Tar Heels, Miami needs to win just one game to clinch the regular-season title.

"Our players are very excited for it," Morris said. "All the games are sold out, and of course they're on TV. It's everything you could ask for in a regular season (series). It'll be a lot of fun."


Old Dominion's Dan Hudson vs.
UNC Wilmington's Bradley Holt

The two best pitchers in the Colonial Athletic Association will face off Thursday when Old Dominion junior right-hander Hudson takes on UNC Wilmington junior right-hander Holt. Hudson was the preseason favorite for CAA pitcher of the year honors, the anchor of a staff that was supposed to carry the Monarchs to the league title and beyond. But Holt has emerged as the better prospect, and the Seahawks became the clear class of the CAA.

Hudson has pitched his best over the last few weeks. He struck out 11 over 7 2/3 scoreless innings on April 26 against Northeastern, then followed with nine strikeouts in a complete-game win against Georgia State last week. Hudson is 5-4, 4.56 with 95 strikeouts and 28 walks in 77 innings for an ODU team battling to get above .500: the Monarchs are 23-23 heading into this weekend's series at UNCW. With a low-90s fastball and good breaking ball, Hudson could be drafted between the third and fifth rounds in June.

But Holt could go in the top two rounds, thanks to a fastball that has reached 97 mph this spring according to several scouts. Even in his last start against James Madison, when he earned the win with 6 2/3 innings of work but gave up three home runs, Holt's fastball sat in the 93-94 range. On the year he is 8-1, 3.67 with 74 strikeouts and 24 walks in 69 innings. He'll need to refine his secondary stuff in professional ball, but his fastball is plenty good enough to dominate college hitters.



Missouri's Big 12 title hopes were dashed in late April when the Tigers were swept at Texas A&M, but they have still won four of their last five series and put themselves in position to earn a No. 2 seed in a regional with a series win against Nebraska this weekend. The Cornhuskers are fresh off a series win against the Aggies and are just a game and a half behind A&M heading into the weekend. One Big 12 coach whose team has played both teams broke down Missouri's chances against Nebraska and beyond.

"I think that's a team that, if they get into a regional and things click, they could go to Omaha. But if they don't show up, they can get beat by anybody, too. They haven't had as good a season as I guess they're capable of. If they get into a regional and things line up right, they'll be fine. They've got a lot of arms, the best starting pitching in our league, but their bullpen is very suspect. [Scooter] Hicks throws like 80, a lefty who throws 80, the guy everybody has. They throw one guy throwing 94 after another then they bring in him who can't break a pane of glass.

"[Aaron] Crow's command was off against us, and in this league, if you don't locate, you're going to get hit -- it doesn't matter who you're playing. He made some mistakes, and their bullpen, it's like they're all the same guy: it's 90-94 with average command. That group, [Tyler] Clark and [Nick] Tepesch and Ryan Allen, those guys are all future high draft picks, and I just think they're inexperienced and aren't as good as they are going to be. The bullpen is young and inexperienced, and just because you throw hard you've still got to locate. They're not really walking guys, but command in the zone, just mistakes in the strike zone.

"[Kyle Gibson] is very impressive. He's going to be a first-rounder. He had good command, probably not the same velocity as Crow, but good command and a good slider, and he has a really focused and really determined type look to him. He made big pitches when he had to, he's better than he was a year ago. (Rick) Zagone has got a good arm and has deception, he's definitely a pro prospect -- he gives you a different look, and he is left-handed. It'll be easy for [scouts] to look at him as a lefty who can get left-handed hitters out for sure, and anything else is a bonus."


Southeastern Conference

Here's what we know: Georgia, the SEC's regular-season champion, will host a regional. LSU, owner of a 13-game winning streak (longest active streak in the nation), is very likely to host a regional. Vanderbilt, with a 15-11 conference mark, has a good chance to host but probably needs to win its final series at Florida to nail it down.

South Carolina, Florida and Kentucky all seem to be in good shape for at-large bids but aren't even assured places in the SEC tournament. Just one game separates Kentucky (14-13), Florida (14-13), Mississippi (14-13), Alabama (14-13), Arkansas (13-14) and South Carolina (13-14), and one of those teams isn't going to make the eight-team SEC tournament field. And at 11-16, even Tennessee and Auburn are still mathematically alive.

Alabama coach Jim Wells, who is in his 14th season with the Crimson Tide, said he can't remember another year with this much parity in the league.

"Each year it seems to get more and more like that, and now everyone's so bunched together, and it's going literally down to the last game," Wells said. "You could see this coming, and having been in the league a few years, each team started getting a little better with the facilities and new coaching and all those things. It's not surprising, and you're just glad you're in the mix, because sometimes you wonder how you got here."

The Tide got here by winning four consecutive conference series, but they'll probably have to win at least one game at Georgia this weekend to secure an SEC tournament berth and strengthen their regional hopes. But as detailed in Wednesday's projected field of 64, the SEC has a good chance to send nine teams to regionals simply because there aren't 64 teams out there with stronger cases. Down years for the Sun Belt, Big Ten, Big East and ACC have created a vacuum, and the SEC is primed to capitalize.

Not that Wells is concerning himself with such things.

"I just know that as coach we need to win games, play well, all those things," he said. "Right now you ask the people that keep up with it, 'What do we need to do this weekend?' Certainly if we do well this weekend we probably still need to do well in the SEC tournament. I just look at it, if we play well and do the best we can, all that will be taken care of.

"I think for our club, it has not worked when you brought up the urgency of the situation. I know everyone's quite aware of it. We've been in this position for a while, so we've had to play well for the last month or so to get in this position. We're certainly aware of that, we would have liked to have played better early, but the guys have responded well to win the last four series."

Getting to Hoover, Ala., dramatically increases a team's chances to earn an at-large bid, and every SEC series this weekend has significant ramifications for the conference tournament. Mississippi travels to Kentucky in a matchup of two 14-13 teams, and both should get into the SEC tourney and regionals as long as neither team sweeps this weekend. South Carolina sits in ninth place entering the weekend but should be able to play its way into the field at home against Tennessee, which had lost nine straight games until beating Furman on Tuesday.

Arkansas rebounded from a bad home series loss to Alabama by sweeping the Gamecocks last weekend, and with a top-16 Ratings Percentage Index, the Razorbacks look to be in good shape. They'll face the league's worst team this weekend, but Mississippi State figures to be fired up for outgoing coach Ron Polk's final weekend in Starkville.

Wednesday's SEC coaches teleconference was filled with talk about how kind and genuine Polk is and how much the league and the sport will miss him. He's such a significant figure in college baseball, in fact, that John Manuel needed two separate columns to assess his impact after he announced his retirement. In case you missed it, here are links to each.


Nate Recknagel, C/1B

Recknagel has hit better than .350 for four years, starting his freshman year at Oakland and continuing after he transferred to Michigan as a sophomore. But he emerged as a major power threat as a junior in 2007, slugging 12 home runs and capturing MVP honors at the Nashville regional, where the Wolverines stunned No. 1 overall seed Vanderbilt. This year he's been even better, batting .393/.480/.798 with 65 RBIs. He bashed two home runs Tuesday against Notre Dame, giving him 21 on the season and breaking Casey Close's 22-year-old single-season school record of 19. He's led the Wolverines to a 39-11 overall mark, a 23-4 conference record, and they have already clinched their third straight Big Ten championship heading into their regular-season finale this weekend against Northwestern.

Q: Congratulations on becoming Michigan's single-season home run champ. Was this a goal you've had your eye on for a while?
A: At the beginning of the year, coach [Rich] Maloney and I sat down and talked about personal goals I had for myself. Last year one of our goals was to hit 15 home runs, and I only hit 12, so I fell three shy, and I told him there were a few balls I hit last year that should have been gone, off the top of the wall. So he said, 'All right, well let's try to hit 20. This year I expect 20 out of you.' At first I was like, 'Wow, that's a lot of home runs, but that' what we're shooting for.' It's a goal I set before the season and during the season. There were other goals too, to hit above .380 have a ton of RBIs, to get on base a lot.

Q: You've hit your entire career, but this is the best you've been. How have you developed as a hitter during your career?
A: I guess this is the best offensive year I've had so far. A lot of it though I kind of give credit to my teammates because I hit in such a potent lineup, it's not like a pitcher can just pitch around me and pitch to the next hitter in the lineup. You've got to face Zach Putnam, Adam Abraham, Jason Christian, Kevin Cislo -- there's protection up and down the lineup. It's good that I get to see a lot of pitches. I think that's one of the major factors why I'm hitting well, because I've got protection in the lineup. A lot of it's from offseason workouts, getting stronger, fine-tuning things.

Q: Do you go up there trying to hit home runs? What's your offensive approach?
A: It depends if we've got a guy that's throwing hard, it would be different than a guy throwing junk up there. I'm definitely a guy that's all over the dish. I'm pretty close to the plate -- when guys on our team throw against me, they complain about it all the time, because they want to throw inside but they're afraid to hit me. My approach is different, some is related to my strength, but most is situational and who I'm facing.

Q: You mentioned the potent lineup you hit in the middle of. Is this team as dangerous offensively as last year's team, which went all the way to a super-regional?
A: I think this year's team, the replacements we had from last year are younger guys, obviously, two guys who didn't play all that much. However, I feel like we've improved in power, definitely improved a lot in power. I'd probably say seven of the nine guys in the lineup can easily hit home runs any day--wind blowing in, wind blowing out, doesn't matter. That's a major difference from last year. One key thing we did lose from last year was Eric Rose and Brad Roblin, two of our basestealers, so we lost a little bit of speed, but Jason Christian and Kevin Cislo have picked it up, we've been stealing bags.

Q: You guys made quite a splash last year going to Nashville and ousting Vanderbilt at its own place. What memories stick out most when you think back on that incredible weekend?
A: One thing I remember the most was just losing my voice. After the series was done I just couldn't talk that much because I was yelling so much. At Vanderbilt when they have a packed house you can barely hear yourself because everybody's right on top of you. We went into it kind of pissed off, feeling like we had something to prove. We were watching the selection show and they were saying Vanderbilt had definitely the easiest regional and we were all sacrificial lambs for Vanderbilt. So were pissed off about that, we wanted to prove a point. I think the Nashville regional was a stepping stone for our program and trying to get some respect for Northern schools. It was huge for our program, but we want to show we can go to Omaha. We don't just don't want to be stuck with the label, 'They went to Nashville, it was a fluke that they won.' We want to go to Omaha and win the national championship, that's our ultimate goal.

Q: This year, maybe you won't have to go on the road for regionals thanks to that beautifully renovated Ray Fisher Stadium. What's the stadium like now?
A: It's completely amazing. We have top-of-the-line facilities -- they put an immense amount of money into this place, and it looks incredible. I seriously couldn't think of another place besides ours where we have so many resources. We have guys on the team that practically live in the locker room because it's so nice. The place is unreal. When you're here and you know what we had before, you're kind of humble about it. You're very thankful to have it. It's definitely a lot different than what it was before. The old place was renovated in the early 90s I think, the locker room was so small, with the number of guys we had, it was kind of compact. Right now we have indoor batting cages with a video machine, it's ridiculous the amount of resources we have. I would say the locker room size right now is double or even triple what we had before. It's ridiculous, that's the one word for it.

Q: Your road to Michigan was a little unusual. How did a Michigan kid like you wind up spending your freshman year at Oakland?
A: I was recruited by two schools, Central [Michigan] and Oakland, out of high school. Oakland just seemed like a better fit. I talked to [former Oakland coach] Mark Avery, the guy is just completely awesome. Everything that we talked about, it just felt like it was genuine. He knew what kind of player I was, he knew what I had to work on, seemed like he had a plan all set out for me already. I went there and gave it a shot, and he is a great coach, I wish he was still coaching. I talk to him all the time actually, at least once a week, just talked to him today actually. I talk to him about baseball, talk to him about life.

I've always been a Michigan fan. I grew up a Michigan fan, my dad's a Michigan fan. I always had dreams to be at Michigan, it just wasn't presented to me out of high school. In some respects, I'm glad that I went to Oakland, because I never would have played for Mark Avery, never would have made the friendships I had at Oakland, and never would have gotten recognized. That was a huge stepping stone to coming to Michigan.

Q: The summer after your freshman year you played with a couple of Wolverines in summer ball, Kevin Cislo and Dan Lentz. Is that how you ended up in Ann Arbor?
A: Halfway through the summer, they were doing the coaching change at Oakland, and they were going through the whole process of choosing a coach, and when they said Mark Avery definitely wasn't coming back, I came to the decision that I was transferring. Right after that, Kevin and Dan said, 'Man you should come to Michigan.' Basically those two recruited me. I signed a month before classes started. It happened pretty quick, within three weeks.

Q: It's funny that Michigan and Oakland are obviously linked for another reason -- Zach Putnam's brother Dylan coaching the Grizzlies for two years -- but that's completely unrelated to your situation, right?
A: I actually made the decision before Dylan had the job, didn't even know who the candidates were. I actually got a call from Dylan after I had already signed, had no idea he was going to be the coach. Kind of ironic that I go to Michigan and his brother's on the team. But there's no connection.



Combined Patriot League ERA titles, wins titles, strikeout titles and home run titles in the four-year careers of two-way standouts Jason Buursma and Mitch Harris. Incidentally, Buursma and Harris will go head-to-head this weekend as Bucknell and Navy face each other in the best-of-three Patriot League championship series.

Buursma, Bucknell's senior outfielder/right-hander, won the league's player of the year award after batting .374/.439/.672 with a league-leading 11 homers and 34 RBIs while also leading the league in wins (seven) and ERA (2.87) while racking up a 70-10 strikeout-walk ratio in 75 innings. A submariner with an 85-88 mph sinker and a tight slider, Buursma might have a future as a reliever in pro ball, though he'll be a late draft. No matter what happens in June, though, he's made his mark in the Patriot League, earning all-league honors three times as a position player and twice as a pitcher.

Harris, Navy's senior right-hander/DH, is a top-two-rounds talent on the mound who has been limited to six starts by injuries. He's gone 2-2, 2.90 and has recently started to flash the mid-90s velocity that he showed in years past. He hasn't had his best offensive year but still has six home runs in 130 at-bats.

Buursma, Harris and Army's Cole White have given the Patriot League three of the best two-way threats in league history all at the same time. And don't forget Army's Milan Dinga, another two-way threat, was just a 10th-round pick out of the league lst year.

"It's almost like we have Little Leaguers -- three guys who pitch Game One and hit three home runs the rest of the weekend," Lehigh coach Sean Leary said. "It's fun for me to watch even though I'm on the other team."


New Orleans

A year ago, New Orleans bashed its way through the Sun Belt tournament and toppled top-seeded Wichita State in the opening game of the Wichita regional, before losing a hard-fought 9-8 game against Arizona and being eliminated by the Shockers. After that late-season run, the Privateers gained notice as a feisty bunch.

The Privateers aren't feisty anymore; they're a force to be reckoned with. UNO had won 13 straight games before falling to red-hot Louisiana State in 15 innings Tuesday. At 18-8, New Orleans has passed early Sun Belt leader Louisiana-Monroe by percentage points, and a 38-14 overall record and 30 RPI could ticket the Privateers for a No. 2 seed in a regional with a strong finish this weekend at Louisiana-Lafayette and next week in the Sun Belt tournament.

"They're legit, it's not a fluke," said LSU pitching coach Terry Rooney, whose team is 1-2 against New Orleans this year. "They're extremely well coached, their offense is great, they play hard and they play with a lot of confidence. What they did this year didn't really surprise us because we played them last year. They returned almost everybody from their lineup last year, and they got the junior catcher transfer in from Nebraska, Jeff Lanning. Their offense is as good as any offense we've played all year."

Lanning has been a significant addition: He leads the team in batting (.414), on-base (.495), slugging (.680) and home runs (12). He's one of five Privateers in double-digits in homers, and one of seven players with eight or more. But UNO also has four players in double-digits in stolen bases and six players with seven or more steals.

"They're pretty well balanced," Rooney said. "They're extremely aggressive at the plate. And they're extremely well coached. You also see guys that aren't fast in the middle of their lineup that have a decent amount of stolen bases because they know how to run the bases, and that's coaching in my mind. They're as good a mistake hitting team as we've seen all year, too. If you fall behind and leave something up in the zone, you're in trouble."

Lanning is the statistical leader, but the heart and soul of the Privateers is 5-foot-8 junior second baseman Johnny Giavotella, who is batting .368/.486/.632 with 11 homers, 45 RBIs and 16 stolen bases. Giavotella has filled up box scores for three years at UNO, but most impressive of all might be his 46-16 strikeout-walk rate in 2008 and 136-69 career rate.


Andrew Liebel, RHP, Long Beach State

Liebel, a senior right-hander, has thrown back-to-back complete-game shutouts and 20 1/3 consecutive scoreless innings, and he's won four straight starts to improve to 7-2, 1.69 with 84 strikeouts and 15 walks in 96 innings. He has come up big in two straight outings against Big West contenders UC Davis and UC Santa Barbara, first holding the Aggies to six hits and a walk while striking out six, then limiting the Gauchos to five hits and two walks while striking out six. Liebel stands out for his command of a four-pitch mix and his efficiency, and he needed just 109 pitches to dispatch of UCSB in two hours, 12 minutes.



A year ago, Memphis reached a regional and looked like a program on the rise. This year, the Tigers have been whipping boys for Conference USA's regional contenders. Heading into its regular-season finale against East Carolina, Memphis has lost 11 straight games, a stretch that includes sweeps at the hands of Tulane, Houston and Southern Mississippi. The Tigers are 16-36 overall and 4-16 in CUSA, and they have not played well in any phase of the game. Their .244 batting average through Sunday ranked last in CUSA and 282nd in the nation; their .961 fielding percentage ranked last in CUSA and 159 in the nation; and their 6.23 ERA ranked second-to-last in the conference and 212th in the nation. Yet for all that, the last-place Tigers are just a half-game behind Alabama-Birmingham for the eighth and final conference tournament spot.