Sun Belt ready to take step forward
Follow Kendall Rogers on Twitter at @ysportsncaabb.
Florida Atlantic and the rest of the Sun Belt are in position to perhaps make a huge statement at the end of the season.
The Sun Belt historically isn’t considered one of the nation’s best conferences. But things have changed for the better this season. Whether the change is temporary or permanent remains to be seen.
While conferences in the region such as the Big 12 and Conference USA have struggled outside of the top two or three clubs in each conference, the Sun Belt has had a very solid season with several teams in the mix for NCAA postseason appearances.
To say the least, the Sun Belt is in great position to reap the benefits of the Big 12 and C-USA taking steps back this season.
“We were the 10th rated conference in the land not too long ago. This season, though, we’re currently sixth in conference RPI. The league has done well,” Florida Atlantic coach John McCormack said. “What has helped our leagues and other leagues around the country is the fact many bigger conference teams are forced to play us in the midweek because of the compacted schedule.”
McCormack added that several Sun Belt coaches have figured this out and have made the necessary adjustments to their midweek schedules the past few seasons. Western Kentucky, for example, has played Louisville, Kentucky and Vanderbilt in midweek action this season, and has a respectable RPI of 57 as a result.
Florida Atlantic, which leads the Sun Belt standings and has an overall record of 28-16 with an RPI of 32, has faced high RPI teams such as Pittsburgh (once) and Miami (three times), and will face Florida in a midweek bout before the regular season is completed.
FAU and WKU’s improved midweek scheduling provides a snapshot of what the Sun Belt has done better to improve their standing on the national stage.
As a direct result of that practice and more, the Sun Belt has a chance to match some history on Selection Monday in a few weeks.
The conference realistically could earn four postseason bids.
Why is that big news, you ask?
Well, ponder these numbers. The Sun Belt hasn’t recorded more than three total bids the last four seasons. The conference earned two bids in ’09, ’08 and ’06. The league earned three bids in ’07.
This season, teams in the mix for at-large bids include Florida Atlantic, South Alabama, Louisiana-Lafayette, Western Kentucky, or perhaps even Troy and Middle Tennessee State with a lot of luck down the stretch.
Florida Atlantic is the pick to earn the automatic bid as of today. The Owls have an RPI of 32. South Alabama, which hosts FAU for a huge series this weekend, has an RPI of 58. Louisiana-Lafayette has a surprising RPI of 33, Western Kentucky has an RPI of 37 and longer shots Troy and Middle Tennessee State have RPIs of 62 and 71, respectively.
In our latest NCAA postseason projections, FAU, WKU and South Alabama earned regional bids. Louisiana-Lafayette, meanwhile, was one of our last 15 teams out.
Three total bids, including an automatic berth, seems like a sure bet heading down the stretch. But it shouldn’t come as a surprise if the Sun Belt earns four regional bids. Expecting five or even six bids is stretching it, though.
“Getting four teams in the postseason would absolutely be fantastic for this conference,” McCormack said. “We will see what happens, though. What happens the next few weeks will determine our fate as a conference.”
The surprising Sun Belt is in prime position to take a huge step forward.
The member programs have done a great job of making this situation a possibility.
They also should send the Big 12 and Conference USA some “thank you” cards.
Texas – The Longhorns are riding a 21-game winning streak and have an 11-game lead over second place Texas Tech and Kansas State in the Big 12 title race.
Portland – The Pilots are winners of 11-straight games and have a golden opportunity to earn a marquee series win against San Diego this weekend.
Virginia – The Cavaliers are winners of 11-straight and are well on their way to earning a much expected national seed.
New Mexico State – The Aggies have won 10-straight games and could almost wrap up the WAC regular season title with a series win over Fresno State this weekend.
Mississippi – The Rebels have won 10-straight games and have another opportunity to earn a huge series win against Arkansas this weekend. Can the Rebels get in the mix for a national seed?
Southern Mississippi – The Golden Eagles all of a sudden are in the mix for a postseason berth after winning eight-straight games.
Arizona State – The Sun Devils are winners of seven-straight games and have a commanding three-game lead over second place California in the Pac-10 title race.
Duke – The Blue Devils were supposed to have a promising campaign, but they’re near the bottom of the ACC with a 7-17 record.
Ohio State – In addition to coach Bob Todd announcing his resignation, the Buckeyes are 3-7 in their last ten games and 8-7 in the Big Ten.
West Virginia – The Mountaineers somehow found a way to be tied with Georgetown for the Big East cellar with a horrendous 3-15 mark in the Big East.
Old Dominion – The Monarchs have taken a huge step back the past few seasons. They are 3-7 in their last ten games and 17-27 overall.
Utah – It wasn’t too long ago the Utes were near the top of the Mountain West. Now they are in trouble having won two of their last eight games.
Oregon State – It’s do or die for the Beavers against Oregon this weekend, as they are just 4-11 in the Pac-10 this spring.
Mississippi State – The Bulldogs are in big trouble as an SEC cellar dweller with eight-straight setbacks, including a series sweep against rival Ole Miss last weekend.
LSU returns home to face Vanderbilt – It’s safe to say the Tigers aren’t used to losing. So, it’ll be interesting to see how the Tigers fare this weekend when they play host to Vanderbilt. The Tigers have lost six straight SEC contests and desperately need a series win this weekend to stay in the mix for an NCAA regional host. Indeed, it’s strange times for the Tigers.
Oregon-Oregon State series big for different reasons – Before the season, pretty much everyone figured this series would be a measuring stick of just how far Oregon has come. However, it’s the Ducks playing big brother. The Ducks are easily in the NCAA postseason mix right now. OSU, though, needs an incredibly strong finish to make a postseason appearance. This series is big for the opposite reason we figured just a couple of months ago. Give much credit to UO coach George Horton.
Arkansas tries to get out of a rut – The Razorbacks were in fantastic shape just a few weeks ago. However, the Hogs now have some work to do to remain in good shape for a national seed. Arkansas has dropped SEC series to Florida and Auburn the past two weekends. Ole Miss, meanwhile, has won 10 straight games and is red-hot entering this weekend’s series in Oxford, Miss. Will Arkansas actually lose three-straight SEC series?
Portland has chance to make big statement – Outside of Horton’s Oregon Ducks, the best story in the Pacific Northwest this season is the rise of Chris Sperry’s Portland Pilots. The Pilots certainly didn’t experience much success last season, but are 31-9 overall, including 11-1 in conference play so far this season. The Pilots are still on the outside looking in when it comes to a postseason berth. After beating Oregon in midweek action, the Pilots desperately need a home series win over San Diego, which has an RPI of 30.
Will someone besides Fresno State find a way to represent the WAC this season?
New Mexico certainly hopes to be that team.
The Aggies certainly aren’t making their postseason plans just yet. However, they’re in good shape heading down the stretch.
The Aggies have compiled a 33-12 overall record and are in first place in the WAC with an impressive 13-2 mark. But should the Aggies falter in the WAC tournament in a few weeks, coach Rocky Ward hopes his team will have done enough to earn an at-large berth to the NCAA postseason.
NMSU has an RPI of 59 and much more work to do to feel safe.
Ward discussed his club’s solid season and NCAA postseason chances.
Rogers: Your team leads the WAC by 4 1/2 games so far this season. What are your thoughts on the campaign thus far?
Ward: It certainly have a unique season for our program. We opened the season in not so impressive fashion because a few guys we were looking forward to relying on didn’t pan out real well. It didn’t look like we would be able to pitch as well. We made some adjustments before the UC Santa Barbara series and thought our pitching would be good enough to get us through the regular season. We made a few moves on the mound and some defensive moves to help stabilize our team defense. The bottom line is that since the UCSB series, our defense really has helped out our pitching staff. We also have done a great job at the plate, which is amazing considering we still don’t have our three and four hole hitters in Mike Sodders and Ben Harty. This team really has turned things around since the early part of the season.
Rogers: The offense is hitting .365 and is doing a nice job at and away from home. What is the key to success for your offensive unit?
Ward: The biggest key this season has been our overall depth at the plate. One real problem that we have is we don’t run particularly well. Therefore, we have to score as much as we do without doing too much on the base paths. Even without Sodders and Harty at the plate, we have a bunch of quality hitters that are getting the job done. Some of my teams in the past have had a couple of fantastic hitters but a bunch of average hitters. Now we have several guys that can hit 15-20 doubles for us this season. We’re just a better overall team from an offensive standpoint. We have good power ability and pretty much of all of our hitters are doing their jobs.
Rogers: Who have been the biggest surprises this season?
Ward: Tyler Mack and Ryan Beck have moved into the starting rotation the past few weeks and have been very solid for us. The two of them are 8-0. They do have ERAs that aren’t particularly impressive. However, I can tell you they are much better than their ERAs indicate. Every once in a while they will pitch like freshmen, but overall, they have some pretty good stuff. Ryan Aguayo wears the same number as former shortstop Bryan Marquez and has given us a great campaign at the plate. He is one of those kids that doesn’t have great range, but makes every play that is near him. I also have to give Parker Hipp a lot of credit for adequately replacing Mike Sodders.
Rogers: Is there anything that needs to get much better down the stretch to make a statement with a postseason berth?
Ward: Two weeks ago our starting pitching was a major concern. You’re always worried about games where your pitching gives up eight or nine runs. However, we were down 8-1 in a game against Nevada at one point and came back and won the contest. The overall consistency of our starting pitching really is the only concern we have right now. Where we are right now offensively is pretty comforting. We know that if we don’t get a good start from a pitcher, someone at the plate will be ready to rise to the occasion. We don’t worry too much about that. We would like to avoid having to win games like that, but we do have the ability to do it.
Rogers: You always hear coaches talk about how hard it is to pitch at your home ballpark in Las Cruces, N.M. Is there any truth to that?
Ward: We certainly have a very offensive ballpark, but not because it is small or anything like that. Our ballpark is 400 to dead center, 385 to the gaps and 340 down the lines, so it’s not like our walls are short or anything like that. There are other parks in this league that are much shorter in distance from side to side, that’s for sure. Here is the bottom line with that argument, though. My teams historically have high ERAs because we score a lot of runs. If we’re going to score a lot of runs, I’m never going to play in the infield in or anything like that. After all, we feel like we can score against anyone. But I will say this, before games, I don’t look at the wind or the temperature. I always look at the humidity. I always tell pitchers don’t expect to come here and have an ERA in the two or three range. I always tell our pitches to go just go out there and throw strikes and let the offense do the rest. When we’re up 10-2 in the middle or late in ballgames, we’re not going to be trying to cut off runs. That’s much of the reason we give up a lot of runs.
Rogers: With a fantastic record of 35-12, a first-place standing in the WAC and a somewhat decent RPI of 58, do you finally feel comfortable about a postseason berth?
Ward: Not yet, not really at all. The RPI really is not far and it does a great job of simply penalizing teams in the Western part of the country. The argument has been made for a very long time, and most recently by many coaches in the region. It’s easy for me to say because I’ve coached in the Big West, Sun Belt and now the WAC. I’ll tell you one thing, if my team right now was playing in the Sun Belt, our RPI would be 20 points or so higher than it is right now. There’s no question about that. My 2003 team made a regional with an RPI of 42 in the Sun Belt. We were able to carry a lot of those power points because of our conference. What happens out in this part of the country is we just tend to absolutely beat each other up. There only are so many power points to go around, so everyone ends up getting hurt by that. I know my club versus some of the clubs I’ve had in the past. I love the Sun Belt, but I honestly don’t think it’s a much higher quality league than the WAC. I have a lot of respect for that league and definitely am great friends with many of those coaches. For us, we’re going to have to be in the 45 range to be in good shape to earn an at-large berth. We have a lot of things in our favor, such as a great road record and a couple of nice winning streaks. Right now, we’re on a 10-game winning streak. Those are things that really could help us this season. Still, we need to finish the regular season on a strong note.
Rogers: You have a strength of schedule ranked No. 108 in the country. Do you have difficulty getting teams to do home-and-home series with you?
Ward: We are in the high plains desert and we have nice temperatures. There are some teams that like to come out here and others that don’t. One thing I will say, though, is that teams that come out here know there is a great chance they won’t get rained out and will be able to play some baseball. We have a lot of advantages form that standpoint. I know when Hurricane Katrina happened a few years ago former UNO coach Tom Walter looked to us for some support and a place to practice for a while because he liked the area and the weather we enjoy. Heck, this is the area where Jesse James lived and died. It’s a different culture for sure. The biggest frustration I have more than anything schedule related is the fact the professional folks have a tendency to discount my players because of their offensive numbers. They are wrong in that aspect. Our power numbers this season and pretty much equal across the board, home or away.
How much damage was done to UCLA’s national seed chances against Arizona State last weekend?
Losing all three games to the Sun Devils definitely hurt the Bruins’ chances of a national seed a great deal. UCLA appeared to be in OK shape for a national seed before the weekend. But after losing all three contests, the Bruins fell to 7-8 in conference, which is good enough for the bottom half of the Pac-10 standings. Additionally, the Bruins have just a 4-5 record against Top 25 RPI teams and a 10-9 mark against RPI Top 50 teams. I would say the Bruins must at least win three of their last four series to be in the mix for a national seed. The Bruins certainly have the RPI to be considered. However, the rest of their resume leaves something to be desired.
With Kentucky likely not making an NCAA regional this season, is it already time for a coaching change?
I get the feeling there is just a little hangover in Lexington, Ky., from the basketball team doing so well this past season. The emphatic answer to your question is no way. Sure, coach Gary Henderson appears to be on his way to not leading the Wildcats to an NCAA regional berth again this season, his second. However, the Wildcats have had some issues throughout the spring. From losing potential All-American pitcher James Paxton before the season began to losing Alex Meyer for a couple of weeks because of mono, the Wildcats have had some tough luck. UK fans have a beef if the Wildcats once again miss a regional next season. This season, though? Henderson deserves a mulligan.
You’re going to have to explain this to me. How are Texas and Virginia ranked ahead of Arizona State?
It must be made clear that our top-25 rankings do not equal our regional projections. The rankings are who we believe the best teams in America are at a given time. Our regional projections are a snapshot of what we believe the NCAA Selection Committee would do if the season ended on a particular day. There’s a significant difference. With that said, I believe Texas has a superior starting rotation and pitching staff. The Longhorns also have been much better at the plate the last month of the season. Virginia and Arizona State are better comparisons. Both teams have excellent offensive lineups and solid pitching staffs. We have seen both the Cavaliers and Sun Devils. As impress as ASU was last weekend against UCLA, I think Virginia has more potential and would win a series between the two clubs. But honestly, who could go wrong with any of the three clubs?
Cal State Fullerton sophomore starting pitcher Noe Ramirez has missed the past couple of weeks because of a wrist injury. However, Fullerton coach Dave Serrano announced this week that Ramirez would be back in the starting rotation against UC Riverside on Friday. His return to the rotation is absolutely huge for the Titans … From the he is a good person file, take a bow to Villanova two-sport star Matt Szczur. Szczur gave bone marrow to a 1-year-old girl battling leukemia earlier this week. Szczur had to take medication several days in advance of the procedure to increase his blood-making cells. His status for the Wildcats’ series against Rutgers this weekend is unknown … In a surprising move earlier this week, Ohio State coach Bob Todd, 61, announced he would be retiring at the conclusion of the season. Todd has been with the Buckeyes for 23 years and has accumulated 897 wins. He also has guided the Buckeyes to seven Big Ten regular season titles and eight tournament championships. Additionally, the Buckeyes have made 13 NCAA postseason appearances on Todd’s watch. Ohio State is one of the more attractive northern jobs, so it will be very interesting to see what type of candidates the Buckeyes court at the end of the season. Ohio State is not a bad job. … Air Force head coach Mike Hutcheon is having an interesting campaign. After announcing a few weeks ago he was stepping down at the end of the season to take another job at Air Force, Hutcheon once again made headlines last weekend by getting suspended for a game for getting ejected from a contest two-straight days. The Falcons have an overall record of 11-34 and are 1-12 in Mountain West action … St. John’s coach Ed Blankmeyer earned his 500th win earlier this week with a midweek win over Iona … Vanderbilt hosts Louisville in a very important midweek contest next week. But the contest is important for another reason, too. The Commodores are offering free admission to the contest. However, fans are encouraged to donate to the Nashville Red Cross fund, which will be used to assist those affected by the horrible floods that ravaged the State of Tennessee last week … For being this late in the season, LSU enters its weekend series against Vanderbilt in an interesting position. The Tigers will start ace pitcher Anthony Ranaudo in the series opener against Vanderbilt’s outstanding righty in Sonny Gray. But the Tigers are unsure as to who will start on Saturday and Sunday. Some of the hesitation on announcing starters certainly stems from the poor showing by Matty Ott last weekend against Florida. Ott, making his first start of the season, allowed nine runs in 3 2/3 innings against the Gators. LSU must stabilize its weekend rotation before the NCAA postseason arrives.
Portland – The Pilots are in the midst of their biggest week of the season. The Pilots climbed to 66 in the latest RPI after a nice midweek win over Oregon. They also could use a series win over San Diego this weekend to improve their postseason resume. The Pilots only have a 2-4 record versus RPI Top 50 teams and have much work to do to make a postseason berth. UP has an overall record of 27-9.
Florida – With series wins over Arkansas and LSU the past two weekends, the Gators are in fantastic shape for a national seed. The Gators only have a 15-10 record against RPI Top 50 teams, but lead the nation with 11 wins against RPI Top 25 teams. Oh yeah, the Gators also have an RPI of 2 with an overall record of 31-11. UF is in great shape if it wins two of its last three SEC series.
Auburn – It’s about time the Tigers are in the mix for an NCAA postseason appearance. The Tigers still have some work to do to earn an NCAA regional host, but their place as a postseason contender is cemented barring a huge collapse the final few weekends. AU has an overall record of 30-15, including a 12-9 mark in the SEC, and also has 11 wins against RPI Top 50 teams and eight wins against RPI Top 25 teams. AU finally is in great shape.
Oklahoma and Rice – When it comes to potential surprise NCAA regional hosts in a few weeks, the Sooners and Owls certainly stand out. The Sooners have an RPI of 22 and an overall record of 33-12. However, they only have an 8-8 record versus RPI Top 50 teams. Rice, meanwhile, has an RPI of 24 and only an 8-10 record against RPI Top 50 teams. Both teams have much work to do to earn a host spot. But if both teams finish the regular season on a hot note, don’t be surprised when one of their names are called on Selection Monday.
Pac-10 – It could be a postseason to remember for the Pac-10. The conference legitimately could receive eight bids to the NCAA postseason. However, six or seven bids is the most likely scenario. Arizona State, California, UCLA, Arizona, Oregon and Stanford are in fantastic shape to make an NCAA regional appearance. Washington, though, is another team to watch. The Huskies are 8-7 in conference with an RPI of 45. Washington State also is in the mix for a regional bid.