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March 31, 2008

Wait 'Til Next Year

Unless You're Still Playing in the CWS in 2008

by Bryan Smith

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Before the season, my initial preview of the college baseball scene was an analysis of the offensive structure of the game. I tried to show that despite the aluminum bats we weren't talking about a 30-run brand of baseball (even though Virginia defied me by dropping 27 on Coppin State in the season's first week). I really hoped to prove that it's a game where Brian Roberts' major league numbers are average, and that it's a brand of baseball where defense is inconsistent. To prove this, I used the averages of the 12 conferences that had at least one at-large bid in the 2007 NCAA Tournament. With a few exceptions, it's those 12 conferences that host the best baseball in the nation. While the midway point of the regular season isn't until next week or so, I decided to abandon our usual six-point structure just for this week to review the state of those 12 conferences. As a point of reference, last year 45 of the 64 NCAA tournament spots went to teams in these conferences.

Atlantic Coast Conference
Last year: Seven teams-Clemson, Florida State, Miami, North Carolina, NC State, Virginia, and Wake Forest.
2008 Locks: Florida State, Miami, North Carolina. The Tar Heels have yet to lose a weekend series, but the Seminoles and Hurricanes both have more impressive resumes.
The Rest: Virginia has won nine of 10 games since losing back-to-back road series to NC State and Duke; they'll need to decisively take care of Maryland and Wake Forest in consecutive weekends in mid-April. Wake Forest would be close to a lock if not for one-run losses to Pepperdine (2/23), Troy (3/1), and Florida State on Sunday. Will they pitch enough to be in the top six? NC State certainly should do that, and I'm inclined to call them the conference's fifth-best team after they beat Virginia and then split with North Carolina this weekend. The fourth-best distinction goes to Clemson, who I expect to do well in April and establish themselves as locks. I also am guessing that Georgia Tech gets in, though they'll have to win some games against North Carolina and Miami the next two weekends to show up on the radar.
Best guess: Seven teams will again make it-Clemson, Florida State, Georgia Tech, Miami, North Carolina, NC State, and Virginia.

Atlantic Sun
Last year: Two, Jacksonville and Stetson
2008 Locks: None.
The Rest: With four teams not eligible for post-season play, including the conference's top team in Florida Gulf Coast, it looks like the A-Sun might only get one team in this season. The battle shapes up between a quartet, Lipscomb, Jacksonville, Mercer and Stetson. Of those four, only Jacksonville has an impressive resume, with home-and-home splits against Central Florida and Florida. Of course, Lipscomb beat them two weeks ago, so who knows?
Best guess: Just one team, Lipscomb.

Big East
Last year: Three teams-Louisville, Rutgers, and St. John's.
2008 Locks: St. John's; a big series in Louisville looms next weekend, but with a 13-game winning streak and perfect record through six conference games, call me optimistic.
The Rest: I think we're looking at three teams vying for one spot-Notre Dame, West Virginia, and Louisville. The Cardinals just haven't been very impressive this season, losing a weekend series to Pitt this weekend; taking two of three from St. John's next weekend would be big. Notre Dame's non-conference resume isn't impressive, with some bad losses and not enough good wins. West Virginia had an 11-game win streak before dropping the first two games at Rutgers this weekend. They haven't played much, though, which explains the team's .351/.425/.543 line on offense. It might come down to a weekend series against Louisville on May 10.
Best guess: Just two teams, Louisville and St. John's.

Big Ten
Last year: Just three teams, Michigan, Minnesota, and Ohio State.
2008 Locks: Michigan.
The Rest: It's going to be close. Out of conference, the two teams that were most tested outside of Michigan were Minnesota and Indiana. Those two teams dueled in the Metrodome this weekend, with Indiana salvaging a split. Denying the Gophers, who already have wins over Tulane, Pepperdine, and Missouri, would be tough. The Hoosiers are a little behind in their non-conference record, though. We also saw a Penn State/Ohio State series this weekend end in a split, but I put the Buckeyes ahead there. I don't think Illinois, Purdue, or Iowa have quite enough to get in, but none are too far out to be ruled out. The question will be whether this conference can get three teams in again, or if it will go back to its more usual two.
Best guess: Michigan and Minnesota.

Big 12
Last year: Six teams-Baylor, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma State, Texas, and Texas A&M.
2008 Locks: Missouri and Nebraska, so far. Big props to the Cornhuskers for winning the first two games against Texas in Austin this weekend, including a complete-game shutout by Thad Weber on Saturday.
The Rest: Tell me, why should Texas be a lock? They've lost weekend series to Stanford and Nebraska at home, and didn't sweep Kansas or Texas Tech. They went 1-2 at the Houston College Classic, so a 9-1 win over Rice on a Tuesday is the most impressive bullet point on their schedule so far. They should get in, but right now, there are much better teams ahead of them. Throw Baylor in the same boat, especially after losing two of three in Norman this weekend. In part because of that series, I think Oklahoma is going to get in, on top of their splitting with UCLA, and beating Houston and Tennessee. So if we assume the talented Longhorns and Bears turn things around, and the Big 12 gets six again, is the last spot Texas A&M's, or Oklahoma State's?
Best Guess Six make it in again-Baylor, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, and Texas.

Big West
Last year: Four teams in all, Cal State Fullerton, Long Beach State, UC Irvine, and UC Riverside.
2008 Locks: Cal State Fullerton, Long Beach State, and UC Irvine. Putting the Titans as a lock might be a bit of stretch right now, but a home-and-home sweep of UCLA and a win in Texas against TCU has me guessing that they're in.
The Rest: According to Boyd Nation, Cal Poly has the third-best strength of schedule in the nation. Of course, they also are well below .500. Their getting in will depend on their May: one game at USC, three at Fullerton, three at Riverside, and LBSU and Pepperdine at home. Can another UC school get in, between Riverside, Davis, or Santa Barbara? I think the school with the best chance out of that trio is UC Davis, given their split with Fresno State and a four-game sweep of Santa Clara. However, they were also swept in hosting the River City Classic, so they will need to prove they belong with their play in-conference. Riverside and Santa Barbara have both been even more disappointing in conference.
Best guess: Four, all told, as Cal Poly, Cal State Fullerton, Long Beach State, and UC Irvine all make it.

Conference USA
Last year Four, comprising East Carolina, Memphis, Rice, and Southern Miss.
2008 Locks: Just Rice, so far.
The Rest I think the conference gets five this year, but the last four spots will be a fight between five teams: Houston, Southern Miss, Tulane, Central Florida, and East Carolina. Houston took a weekend series from ECU a week ago, but the Pirates came back by taking a series from Central Florida. Central Florida has to be disappointed by opening the C-USA conference play with losses to Southern Miss and ECU. Southern Miss, on the other hand, beat Rice this weekend. I think the odd team out will be Houston or Tulane, and since Houston has really struggled against tournament teams out of conference, I'm going with the Green Wave.
Best guess: Five after all-Central Florida, East Carolina, Rice, Southern Miss, and Tulane.

Missouri Valley
Last year: Two, Creighton and Wichita State.
2008 Locks Wichita State.
The Rest: Four teams are vying for one spot, Northern Iowa, Creighton, Missouri State, and Southern Illinois. Of the four, I think Missouri State needs to be seen as the favorite, especially after beating Creighton and SIU to start the MVC season. However, the MVC overall hasn't been great out of conference, so I think we do need to ask if they are guaranteed to have a second team make it. For Missouri State to get in, the next 10 days will be big, as they play mid-week games against Arkansas and Missouri, and a weekend series in Wichita. Winning two of those five games would be huge, elevating Missouri State to pretty close to a lock. The Bears will have to pitch better, as a 5.66 ERA has been problematic to early season success.
Best guess: Just two, as Missouri State joins Wichita State in making it.

Pac-10
Last year: A quartet of Arizona, Arizona State, Oregon State, and UCLA.
2008 Locks: Arizona, Arizona State, California, and Stanford.
The Rest: One of the major stories of the 2008 college baseball season, five weeks in, has been the re-emergence of the Pac-10 as a power conference. After a down year in 2007, the Pac-10 is back, and they will argue for seven spots, ahead of the ACC and the Big 12. That might be a tough argument, so for now I'm going to assume that only six make it. Oregon State and UCLA are the favorites, with USC and both Washington schools still in the fight. The parity in this conference is truly amazing-Arizona is an assumed lock with their talent, but they are also currently last in the conference standings. I believe that both the Beavers and UCLA have righted their ships, and will get in the tournament. The onus is then put on USC, Washington, or Washington State to force the committee to put seven teams in. I believe the Cougars, who took three of four against Oklahoma, have the talent to do it, but the WCC's equally impressive resurgence might make it impossible.
Best guess: Like I said, I'm going with six initially-Arizona, Arizona State, California, Stanford, Oregon State, and UCLA.

SEC
Last year: Five all told-Arkansas, Mississippi, Mississippi State, South Carolina, and Vanderbilt.
2008 Locks: Florida, South Carolina, and Vanderbilt.
The Rest: The Eastern Division looks much better this season, but the entire SEC is as dominant as usual, with 11 of 12 teams with records above .500. I stripped Ole Miss of a lock after another horrible week, but I still think they'll get into the tournament. With their talent, they have to, right? So let's say the SEC gets six teams in. That leaves two slots for Georgia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Auburn, Alabama, Arkansas, and LSU to fight over. That's an amazing battle royale. Let's say Kentucky gets in, because I love the balance they have as a team, on the mound and in the lineup. The last spot, for me then, becomes a battle of Tennessee and Auburn. Since the Tigers won the weekend series, I'm going with them.
Best guess The six I've mentioned-Auburn, Florida, Kentucky, Ole Miss, South Carolina, and Vanderbilt.

Sun Belt
Last year: A trio of Louisiana-Lafayette, New Orleans, and Troy.
2008 Locks: None.
The Rest: Parity runs pretty deep in this conference, as I see as many as six teams fighting for two spots. I think Louisiana-Monroe probably deserves to be classified as a lock after sweeping New Orleans and Florida Atlantic, as well as beating Arkansas State. So if they get in, who's next in line? Troy has some big out-of-conference wins. Louisiana-Lafayette is the most talented team. New Orleans might be the best college group. Florida Atlantic has their share of big wins, and almost took two games from North Carolina, losing each by one run. I think it will come down to New Orleans and FAU, and I'm giving New Orleans-the most experienced group-the edge.
Best guess: Louisiana-Monroe and New Orleans.

WCC
Last year: Pepperdine and San Diego.
2008 Locks: Pepperdine and San Diego again.
The Rest: If it's going to be anyone beyond that front pair, I think the team with the best chance is Loyola Marymount. After all, they did beat Oregon State, San Diego State, and San Diego on consecutive days in early March. They also had a mid-week home-and-home sweep of USC last week. To get in, LMU will really need to take care of business against the conference's next tier: Saint Mary's, Santa Clara, and Gonzaga. I just think the conference is too talented, and that it will not happen.
Best guess: That same pair, Pepperdine and San Diego.

Finally, for the sake of trying, here's my guess at the 16 Regional Hosts: Arizona State, Arizona, California, Coastal Carolina, Florida State, Long Beach State, Miami, Michigan, Missouri, Nebraska, North Carolina, Rice, San Diego, UC Irvine, Vanderbilt, and Wichita State.

Bryan Smith is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Bryan's other articles. You can contact Bryan by clicking here

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