Preview: Progress continues for Big East

Not too long ago the Big East was just a blip on the national radar screen.

That now seems like ancient history as the conference continues to improve and is expected to make another statement this season.

Louisville put the conference on the map in 2007 when it reached the College World Series. But last season, Connecticut brought more attention to the league by putting together a great campaign that ended with an NCAA Regional host.

Stewart Ijames and the Cardinals hope to win another conference title this season.
(Louisville)

St. John’s reached the Charlottesville Regional title game against Virginia last season, and surprising Pittsburgh came close to punching its ticket to the NCAA postseason.

With Connecticut expected to be highly ranked this spring with Omaha aspirations, and St. John’s and Louisville returning good teams, the best could be yet to come for the Big East.

The conference has made significant progress, but dealing with higher expectations can sometimes be a difficult chore.

We’ll see how the Big East programs react.

How they stack up

1. Connecticut – It could be an Omaha type of year for the Huskies, which return an excellent weekend rotation and enough hitters to make a CWS appearance a reality.

2. Louisville – The offense is a question mark with the departures of several players, but the pitching staff is filled with premier talent.

3. St. John’s – The Johnnies welcome back one of the conference’s best offenses. We’ll see if the pitching staff can help this team take a huge step forward.

4. South Florida – The Bulls have two of the league’s best weekend starters in Andrew Barbosa and Randy Fontanez. But will it even matter?

5. Pittsburgh – The Panthers will again have a solid offense, but can the pitching staff hold up outside of ace Matt Iannazzo?

6. Rutgers – The Scarlet Knights could do better than expected if their pitching staff rises to the occasion after compiling a 5.90 ERA last season.

7. Notre Dame – The Fighting Irish still have a ways to go, but look for coach Mik Aoki to get the absolute most out of his team.

8. Cincinnati – The Bearcats won’t take a huge step forward in league play until their offense improves. They return just one hitter that batted over .300 full-time last season.

9. West Virginia – They should be fine from an offensive standpoint, but oh boy, that pitching staff has some work to do.

10. Seton Hall – The Pirates have the pitching to give some teams a scare throughout the spring.

11. Villanova – Some talented players return, but will some key offensive losses be too much to overcome?

12. Georgetown – The Hoyas are expected to be back in their rightful spot at the bottom of the Big East standings.

All-conference team

C Kevan Smith, Pittsburgh

1B Mike Nemeth, Connecticut

2B Ryan Wright, Louisville

SS Steve Nyisztor, Rutgers

3B Grant Buckner, West Virginia

OF Jeremy Baltz, St. John’s

OF George Springer, Connecticut

OF Stewart Ijames, Louisville

DH Joe Panik, St. John’s

SP Kyle Hansen, St. John’s

SP Matt Barnes, Connecticut

SP Andrew Barbosa, South Florida

RP Tony Zych, Louisville

Rising stock

Connecticut – The Huskies’ rise up the college baseball ranks is something special to watch. It wasn’t long ago the Huskies were a non-factor on the national stage, but that has changed. The Huskies took a significant step forward last season when they compiled a 48-16 record and had a campaign that included an NCAA Regional host. Now the Huskies are looking for something even better.

St. John’s outfielder Jeremy Baltz – Some freshmen have a tough time making the transition to big-time baseball, but Baltz wasn’t one of those guys last season. He was arguably the league’s top hitter and finished his first campaign with a .396 average. Could he do even better as a sophomore this season?

Pittsburgh coach Joe Jordano – Life is good for Jordano. Despite the fact his program only has 8.99 scholarships, he has found a way to create a winner. The Panthers, who will open a brand new ballpark this season, almost made an NCAA Regional last season after finishing with 38-18 record. The Panthers will be good again this season.

Louisville shortstop Ryan Wright – The Cardinals hope to rebuild with Wright and others leading the way. Look for Wright to have a fruitful junior campaign. He is coming off a great season, where he batted .366 with 17 doubles, two triples, 16 homers and 80 RBIs. He also slugged .638 and had a .413 on-base percentage. Additionally, he was 10-for-13 in stolen bases.

Falling stock

South Florida – The Bulls are expected to compete for an NCAA postseason appearance, but they’re not in unchartered waters. They were expected to do big things last season, too, but ended the campaign tied for fourth place and with a 26-32 record. There’s no reason why the Bulls should struggle this spring. Will they finally move forward?

West Virginia – It wasn’t long ago the Mountaineers were postseason contenders, but things sure have changed the past couple of seasons. The Mountaineers finished last season with a 27-30 record and a ninth place finish. They’re not expected to improve this season with several key hitters and pitchers to replace.

Notre Dame – It’s safe to say new coach Mik Aoki has some major work to do this season and beyond. The Fighting Irish have taken huge steps back the past few seasons, and are coming off a campaign where they went 22-32 and finished in a two-way tie for ninth in the Big East. There’s no reason why the Irish should be consistently bad. Can Aoki work wonders sooner than expected?

Villanova – After finishing last season with a 29-23 record, the Wildcats hope to put together another winning season. However, that will be difficult with the departure of talented hitter Matt Szczur and other key cogs. It would be a surprise if the Wildcats finish conference higher than 10th or 11th.

Best pitcher

RHP Matt Barnes, Connecticut

Barnes is an elite draft prospect and the league’s top pitcher. The talented right-hander started 13 games last season and tallied a 3.92 ERA in 82 2/3 innings. He also struck out 75 and walked 25 and limited teams to a .257 average. The righty threw one complete game last season. Look for Barnes to have an even better ’11 campaign.

Best hitter

OF Jeremy Baltz, St. John’s

The Johnnies have a chance to do something special, thanks in part to the sophomore outfielder. Baltz had an amazing freshman campaign for the Johnnies, batting .396 with 16 doubles, a triple, 24 homers and 85 RBIs. He also slugged .771 and had an impressive .479 on-base percentage.

Postseason contenders

The Big East again will have a solid Big Three with Connecticut, Louisville and St. John’s leading the way. The Huskies hosted an NCAA Regional last season and are expected to take another step forward this season with a super regional berth and perhaps even a trip to Omaha. UL, meanwhile, has some rebuilding to do but again is expected to reach an NCAA Regional and maybe even more. St. John’s returns several key players from a team that reached an NCAA Regional title game last season. Its expectations are greater this season. Also keep an eye on South Florida and Pittsburgh, who are expected to be in the postseason discussion come May.

Quick hits

• It was a quiet offseason for the Big East when it comes to coaching changes. Mik Aoki making the move from Boston College to Notre Dame was the only transaction. Aoki has a tough job on his hands for a couple of years, but he brings an impressive resume to the conference. Aoki almost guided the Eagles to an NCAA Regional last season, but is most known for guiding the program to the Austin Regional two seasons ago.

• Pittsburgh has high hopes for the season, but is concerned about the left side of its infield with the departures of third baseman Joe Leonard and shortstop Danny Lopez. Both players were solid fielders last season and leave huge holes. Leonard started 54 of 55 games and had a .962 fielding percentage. Lopez, meanwhile, started 48 games and had a .955 fielding percentage. Can young players be adequate replacements?

• Connecticut has higher goals this season, such as finding a way to get to Omaha. But it’s also important to note they have two of the top MLB draft prospects in outfielder George Springer and pitcher Matt Barnes. Springer is arguably the top position player behind Rice third baseman Anthony Rendon, and is coming off a campaign where he batted .337 with 16 doubles, four triples, 18 homers and 62 RBIs. Barnes, meanwhile, is an excellent pitcher that teams up with Elliot Glynn to formulate a solid rotation.

• Louisville has several players to watch this spring, but keep a close eye on weekend starter and right-handed pitcher Mike Nastold. Nastold turned from Tommy John surgery in the fall and was very effective. He missed all of last season rehabbing the injury, but went 2-0 with a 3.52 ERA in 38 1/3 innings as a freshman two seasons ago. He could be the perfect addition to the pitching staff with the departure of Thomas Royse.

• Notre Dame will miss pitchers Joe Spano, Steve Sabatino and Ryan Richter to Tommy John surgery this season. Sabatino is the tough loss because he started 14 games and had a 5.53 ERA in 71 2/3 innings last season. Spano made 23 appearances and Richter made 13 appearances. The Fighting Irish are thin on the mound this spring.

• South Florida may have some question marks in other areas, but it has two of the league’s better starting pitchers in Andrew Barbosa and Randy Fontanez. Barbosa went 8-2 with a 2.40 ERA in 86 1/3 innings last season. He also struck out 95 and walked 22 and limited teams to a .228 average. Fontanez, meanwhile, went 5-7 with a 3.59 ERA in 110 1/3 innings. He struck out 105 and walked 28 and limited teams to a .241 average. The Bulls should win a lot of games if their offense rises to the occasion.

Kendall Rogers is the college baseball editor for Yahoo! Sports and Rivals.com. Follow him on Twitter and follow Yahoo! Sports College Baseball on Facebook. Send Kendall a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Monday, Jan 24, 2011