Commentary

Conference tournament breakdowns

Originally Published: May 20, 2009
By Aaron Fitt | Baseball America

It's the final opportunity for teams to build their case for the NCAA tournament as baseball conference tournaments get under way. Baseball America breaks down each conference.

Breakdowns Part 2

America East

America East

Site: Endicott, N.Y.

Dates: May 21-24

Format: Four teams, double-elimination

The field: No. 1 Binghamton, No. 2 Albany, No. 3 Stony Brook, No. 4 Vermont

Who's hot: Vermont won nine of its last 12 -- including three of four at Binghamton to close the regular season -- to edge Maine for the final spot in the conference tournament. Vermont's program will be eliminated after the season because of budget constraints, and the Catamounts would love to go out with a conference championship.

Who's not: The top-seeded Bearcats lost their final three games to Vermont and five of their last eight overall.

Bubble watch: The team that wins the conference tournament will represent the one-bid America East in the NCAA tournament.

Favorite: Binghamton won the America East regular-season title each of the past two years but has yet to break through and reach its first regional. The Bearcats were the league's preseason favorite thanks to their balance and experience, and they rank second in the AEC in batting (.315) and ERA (5.02). The offense is led by sophomore outfielder Corey Taylor, who ranks second in the league in homers (14) and RBIs (47). But Binghamton's biggest strength is pitching. Right-hander Murphy Smith (7-2, 2.39) and lefty Jeff Dennis (4-5, 5.24) give the Bearcats a pair of hard-throwing workhorses, and senior righty Greg Lane (4.50, six saves) is a dependable anchor in the bullpen.

Dark horse: Defending champion Stony Brook has the league's most explosive offense, with three players in double digits in home runs, led by multitalented senior outfielder Brian Witkowski (.349 average/.444 on-base percentage/.675 slugging percentage with 12 homers, 36 RBIs and 10 steals). Right-hander Mike Errigo (4-3, 4.63) shut out Binghamton in the championship game a year ago.

Atlantic 10

A-10

Site: Dayton, Ohio

Dates: May 20-23

Format: Six teams, double-elimination

The field: No. 1 Dayton, No. 2 Rhode Island, No. 3 Xavier, No. 4 Massachusetts, No. 5 Fordham, No. 6 Charlotte

Who's hot: Xavier has won its past five weekend series and nine of its past 10 games overall. The Musketeers finished the regular season with a series win against top-seeded Dayton. Massachusetts -- rumored to be disbanding its program a month ago, though no such dissolution happened -- surged into the conference tournament with six straight wins to end the regular season, including a series win against Rhode Island and a sweep of Duquesne.

Who's not: Rhode Island had been the most consistent team in the league for most of the season, but the Rams went just 5-5 down the stretch, including a series loss to UMass and a rain-shortened split with St. Louis.

Bubble watch: Regular-season champion Dayton ranks too low in the ratings percentage index (100th) to snatch an at-large bid if it falters in the conference tournament. The only team with a legitimate shot at an at-large is URI, which ranks 64th in the RPI and has quality wins against Miami, Ohio State and Oklahoma State. But the Rams need to make a deep run this week to have a shot.

Favorite: With apologies to the Flyers, we'll stick with Rhode Island, which swept Dayton in early April. The Rams have the best pitching staff in the league with three quality starters in right-handers Eric Smith (5-2, 3.38), Tim Boyce (5-2, 5.94) and Nick Greenwood (6-3, 3.74), plus hulking closer Luke Demko (2.90 ERA, 11 saves). The scrappy offense even has a bit of pop, led by shortstop Dan Rhault (.393/.466/.667 with 11 homers, 57 RBIs and 11 steals), one of the best all-around players in the A-10.

Dark horse: Two-time defending champion Charlotte finished five games out of first place, but the 49ers should not be taken lightly. Charlotte came on down the stretch, winning its final six weekend series, and it still boasts the best hitter in the league in junior third baseman Rob Lyerly (.390/.487/.688 with 10 homers and 44 RBIs), plus a breakout two-way talent in Ryan Rivers (the A-10 leader with 18 home runs). The pitching staff is stout at the front with ace righty Joe Yermal (8-2, 3.04) and at the back with righty Kelly McLain (6-2, 3.16 with four saves).

ACC

ACC

Site: Durham, N.C.

Dates: May 20-24

Format: Round-robin play within two pools of four teams. Team with the best record from each bracket advances to title game.

The field: Pool one: No. 1 Florida State, No. 4 Georgia Tech, No. 5 Miami, No. 8 Boston College. Pool two: No. 2 North Carolina, No. 3 Clemson, No. 6 Virginia, No. 7 Duke

Who's hot: Clemson has won five in a row, 11 of its past 13 and each of its past four weekend series.

Who's not: Boston College lost its final four weekend series of the regular season but was never swept, even against heavyweights North Carolina, Miami and Virginia.

Bubble watch: The top six seeds are safe, but Duke and Boston College need strong performances this week to bolster their cases. Duke has the stronger résumé than BC, with a 15-15 conference record and series wins against Georgia Tech and the Eagles as well as at North Carolina. But a soft nonconference schedule and some bad losses kill Duke's RPI; the Devils rank 72nd, and no team with an RPI worse than 59 has earned an at-large bid in the past five years. Boston College, meanwhile, ranks 32nd in the RPI and boasts a series win at Florida State. But the Eagles finished just 13-15 in the ACC and, as mentioned previously, lost the head-to-head matchup against Duke. Both teams could earn bids with strong performances in the conference tournament, or neither team could make the cut.

UNC is the lone ACC team that is likely locked in to a national seed, but Georgia Tech, Florida State and Clemson are vying for a second national seed from the conference. Whichever team fares best this week likely will have the inside track. All four seem strong bets to host regionals.

Favorite: North Carolina has played in the past three College World Series, and the Tar Heels have plenty of stars with big-game experience (including ACC Player of the Year Dustin Ackley and junior right-hander Alex White, both of whom could be drafted in the top 10 overall picks in June). UNC also has a deep enough pitching staff to win three or four games this week, as sophomore righty Patrick Johnson is an accomplished No. 4 starter.

Dark horse: Clemson played its best baseball down the stretch, and the Tigers have a deep pitching staff that should be able to withstand four games in five days. Talented freshman left-hander Chris Dwyer might be the key: He can be outstanding when he's on, but he has not pitched past the fifth inning since April 17. The Clemson offense has finally jelled in the second half of the season, and sophomore Chris Epps has provided a spark since being inserted into the leadoff spot.

Atlantic Sun

A-Sun

Site: DeLand, Fla.

Dates: May 20-23

Format: Six teams, double-elimination

The field: No. 1 Jacksonville, No. 2 Lipscomb, No. 3 Stetson, No. 4 Belmont, No. 5 Mercer, No. 6 East Tennessee State

Who's hot: Mercer concluded the regular season with a sweep of Belmont to earn the No. 5 seed in the tournament. The Bears have won six of their past eight overall.

Who's not: East Tennessee State dropped its last three weekend series and eight of its final nine games overall.

Bubble watch: Jacksonville has a shot at an at-large bid thanks to a solid RPI (50th) and wins against Florida State, Georgia Southern, Florida International, South Florida and three against Bethune-Cookman. If the Dolphins win the tournament, the A-Sun will be a one-bid league.

Favorite: Provisional A-Sun members Florida Gulf Coast and Kennesaw State finished first and second in the regular season for the second straight year, and Jacksonville actually finished four games behind the Eagles in the standings, but the two top dogs won't be eligible for the conference tournament until 2010. Jacksonville has been the most consistent of the teams eligible for the conference tournament. The Dolphins have good balance, with a trio of double-digit home run hitters led by senior catcher Jeremy Gillan (.397/.487/.680 with 11 homers and 56 RBIs) and a steady pitching staff anchored by sophomore righty Matt Loosen (3-1, 3.79).

Dark horse: Never count perennial A-Sun power and tournament host Stetson, which had a down year by its standards but is still dangerous. The Hatters have a good offense led by the league's best player, senior right fielder Jeremy Cruz (.397/.473/.723 with 18 homers and 80 RBIs).

Big 12

Big 12

Site: Oklahoma City

Dates: May 20-24

Format: Round-robin play within two pools of four teams each. The winners from each pool meet in the championship game.

The field: Pool one: No. 1 Texas, No. 4 Kansas State, No. 5 Kansas, No. 8 Baylor. Pool two: No. 2 Oklahoma, No. 3 Missouri, No. 6 Texas A&M, No. 7 Texas Tech

Who's hot: Texas has gone 9-1 since losing a series to Kansas State. The only two series Texas lost all year were against Kansas and Kansas State; incidentally, both are in the Longhorns' pool. Missouri also finished strong, winning its final six weekend series to cap a strong recovery from a 1-7 start.

Who's not: Teams don't get much colder than Baylor, which lost 12 of its final 14 to drop out of the top 10 in the rankings, then out of the top 25, then out of serious regional contention. The Bears were swept by last-place Nebraska in their final regular-season series. Texas A&M also finished poorly, dropping its last two series against Texas and Oklahoma. The Aggies were swept in Norman, Okla., in their final regular-season series.

Bubble watch: The top six seeds all look like solid at-large teams. Baylor must win its pool to have even a chance of earning an at-large bid, but realistically, the Bears probably must capture the automatic bid to continue their season. They have a solid RPI (34th), but their horrid stretch run, 10-16 conference record and 27-23 overall mark speak far louder.

Favorite: Defending champion Texas has the nation's best pitching staff, and Oklahoma has the most explosive offense in the Big 12, so either would be a solid choice here. But the Longhorns swept the Sooners in mid-April, and their much-maligned offense showed signs of life down the stretch, scoring nine or more runs in five of their last 10 games. More than any other reason, Texas is the favorite because it has the pitching depth to survive four games in five days with ease.

Dark horse: The Aggies stumbled down the stretch and certainly have underachieved after entering the season ranked No. 1 in the nation. But as their pitchers' league-high 515 strikeouts in 486 innings attest, they still have a deep stable of power arms capable of dominating on any given day.

Big East

Big East

Site: Clearwater, Fla.

Dates: May 19-23

Format: Eight teams, double-elimination

The field: No. 1 Louisville, No. 2 South Florida, No. 3 West Virginia, No. 4 St. John's, No. 5 Notre Dame, No. 6 Connecticut, No. 7 Pittsburgh, No. 8 Cincinnati

Who's hot: Preseason favorite and defending conference champion Louisville caught fire down the stretch, winning 11 of its last 12 and sweeping South Florida to blow past the Bulls for the regular-season crown.

Who's not: USF led the conference for most of the season before dropping its final two weekend series at Notre Dame and at Louisville.

Bubble watch: Louisville is the only Big East team assured of an at-large regional bid if it fails to win the conference tournament. South Florida would have had a shot if it had won the regular-season title, but its poor finish coupled with a mediocre RPI (71st) means it probably must win the automatic bid to continue its season.

Favorite: The Cardinals opened the season in the Top 25 and finished the regular season back in the rankings. The Cardinals boast the Big East Player of the Year in Chris Dominguez (.365/.455/.721, finished with 21 homers, 75 RBIs and 17 stolen bases in 22 tries) and the league's pitcher of the year in left-hander Justin Marks (9-2, 3.47 with 106 strikeouts and 27 walks in 86 innings). Both played key roles on Louisville's 2007 CWS team. Sophomore outfielder Phil Wunderlich (.365/.439/.668 with 15 homers and 66 RBIs) leads a strong supporting cast.

Dark horse: The grueling Big East tournament takes a toll on pitching, and no team is better suited to bash its way through the tourney than West Virginia, which led the league by wide margins in batting (.362), on-base percentage (.444), slugging (.568), runs (498), doubles (158) and even sacrifice bunts (82). Eight Mountaineers tallied 39 or more RBIs, led by junior designated hitter Vince Belnome (.426/.522/.668 with nine homers and 82 RBIs).

Big South

Big South

Site: Asheville, N.C.

Dates: May 19-23

Format: Eight teams, double-elimination

The field: No. 1 Coastal Carolina, No. 2 Winthrop, No. 3 Liberty, No. 4 Radford, No. 5 Gardner-Webb, No. 6 High Point, No. 7 Charleston Southern, No. 8 Virginia Military Institute

Who's hot: Coastal Carolina actually trailed Liberty in the Big South standings before finishing the regular season with 10 straight wins, including sweeps of the Flames, VMI and Charleston Southern.

Who's not: High Point went 2-8 down the stretch for the second straight season. The Panthers dropped 11 of their last 13 games to tumble to sixth place in the conference.

Bubble watch: Coastal is the only Big South team that will earn a regional bid if it fails to win the conference tournament. The Chanticleers have an outside chance to host their third straight regional if they can win the conference tournament, but they have considerably fewer quality wins than fellow hosting hopefuls East Carolina, South Carolina, Clemson and North Carolina from the same geographic footprint. They also have the lowest RPI (31st) of that group.

Favorite: The Chanticleers dominated the Big South for the third straight season and have far and away the most talented and experienced roster in the league. Coastal led the conference in batting (.335), runs (637), homers (76), stolen bases (107), fielding percentage (.969), ERA (3.90), saves (18) and opponents' batting average (.246), among many other categories.

Dark horse: Winthrop actually won a series against Coastal in mid-March, and the battle-tested Eagles posted a 3-9 record against Georgia, Georgia Southern, Arizona State, Southern California and North Carolina. Clearly, that's not a great mark, but the Eagles should derive some benefit from simply having faced those teams. The Eagles have a bit of pop in the lineup, led by sophomore slugger Eddie Rohan (.337/.406/.615 with 14 homers and 48 RBIs).

Big Ten

Big Ten

Site: Columbus, Ohio

Dates: May 20-24

Format: Six teams, double-elimination

The field: No. 1 Ohio State, No. 2 Minnesota, No. 3 Indiana, No. 4 Illinois, No. 5 Michigan State, No. 6 Purdue

Who's hot: The top-seeded Buckeyes won their last six weekend series, capped by a sweep of Iowa that pushed them past Minnesota for the regular-season title. The Golden Gophers also finished strong, winning their last four weekend series and 13 of their last 16 games overall.

Who's not: Illinois lost its last two series against Ohio State and Purdue to fall to fourth in the regular-season standings.

Bubble watch: Minnesota and Ohio State are both on firm footing for at-large bids, thanks to top-30 RPIs and strong regular-season performances. Illinois fell to 65th in the RPI with its poor finish, and the Illini probably need to reach the title game just to have a shot. A series win at Louisiana State early in the season serves as a nice feather in their cap if they can build some momentum this week.

Favorite: Minnesota is the most battle-tested team in the league, with series wins at Texas Christian and Dallas Baptist plus quality victories against Missouri, Hawaii, Washington, West Virginia and UC Santa Barbara. The Gophers have been the Big Ten's most consistent team on the mound, leading the conference with a 4.50 ERA and a .272 opponents' batting average. They also have the league's best all-around player in second baseman Derek McCallum (.401 with 15 homers and 72 RBIs).

Dark horse: Preseason favorite Indiana is the most talented team in the Big Ten. It took the Hoosiers a while to get going, but they finished 21-10 after starting the season 7-15. Few teams in the nation have a starting rotation as gifted as Eric Arnett (11-1, 2.78), Matt Bashore (6-4, 3.87) and Blake Monar (4-3, 4.82), and the offense is led by the nation's best offensive catcher in Josh Phegley (.354/.470/.672 with 17 homers and 62 RBIs).

Colonial

CAA

Site: Wilmington, N.C.

Dates: May 20-23

Format: Six teams, double-elimination

The field: No. 1 George Mason, No. 2 Georgia State, No. 3 UNC Wilmington, No. 4 Old Dominion, No. 5 Northeastern, No. 6 Delaware

Who's hot: George Mason lost just 10 games all year and hasn't lost back-to-back games since the calendar turned to March. The Patriots have won nine of their last 11 games overall. Georgia State also won nine of its last 11 en route to a school-record 35 wins.

Who's not: Old Dominion is the lone team in the field that lost its final regular-season series, at home against UNC Wilmington. But the Monarchs won their previous three series.

Bubble watch: George Mason is the only CAA team in position to earn an at-large bid if it fails to win the conference tournament. The Patriots have the dual security blankets of a 40-win regular season and a solid RPI (37th).

Favorite: George Mason's best-known players are sluggers Scott Krieger and Justin Bour, who combined to hit 35 of the team's 76 home runs, but pitching actually carried the Patriots to the CAA regular-season title. George Mason led the conference by a wide margin in ERA (4.15) and held opponents to a league-low .271 batting average. The staff is led by workhorses Kevin Crum (8-3, 3.98) and Mike Modica (10-1, 4.16).

Dark horse: Preseason favorite UNC Wilmington finished six games out of first place in the regular season, but the Seahawks have a number of key players back from last year's NCAA tournament team, led by catcher Cody Stanley (.332/.442/.610 with 11 homers and 48 RBIs). But for Wilmington to make a run, it needs strong performances from junior right-hander Seth Frankoff (3-5, 5.46) and sophomore lefty Cameron Roth (1-2, 7.77, but coming off six strong innings against ODU).

Conference USA

C-USA

Site: Hattiesburg, Miss.

Dates: May 20-24

Format: Double-elimination play between two brackets of four teams. Winners of each bracket play for the championship.

The field: Bracket A: No. 2 Rice, No. 3 Houston, No. 6 Alabama-Birmingham, No. 7 Marshall. Bracket B: No. 1 East Carolina, No. 4 Tulane, No. 5 Southern Mississippi, No. 8 UCF

Who's hot: East Carolina won its last four weekend series and nine of its last 10 games overall to capture its first C-USA regular-season title since 2004. Tulane won its last six weekend series to earn the No. 3 seed after starting the year 17-16 overall, 1-6 in C-USA.

Who's not: Rice lost its final weekend series at UAB and five of its last nine games overall to finish with eight conference losses, eclipsing its total from its first three C-USA seasons combined, when it lost just seven regular-season contests. This is the first time since 1996 when the Owls have failed to claim at least a share of their regular-season conference title.

Bubble watch: The Pirates and Owls are safe regional teams, and the Owls will host a regional regardless of their performance in the conference tournament, but they need a strong week to get back into the national-seed discussion. ECU must have a solid showing to host a regional. Tulane is the only other team with a realistic shot at a regional, and the Green Wave can secure their position with a couple of wins in Hattiesburg, despite a shaky RPI (69th).

Favorite: East Carolina led C-USA in batting (.344), runs (506), homers (94) and ERA (4.14), among other categories, but this is still Rice's conference until somebody else drives a stake through its heart. The Owls have a balanced offense led by national freshman of the year candidate Anthony Rendon (.383/.455/.701 with 17 homers and 58 RBIs); they have an athletic defense that fielded at a .970 clip; and they have a pair of front-line starters capable of dominating when healthy in righties Ryan Berry (6-0, 2.06) and Mike Ojala (3-0, 1.63). But both missed significant time this year with arm woes, and the Owls need other pitchers to step forward and help carry the load.

Dark horse: It will be a significant surprise if Rice or East Carolina does not win the conference tournament, but UAB is a well-coached team that can wreak havoc with its team speed. The Blazers stole a league-high 112 bases during the regular season, led by national leader Brint Hardy's 46. Three other Blazers swiped at least 15 bags.

Horizon

Horizon

Site: Lorain, Ohio

Dates: May 19-23

Format: Seven teams, double-elimination

The field: No. 1 Illinois-Chicago, No. 2 Wisconsin-Milwaukee, No. 3 Wright State, No. 4 Valparaiso, No. 5 Cleveland State, No. 6 Youngstown State, No. 7 Butler

Who's hot: Defending champion and preseason favorite Illinois-Chicago won 10 of its last 12 games to win the regular-season title by three games over Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

Who's not: Butler was the worst team in the league all year, and the Bulldogs lost seven of their last nine games, including a season-ending series sweep at Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

Bubble watch: The team that wins the conference tournament will secure the Horizon's lone regional bid.

Favorite: UIC was the Horizon's most consistent team in 2009 thanks largely to a steady pitching staff anchored by league pitcher of the year Adam Worthington (4-5, 3.24) at the front and senior right-hander Derrick Miramontes (6-0, 1.91 with seven saves) at the back. The Flames are also the league's best defensive team, with a Horizon-best .968 fielding percentage.

Dark horse: UIC and Wright State have been the Horizon's best two programs this decade, winning five of the last six conference titles, and the Raiders are entirely capable of usurping the Flames in the conference tournament. Wright State's strength is an offense that topped the league in batting (.318) and runs (383), led by Horizon player of the year Jeff Mercer (.367/.410/.580 with 26 doubles and 64 RBIs) and newcomer of the year Quentin Cate (.367/.440/.606 with 12 homers and 56 RBIs).

Mountain West

MWC

Site: Fort Worth, Texas

Dates: May 19-23

Format: Six teams, double-elimination

The field: No. 1 Texas Christian, No. 2 New Mexico, No. 3 Brigham Young, No. 4 San Diego State, No. 5 Nevada-Las Vegas, No. 6 Utah

Who's hot: Perennial MWC powerhouse TCU has been hot all season -- it lost back-to-back games just twice -- but is riding a five-game winning streak into the conference tournament. The Horned Frogs have won eight of their last nine games. San Diego State avoided the second-half swoon that sabotaged its regional hopes each of the past two seasons, instead winning nine of its last 11 games.

Who's not: UNLV was swept in its final two regular-season series against BYU and TCU. The Rebels lost seven of their last eight games.

Bubble watch: TCU likely will host a regional if it has a solid week, and it has an outside shot at a national seed if it earns a conference tournament title. San Diego State, BYU and New Mexico are all playing for their postseason lives. The Aztecs are in the best position to earn an at-large bid, thanks to the strongest RPI of the trio (45th) and a strong finish.

New Mexico finished second in the standings and has a 7-3 record against SDSU, BYU and Texas A&M, but the Lobos squandered chances to bolster their résumé down the stretch by going 1-6 in nonconference action against struggling power conference foes Arizona, Nebraska and Stanford. The Lobos rank 88th in the RPI and must win the automatic bid to make the regionals. BYU is likely in the same boat, ranking 67th in the RPI and finishing just 28-22 overall in the regular season.

Favorite: The Horned Frogs did not dominate the league statistically as they have in years past, but they have a balanced, experienced team that finds ways to win close games. TCU lacks consistent front-line pitching but has a bevy of quality arms and should be able to mix and match its way through the conference tournament. The offense is led by all-conference first baseman Matt Vern (.358/.470/.691 with 14 homers and 43 RBIs).

Dark horse: The Mountain West might feature one of the best college pitchers of all time in San Diego State ace righty Stephen Strasburg (12-0, 1.34 with 174 strikeouts and 18 walks in 94 innings), but this is still an offense-first league. Expect plenty of high-scoring games, which favors New Mexico, one of the best offensive teams in the country. The Lobos led the MWC by huge margins in batting (.369), runs (526) and triples (47), led by conference player of the year Mike Brownstein (.426/.496/.629 with 11 triples, 49 RBIs and 20 stolen bases).

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