Commentary

Big East fields a few dangerous teams

Originally Published: May 11, 2011
By Graham Hays | ESPN.com

The Big East regular season came to a close with more than its fair share of fireworks. Notre Dame clinched the regular-season title with a three-game sweep at Connecticut, but it secured the crown only after Alexia Clay's grand slam helped fuel a five-run rally in the top of the seventh in a 14-11 win in Sunday's series finale in Storrs.

[+] EnlargeLeigh Ross
Syracuse University Athletic CommunicationsLeigh Ross has Syracuse poised to make noise in the Big East.

And that wasn't even the weekend's most dramatic ending in the conference.

The Fighting Irish needed that final win to remain ahead of second-place DePaul because of drama of a different sort in the Windy City. DePaul came away with a forfeit win after South Florida coach Ken Eriksen pulled his team from the field in the second inning. (The Blue Demons led the Bulls 1-0.) A Big East spokesperson said the conference was reviewing the incident and declined further comment, while South Florida issued the following statement:

"USF has informed the Big East Conference staff of the concerns related to the safety and welfare of its team members, which led to a decision to leave the playing field. USF will have no further comment until the conference office has reviewed and addressed the matter."

All of which is to say that this week's conference tournament in Louisville, Ky., should have its fair share of intrigue.

The rumor fodder aside, the timing of the embarrassing mess in Chicago is unfortunate for the conference, putting the spotlight on that sideshow instead of on a league quietly having perhaps its best season on the field, a season that may well conclude with a record five teams advancing to the NCAA tournament. DePaul is the only Big East team to reach the Women's College World Series in recent memory (Connecticut made the trip in 1993), but it's a league with momentum. Off the field, South Florida opened a new stadium to rave reviews this season, Notre Dame did the same in 2008 and Louisville's role as repeat host for the conference tournament speaks to the quality of its facilities. On the field, the teams that call those parks home are doing their best to live up to the surroundings.

"I think we can compete," Eriksen said in April. "The actuality of it is not just competing; the actuality of it is winning. I still think we're in that competitive state right now, as a conference. I do think when you put us into the NCAA tournament, you tend to see things that people don't realize and you get a lot of W's. [South Florida] has had that, DePaul has had that, Louisville has had that, Notre Dame has had that. But we've got to find a consistency right now as a conference and the continuation of the [improved] scheduling from top to bottom."

In that respect, Syracuse represents the future aspirations of the conference. Unlike Notre Dame or the recent transplants from other conferences (the four schools Eriksen mentioned are a combined 86-93 in the NCAA tournament, although not all those games came while representing the Big East), Syracuse is not a program with much history -- it played its first game in 2000 -- or a stadium to brag about. But under fifth-year coach Leigh Ross, it gradually has reached a point where it can stand toe-to-toe with the league's traditional powers, as it did by wrapping up the No. 3 seed in the conference tournament by sweeping three games from Louisville to close the regular season with a program-best 41 wins.

Ross reached the World Series as a player at Toledo when the postseason was more regionalized than it is now. (Her team competed against Creighton and Iowa for a spot in the 1989 World Series.) But if postseason success now means competing nationally, Ross sees a landscape where even programs twice as far from Oklahoma City as Quebec City can be national programs. Her three leading hitters are from Florida (Lisaira Daniels), Indiana (Hallie Gibbs) and California (Stephanie Watts). Her ace, Jenna Caira, is a Canadian with international experience.

[+] EnlargeJenna Caira
Syracuse University Athletic Communications Jenna Caira has been a force in the circle this season.

"There are so many good players now across the country that you can build a team in any part of the country; I really do think that," Ross said. "I honestly think we probably do more indoor training, more of the individual stuff, because we can't get on the field as much and do game stuff. We do a lot more of the individual, the nitty-gritty."

Syracuse sneaked into the NCAA tournament last season, a surprise winner in the Big East tournament. Ranked No. 35 in last week's RPI, the Orange are likely safe this season regardless of what happens in Louisville. And with just two seniors in the regular lineup, this season might be less of a high-water mark than part of an ongoing learning curve.

"Our team is still young," Ross said. "It's still trying to get used to the idea of winning and being at that level where there's always going to be a target on your back. They're still getting used to that, so every now and then a little doubt creeps into their minds."

The same might be said for the Big East at the national level. But assuming it can keep its teams on the field this week, the tournament ought to be a showcase for a conference that, if still far from maturity, is reaching adolescence.

Conference tournament watch

Atlantic 10 (Charlotte, N.C., double elimination)
It hasn't been the smoothest of seasons for Fordham and Massachusetts, but the two preseason conference favorites managed to pull well clear of the competition by the end of the regular season and earn the first-round byes that go to the top two seeds. With their hopes riding on the arms of Jen Mineau and Sara Plourde, respectively, that extra rest is useful. Plourde twice worked extra innings over the final weekend of the regular season, striking out 42 batters in 22 innings against Rhode Island and Quinnipiac. Fordham is in better shape in terms of at-large consideration, but neither team would feel good waiting out the selection show on Sunday (ESPNU, 10 p.m. ET).

Colonial Athletic Association (Hempstead, N.Y., double elimination)
This is one that a lot of potential NCAA tournament seeds in the Pac-10 and Big 12 will want to watch carefully. Hofstra is the host and favorite after winning the regular-season title, the 20th time in coach Bill Edwards' 22 seasons that the team won either a regular-season or conference tournament title, if not both. Sophomore pitcher Olivia Galati, whom Arizona fans will remember well from a marathon game in the Tucson regional last season, has 15 shutouts, tied with Texas' Blaire Luna for the most in the nation. And given Massachusetts' tenuous position, new lights at Hofstra's stadium and a large number of automatic qualifiers from the Northeast that need to play somewhere, odds are that Hofstra will host an NCAA regional if it makes the field. Between travel headaches and Galati, that's going to leave some teams rooting for Georgia State.

Conference USA (Greenville, N.C., single elimination)
Conference USA had five teams ranked between No. 21 and No. 45 in last week's RPI, meaning it could be flush with NCAA tournament teams by Sunday night or flushed with anger about tournament snubs. Houston, which won three games against tournament host East Carolina in Greenville last week, earned the top seed by sweeping three games from Central Florida. Even better for the Cougars, ace Amanda Crabtree returned to the circle for the first time in three weeks and struck out 12 in a shutout win over UCF. But if top seeds Houston, Tulsa and, to some degree, UAB are playing with NCAA tournament security, Thursday's quarterfinal between fourth-seeded Memphis and fifth-seeded East Carolina might have the feel of a play-in game for the bigger tournament the next week.

SEC (Oxford, Miss., single elimination)
Watch on the ESPN family of networks Thanks to the demise of the Big 12 tournament, the Pac-10 always abstaining and the national television spotlight, the SEC tournament is the undisputed king of conference tournaments. It's just not clear how much is on the line, even if there should be some good softball at what turned out to be a neutral site after host Ole Miss failed to qualify. The top six seeds are NCAA tournament locks, and eighth-seeded Mississippi State is too far below .500 to have any chance at an at-large bid. That leaves Auburn, and in following up last week's series win against Georgia with a series win against Kentucky, the Tigers are all but in the lock category, too. Alabama, Florida and Georgia all will be looking to shore up résumés to potentially host NCAA tournament super regionals.

WAC (Fresno, Calif., double elimination)
That host Fresno State and defending champion Hawaii have games on the tournament's opening day, while top seeds New Mexico State and Boise State rest with byes, explains why this bracket bears watching. Neither New Mexico State nor Boise State has been to the NCAA tournament (which isn't saying much in the latter case, considering the Broncos didn't field a team until 2009), and neither traveled to Fresno during the regular season. Only Fresno State is likely to make the NCAA tournament without an automatic bid (although with an RPI of 57, Hawaii wouldn't be out of the running), which means a lot of bubble teams will be rooting for the Bulldogs to live up to their 16-2 home record.

Elsewhere

Pac-10: To its everlasting credit, the Pac-10 has never gone in for a tournament, events redundant in multibid conferences and that punish regular-season success in one-bid leagues. The downside is a final weekend with only modest potential for championship drama. Arizona State's magic number to clinch the title is one -- one win in three games at home against Stanford or one loss for California in its three games at Arizona. (The Sun Devils own a two-game lead on the Bears and won the season series.)

No, even in a season when they aren't competing for the conference championship, it's still Arizona and UCLA in the spotlight on the final weekend. For the Wildcats, that's thanks to the return of ace Kenzie Fowler. Making her way back from a concussion, Fowler started and won the opening game of last week's three-game series against UCLA, striking out 11 in seven innings. She also pitched three innings of relief in Saturday's series-clinching win. For the Bruins, the drama as they head to Oregon centers on NCAA tournament seeding and avoiding the second losing conference record in program history. The defending national champions were outside the top 16 in the RPI last week before losing two of three at home to the Wildcats to drop to 8-10 in the Pac-10. Sweeping the Ducks would get them above .500 in the league and would go a long way toward erasing any shred of doubt about a national seed in the tournament.

Automatic bids: Lastly, we would be remiss not to mention Harvard and Jackson State, the first two automatic qualifiers for the NCAA tournament out of the Ivy League and SWAC, respectively. The Crimson could be one of the stronger Ivy representatives in recent seasons, boasting a pair of big hitters in Kasey Lange (1.287 OPS) and Ellen Macadam (1.168 OPS) and a junior ace in Rachel Brown who struck out 291 in 177 innings, beat Michigan State and struck out 11 in a 4-3 loss against San Diego State.

Graham Hays covers women's college softball for ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn.com. Follow him on Twitter: @grahamhays.

Follow ESPN.com's college sports coverage on Twitter and on Facebook.

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.