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 to make the NCAA tournament as baseball conference tournaments get under way. Baseball America breaks down each conference.

Breakdowns Part 1

Metro Atlantic

MAAC

Site: Trenton, N.J.

Dates: May 21-23

Format: Four teams, double-elimination

The field: No. 1 Manhattan, No. 2 Canisius, No. 3 Marist, No. 4 Rider

Who's hot: For the second straight year, Canisius finished the regular season by winning nine of its final 10 games. The late push earned the Griffins the No. 2 seed in the conference tournament, just one game ahead of Marist.

Who's not: All four teams in the field carry winning streaks of at least two games into the tournament, but Manhattan went 5-4 down the stretch. The Jaspers still won their final two series and captured the regular-season crown by two games.

Bubble watch: The team that wins the conference tournament will capture the MAAC's lone regional berth.

Favorite: Manhattan asserted its hegemony early, winning 11 of its first 12 conference games heading into a late-April series against preseason favorite Canisius. The Jaspers won two of three against the Griffs and haven't looked back. The key to Manhattan's success is its offense, which produced a .357 average and 127 doubles, both league highs. Three Manhattan regulars batted better than .400, and all nine topped .300. Leading the way is the dynamic outfield duo of Kevin Nieto (.406 batting average/.486 on-base percentage/.789 slugging percentage with 13 homers, 54 RBIs and 22 steals) and Mike McCann (.407/.484/.684 with 13 homers and 58 RBIs).

Dark horse: Canisius and Manhattan tied for the regular-season crown a year ago before upstart Rider stunned both to steal the automatic bid. The Griffs opened this season as the team to beat and played their best down the stretch. Canisius features the MAAC's most powerful offense, which slugged a league-high 85 homers in 53 games, 25 more long balls than second-place Manhattan. Senior infielders Kevin Mahoney (.337 with 22 homers and 60 RBIs) and Kevin Mailloux (.382 with 15 homers and 52 RBIs) key the Canisius attack.

Mid-American

MAC

Site: Chillicothe, Ohio

Dates: May 20-23

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

The field: Bracket 1: No. 1 Bowling Green State, No. 4 Kent State, No. 5 Miami (Ohio), No. 8 Central Michigan. Bracket 2: No. 2 Ball State, No. 3 Ohio, No. 6 Toledo, No. 7 Eastern Michigan

Who's hot: Bowling Green won its last four weekend series and eight of its last 10 games to surge to the regular-season crown. The Falcons have a deep lineup anchored by infielders Ryan Shay (.392 with 13 homers and 51 RBIs) and Derek Spencer (.389 with 14 homers and 57 RBIs), but catcher Ryan Schlater (.300 with one homer) keyed BGSU's season-ending series win against Akron, batting .727 in three games. This is the second straight year the Falcons rode a hot finish to a regular-season title; last year, they won their final 11 games to share the crown with Kent State.

Who's not: Preseason favorite Kent State was in position to compete for an at-large bid before losing consecutive series to Buffalo and Akron down the stretch. The Flashes rebounded with a season-ending series win over Miami (Ohio), but they are just 4-6 in their past 10 games.

Toledo finished even worse, losing its final five games and seven of its last eight to relinquish the Western Division title to Ball State.

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

Favorite: It's amazing that Kent State finished with the No. 4 seed in the conference tournament, considering how much talent is on the Flashes' roster. A number of key players had down years for Kent State, most notably junior right-handers Brad Stillings (5-3, 6.68) and Kyle Smith (3-2, 5.14). Still, other quality arms have emerged, led by standout freshman closer Andrew Chafin (4-1, 1.26, eight saves). The Golden Flashes should dig deep this week and make a strong run at their second MAC tournament title in three years.

Dark horse: Watch out for Western Division champ Ball State. The Cardinals stand out in this field for their style of play: They stole 113 bases during the regular season, 37 more than any other team in the MAC. Center fielder Jeremy Hazelbaker (.426/.547/.718 with eight homers, 36 RBIs and 29 steals) is one of the fastest players in college baseball and an emerging Major League Baseball draft prospect, and second baseman Nate Fields (.308 with 32 steals) is nearly as disruptive.

Missouri Valley

MVC

Site: Wichita, Kan.

Dates: May 20-23

Format: Round-robin play within two three-team pods. Pod winners play for championship.

The field:Pod one: No. 1 Missouri State, No. 4 Creighton, No. 5 Southern Illinois. Pod two: No. 2 Indiana State, No. 3 Wichita State, No. 6 Illinois State

Who's hot: Missouri State finished strong for the second straight year, winning its final seven games, including a sweep of then-MVC leader Indiana State to snatch the regular-season crown on the final weekend.

Who's not: Creighton has lost six straight games, as the Bluejays were swept by Missouri State and Wichita the final two weekends of the regular season. Indiana State dropped its last four games to lose the regular-season title on the final day.

Bubble watch: Missouri State is the only team with a shot at an at-large bid if it fails to win the conference tournament. The Bears don't have a great RPI (65th), but they win points for playing a stout nonconference schedule that includes series against Middle Tennessee State, Oregon State and Oral Roberts. They went 4-4 in those games.

Favorite: Preseason favorite Missouri State is the most talented and experienced team in the league, and it's playing its best baseball when it matters most. The Bears have the Valley's best weekend rotation in lefties Buddy Baumann (10-1, 3.40) and Aaron Meade (9-2, 3.18) and righty Tim Clubb (4-4, 5.18). The offense features the MVC's premier power hitter in outfielder Ben Carlson (.305 with a league-best 15 homers) and its leading hitter in third baseman Brayden Drake (.418).

Dark horse: Defending champion Wichita State has dominated the Valley throughout the years, and the Shockers are always a factor, even in a down year like 2009. They reminded the conference of that by outscoring Creighton 20-4 in a season-ending three-game sweep. Wichita State's lineup may lack thunder, but its weekend rotation has carried the load. Tim Kelley (5-3, 2.15), Charlie Lowell (6-2, 2.97) and Jordan Cooper (7-5, 3.00) make Wichita State the team to beat in its pod, though the Shockers will have their work cut out for them against Indiana State's big bats.

Northeast

NEC

Site: New Britain, Conn.

Dates: May 21-24

Format: Four teams, double-elimination

The field: No. 1 Wagner, No. 2 Sacred Heart, No. 3 Central Connecticut State, No. 4 Monmouth

Who's hot: Wagner won its last five games and 10 of its final 12 to claim its first NEC regular-season title and eclipse the 30-win mark for the first time in school history.

Who's not: Monmouth was tied atop the standings before losing three of four to Central Connecticut State in its final weekend series.

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

Favorite: This tournament is wide-open, as the NEC's top five teams were separated by just two games in the final standings (including defending champion Mount St. Mary's, which lost the tiebreaker to the Hawks). But we'll ride the hot hand and anoint Wagner the favorite thanks to the league's best pitching. (Its 4.55 ERA is 0.75 lower than second-place Monmouth's.) The Seahawks have an edge in any close game thanks to dominant closer Andrew Huebner (1.91 ERA, 13 saves), and they have a strong one-two punch in the rotation in junior righties Kyle Morrison (8-2, 3.92) and Matt Watson (9-1, 3.10). Morrison can run his fastball up to 92-93 mph and could be selected in the first 10 rounds of the MLB draft in June.

Dark horse: Preseason favorite Monmouth has the arms to give Wagner a run for its money, and potential first- or second-round draft pick Ryan Buch (7-4, 4.15) could give the Hawks a real shot in the opening game against the Seahawks, assuming he performs better than he did in his final regular-season start last week (4 IP, 7 R, 6 ER). Or the Hawks can turn to junior righty Brett Brach (6-2, 4.48), the younger brother of former Monmouth ace Brad Brach.

Ohio Valley

OVC

Site: Paducah, Ky.

Dates: May 20-23

Format: Six teams, double-elimination

The field: No. 1 Eastern Illinois, No. 2 Murray State, No. 3 Morehead State, No. 4 Southeast Missouri State, No. 5 Tennessee Tech, No. 6 Jacksonville State

Who's hot: Eastern Illinois won eight of its final 11 games to cruise to the regular-season title by 2½ games.

Who's not: Jacksonville State is in free fall, having lost its past eight games, including sweeps against Tennessee Tech and Tennessee-Martin.

Bubble watch: Eastern Illinois, ranked 55th based on the RPI, could earn the OVC's first at-large bid if it fails to win the conference tournament. The Panthers lost just one series all year en route to a 36-12 overall record, and they have quality wins against Oklahoma, Indiana, South Florida, Illinois, Indiana State and Southeastern Louisiana.

Favorite: Amazingly, not even an injury to star center fielder Brett Nommensen (11 home runs) could slow the Panthers. Nommensen was leading the nation in batting (.521), on-base percentage (.649) and slugging (1.021) when he broke a bone in his wrist on April 10, but EIU expects to have him back on the field this week. In Nommensen's absence, three other Panthers joined him in the double-digit home run club, led by shortstop Jordan Kreke (.398/.432/.735 with 13 homers and 58 RBIs), the OVC Player of the Year. The steady pitching staff is anchored by sophomore righty Mike Recchia (8-2, 3.02).

Dark horse: Murray State is capable of matching up with EIU on the mound, thanks to OVC pitcher of the year Daniel Calhoun (10-3, 2.05 with 84 strikeouts and six walks in 88 innings) and Chris Craycraft (10-2, 4.06). Morehead State also have some power in the lineup; they finished second in the OVC with 86 home runs, six behind conference leader EIU.

SEC

SEC

Site: Hoover, Ala.

Dates: May 20-24

Format: Double-elimination play within two four-team brackets. Bracket winners play for championship.

The field:Bracket 1: No. 1 LSU, No. 4 Alabama, No. 5 South Carolina, No. 8 Vanderbilt. Bracket 2: No. 2 Florida, No. 3 Ole Miss, No. 6 Georgia, No. 7 Arkansas

Who's hot: South Carolina won its final three weekend series, bookended by sweeps of Vanderbilt and Georgia, to finish second in the SEC's Eastern Division. The Gamecocks have won seven straight and 10 of their past 11, and lately they've done it with pitching as well as with their characteristic big bats. South Carolina pitchers allowed just seven runs against Georgia, their season low for a three-game series.

LSU won its last four weekend series and 13 of its last 16 games.

Who's not: Vanderbilt limped into the conference tournament for the second straight year by losing its final four games, including a home sweep at the hands of Tennessee.

Bubble watch: The top seven seeds are safe for at-large berths, but Vanderbilt must avoid an early exit on the heels of its poor finish to the regular season. The Commodores have an unsightly 12-17 conference record, but they are in decent shape in the RPI (38th). LSU is a lock for a national seed, while Mississippi and Florida are vying for a second national seed out of the SEC. Alabama and South Carolina are competing for the conference's fourth hosting site.

Favorite: Defending champion LSU entered the season as the team to beat in the SEC, and the Tigers did not disappoint, winning series against all six conference tournament foes they faced en route to the regular-season crown. (They did not play opening-round opponent Vandy.) The Tigers boast the league's best one-two pitching punch in sophomore right-hander Anthony Ranaudo (7-3, 3.26 with 118 strikeouts in 86 innings) and SEC pitcher of the year Louis Coleman (10-2, 2.99 with 105 strikeouts in 90 innings). They also have a deep, powerful, athletic lineup, but their Achilles' heel is a lack of pitching depth, which could hurt them in a condensed tournament.

Dark horse: Led by SEC Player of the Year Kent Matthes (.362/.462/.883 with 27 homers and 79 RBIs), Alabama features the league's most explosive offense, and the Crimson Tide are capable of bashing their way through the tournament even if their on-again, off-again pitching is exploited. Bama led the league in batting (.335), runs (490), homers (106), doubles (133), OBP (.418) and slugging (.581).

Southern

SoCon

Site: Greenville, S.C.

Dates: May 20-24

Format: Double-elimination within two four-team brackets. Bracket winners play for championship.

The field: Bracket 1: No. 1 Elon, No. 4 Western Carolina, No. 5 College of Charleston, No. 8 Furman. Bracket 2: No. 2 Georgia Southern, No. 3 The Citadel, No. 6 Appalachian State, No. 7 Davidson

Who's hot: Elon won its last four games, its last 17 conference games and 13 of its last 14 overall to cruise to the regular-season title by 3½ games. The Phoenix scored at least 10 runs in 11 of those final 13 wins and eclipsed the 20-run mark three times. Appalachian State and The Citadel each went 8-2 in their last 10 games, while Georgia Southern and Western Carolina went 7-3.

Who's not: The College of Charleston dropped its final four games, including a three-game sweep at The Citadel, to slide to fifth place in the standings. Davidson lost eight of its last nine, including sweeps at the hands of CofC and Western Carolina.

Bubble watch: Elon is a lock for regionals even if it suffers an early exit this week. Georgia Southern is also in strong position to earn an at-large bid, with a 38-15 overall record and a strong RPI (35th). Western Carolina (47th in the RPI) probably has a better shot to earn the league's third bid than The Citadel (77th), though the Bulldogs have better series wins (against CofC, Georgia Southern and Elon). That likely won't be enough to offset the difference in RPI. Charleston might have played itself out of at-large consideration in the past week, but its RPI (53rd) is still in striking range if the Cougars can make a strong showing this week.

Favorite: As usual, the SoCon is a hitters' paradise, and Elon might swing its bats better than the rest of the nation. Seven Phoenix regulars hit at least 10 home runs during the regular season, and an eighth (Neal Pritchard) had nine long balls. Not surprisingly, Elon leads the nation with 124 home runs and ranks second in scoring (10.7 runs per game) behind New Mexico State. Good luck finding an Elon hitter to key upon, but the most dangerous might be junior infielder Chase Austin (.379/.457/.701 with 19 homers, 69 RBIs and 16 steals in 17 tries), the SoCon's co-player of the year.

Dark horse: Playing in one of the league's most pitcher-friendly home parks, The Citadel has a completely different offensive style than mashing units such as Elon, CofC and Georgia Southern. The Bulldogs rank eighth in the league and 134th in the nation in home runs (48), but their offense is still potent thanks to a .333 team batting average that ranks second in the SoCon and 25th nationally. Veterans Sonny Meade (.402/.444/.539) and Chris McGuiness (.377/.529/.670), whose 61 walks are tied for the national lead, headline a relentless lineup that makes few easy outs. The Citadel also boasts the conference's best pitching staff, having led the league in ERA (4.64) by a wide margin. The staff is anchored by SoCon pitcher of the year Wes Wrenn (9-2, 3.84). If any team can slow the SoCon's hot bats, it's The Citadel, which won series against the three best offensive teams in the league, though all three were home sets.

Southland

Southland

Site: Corpus Christi, Texas

Dates: May 20-23

Format: Double-elimination within two four-team brackets. Bracket winners play for championship.

The field: Bracket 1: No. 1 Texas State, No. 4 Lamar, No. 5 Texas-Arlington, No. 8 Stephen F. Austin State. Bracket 2: No. 2 Southeastern Louisiana, No. 3 Texas-San Antonio, No. 6 Northwestern State, No. 7 Sam Houston State

Who's hot: Northwestern State won its final three weekend series and nine of its last 11 games to earn the No. 6 seed in the tournament.

Who's not: Sam Houston State got off to a 14-7 start in conference play before losing nine of its final 12 games to sink to seventh in the Southland. Stephen F. Austin lost five of its last six games, including series to Southeastern Louisiana and Lamar.

Bubble watch: With a 38-14 overall record and a strong RPI (33rd), Texas State is in strong position to earn an at-large bid if it fails to win the automatic bid. The only other team with a shot at an at-large bid is Southeastern Louisiana, which went 35-20 overall and ranks 54th in the RPI. But the Lions need a strong showing this week to bolster their case.

Favorite: Texas State dominated the Southland from wire to wire, posting a 24-7 conference record and winning the regular-season title by four games. The Bobcats won four of the Southland's five individual awards. First baseman Paul Goldschmidt (.355/.475/.685 with 16 homers and 77 RBIs) earned player of the year honors, senior righty Kane Holbrooks (9-1, 3.40) was named pitcher of the year, junior outfielder Keith Prestridge (.384/.450/.616 with seven homers and 46 RBIs) garnered newcomer of the year honors, and Ty Harrington was voted coach of the year.

Dark horse: Preseason favorite UTSA boasts the league's most powerful offense, with 86 home runs (tops in the Southland and 19th in the nation). The Roadrunners' offense is headlined by 2008 Southland player of the year Michael Rockett (.396/.439/.654 with 14 homers and 54 RBIs). If the Roadrunners get hot, they could slug their way through the tournament.

SWAC

SWAC

Site: Baton Rouge, La.

Dates: May 20-24

Format: Double-elimination play within two four-team brackets. Bracket winners play for championship.

The field: Bracket 1: East No. 1 Mississippi Valley State, West No. 2 Arkansas-Pine Bluff, East No. 3 Alcorn State, West No. 4 Texas Southern. Bracket 2: West No. 1 Southern, East No. 2 Jackson State, West No. 3 Grambling State, East No. 4 Alabama A&M

Who's hot: Alcorn State won eight of its final 11 games to finish third in the East Division. Jackson State swept Alabama A&M to finish a half-game ahead of the Braves.

Who's not: Mississippi Valley State struggled mightily down the stretch, losing 14 of its last 16 games, including five losses against non-Division I opponents.

Bubble watch: The team that wins the conference tournament will represent the one-bid SWAC in regionals.

Favorite: Preseason favorite Southern isn't the flashiest team in the SWAC, but the Jaguars are well coached and find ways to win. Junior outfielder Victor Franklin (.360/.484/.672 with 10 homers and 43 RBIs) leads a Southern offense that led the SWAC with 49 home runs. The Jaguars' pitching ranked second in the league with a 4.75 staff ERA, led by junior righty Jarrett Maloy (6-2, 3.38).

Dark horse: Jackson State's team speed is downright disruptive. The Tigers rank second in the nation with 141 steals, and they don't have just one or two burners to keep off the base paths. Nine Tigers recorded at least 10 stolen bases during the regular season. And Jackson State gets plenty of chances to run, as it tied for the SWAC lead with a .441 on-base percentage. The Tigers also boast the league's lowest staff ERA (4.05).

Summit

Summit

Site: Tulsa, Okla.

Dates: May 20-23

Format: Four teams, double-elimination

The field: No. 1 Oral Roberts, No. 2 Southern Utah, No. 3 South Dakota State, No. 4 Centenary

Who's hot: Perennial juggernaut Oral Roberts has won five of its past six games. The Golden Eagles dominated the league as usual, winning 16 of their 18 conference games during the regular season. South Dakota State recovered from a 7-25 start by winning 17 of its final 20 games.

Who's not: Southern Utah lost its final three games at South Dakota State.

Bubble watch: The Summit will be a one-bid league unless Oral Roberts gets upset, in which case the Golden Eagles will have a good shot at an at-large bid thanks to a solid RPI (51st), a strong nonconference schedule and reputation.

Favorite: Oral Roberts is seeking its 12th straight Summit League championship, and who would bet against it? ORU's offense led the Summit in scoring (nine runs per game) and home runs (67), while its pitching staff led in ERA (3.81, seventh in the nation) and strikeouts per nine innings (10.7, best in the nation). The Golden Eagles have three starters capable of dominating in right-handers Mark Serrano (9-0, 2.38 with 107 strikeouts in 72 innings), Jerry Sullivan (6-3, 3.29 with 97 strikeouts in 82 innings) and Andre Lamontagne (4-2, 3.41 with 62 strikeouts in 61 innings).

Dark horse: Centenary opened eyes early with wins against Texas A&M and Arkansas, and the Gentlemen have a balanced offense that ranked second in the Summit in scoring (eight runs per game) and first in doubles (121). The Gents also play small ball well, leading the conference in sacrifice bunts, sacrifice flies and hit-by-pitches.

Sun Belt

Sun Belt

Site: Troy, Ala.

Dates: May 20-23

Format:Double-elimination play within two four-team brackets. Bracket winners play for championship.

The field: Bracket 1: No. 1 Middle Tennessee, No. 4 Florida International, No. 5 Louisiana-Lafayette, No. 8 Florida Atlantic. Bracket 2: No. 2 Western Kentucky, No. 3 Troy, No. 6 South Alabama, No. 7 Louisiana-Monroe

Who's hot: Middle Tennessee State won five of its last six games, including a two-game sweep of Western Kentucky to claim a share of the regular-season title. The Blue Raiders earned the top seed by virtue of the head-to-head tiebreaker.

Who's not: WKU lost its final four games after winning each of its previous nine. Louisiana-Monroe dropped nine of its last 12 but won its final two regular-season games against Houston Baptist.

Bubble watch: Middle Tennessee State (36th in the RPI) and Western Kentucky (46th) should both be safe for at-large bids, though the Hilltoppers could find themselves on the bubble if they finish the week 0-2. Troy (60th) and Florida International (68th) are vying for a third bid out of the Sun Belt, and the team that fares better this week figures to have the inside track.

Favorite: Take your pick between MTSU and WKU, the two best offensive teams in the league and two of the top three pitching clubs. Forced to choose one, we'll take the Blue Raiders, who blasted 23 more home runs than the Toppers and have an edge against all Sun Belt teams in close games thanks to closer Coty Woods (1.73 ERA, 13 saves). MTSU also has one of the best players in the nation in SBC Player of the Year Bryce Brentz (.485/.550/1.005 with 27 homers and 67 RBIs; 5-3, 4.90 off the mound). The worst news for the rest of the Sun Belt: Brentz is just a sophomore.

Dark horse: Florida International can mash with the Raiders and Toppers. The Panthers ranked second in the league in home runs (82) and runs (472), led by junior outfielder Tyler Townsend (.433/.512/.865 with 24 homers and 76 RBIs). FIU also stood toe-to-toe with several of the league's top contenders, winning series against Troy and Western Kentucky, plus sets against fellow Sunshine State regional contenders Jacksonville and South Florida.

WAC

WAC

Site: Honolulu

Dates: May 21-24

Format: Six teams, double-elimination

The field: No. 1 San Jose State, No. 2 Louisiana Tech, No. 3 Fresno State, No. 4 New Mexico State, No. 5 Hawaii, No. 6 Nevada

Who's hot: San Jose State and Fresno State each carries four-game winning streaks into the conference tournament. The Spartans have won seven of their past nine games, while Fresno State and Louisiana Tech have each won eight of their past 10.

Who's not: Hawaii has stumbled since getting off to a 26-15 start (9-5 in the WAC), losing nine of its last 14 games and splitting a four-game home series against Utah Valley in the final weekend.

Bubble watch: Hawaii was in good shape for an at-large bid before its rough finish, which dropped its RPI to 52nd. It's hard to imagine the Rainbows' garnering an at-large berth after finishing fifth in the WAC, even with a stout nonconference schedule highlighted by three wins against Coastal Carolina. San Jose State went 39-18 overall, 15-7 in conference play to win the WAC by three games. The Spartans deserve an at-large bid if they don't win the automatic bid, but they rank just 74th in the RPI, and no team with an RPI worse than 59th has earned an at-large bid in the past five years. If the committee recognizes that the RPI is far from a perfect measure, the Spartans have a chance.

Favorite: San Jose State swept a four-game series against Nevada this past weekend even without two of its top starting pitchers, as senior lefty David Berner (7-1, 3.00) was dealing with arm fatigue, and senior righty Ryan Shopshire (5-1, 4.12) was serving a four-game suspension after getting ejected during a midweek game against Stanford. The Spartans will need that duo to help carry the pitching load if they are to win the conference tournament. San Jose State is not a star-studded team, but the Spartans are a very solid fundamental team that ranks ninth in the nation in fielding percentage (.977), fifth in hit-by-pitches (100), 14th in sacrifice flies (33) and 20th in sac bunts (50).

Dark horse: New Mexico State leads the nation in scoring (11.3 runs per game) and ranks second in homers (116). Those numbers are somewhat inflated by the hitter-friendly environment of Las Cruces and New Mexico State's soft nonconference schedule, but the Aggies can swing the bats anywhere they go, as senior infielder Bryan Marquez (.421/.539/.831 with 22 homers and 81 RBIs) headlines a group of five NMSU regulars who batted better than .380. Hawaii's Les Murakami Stadium suppresses power numbers, but the Aggies can win there if they stay patient; they lead the nation with 390 walks.

For more on college baseball, check out Baseball America.

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