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College : : Story
Preview: Gaspard gamble paying off
Published: Thursday, March 31, 2011

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PREMIUM STORY: North Carolina, for once, is flying under the radar

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It wasn’t long ago many wondered why Alabama opted against conducting a national coaching search when long-time coach Jim Wells announced his retirement. Instead, the Crimson Tide made the swift move to hire assistant coach Mitch Gaspard.

At the time of Wells’ retirement, the move to make Gaspard head coach was a surprise to some that viewed Alabama as a solid job on the national stage, capable of luring an upper echelon coach.

Those doubts have turned into praise for Gaspard in the last year.

The Crimson Tide put together a solid 2010 campaign in his first season as head coach, winning the Atlanta Regional before bowing out to Clemson in super regional action.

This season, the Crimson Tide entered the campaign with several question marks on the mound and at the plate. But in Gaspard fashion, the hard-nosed Crimson Tide has compiled a 19-8 record and currently sits atop the SEC standings at 5-1.

Time will tell if the Crimson Tide is able to continue their current hot streak. But either way, Gaspard once again is proving why he was the man for the job all along.

No one would disagree with that now.

Alabama hosts Arkansas this weekend in an important SEC bout, but there also are several other series to watch.

We take an inside look at the weekend in college baseball.

WHO’S HOT

California: The Golden Bears have been fantastic on the mound and are coming off a huge home series sweep over Washington State. The Bears have won seven-straight contests and could find out in the coming days the program will be reinstated.

Texas A&M: The Aggies have been playing a fantastic brand of baseball the past couple of weeks with their pitching staff leading the charge. The Aggies are winners of seven straight, including two wins over Oklahoma and a home series sweep over Kansas. Now comes a road series against Kansas State.

Virginia: The Cavaliers are winners of six-straight games and got a huge perfect game performance by starting pitcher Will Roberts earlier this week. The Cavaliers are playing like a true national title contender, and that isn’t expected to change the rest of the season.

Southern Mississippi: The Golden Eagles have taken huge steps forward the past two weekends. They swept the Charleston tournament field two weekends ago before returning home and taking two of three from Tulane in a huge conference series. The Eagles earned a midweek win over in-state rival Ole Miss earlier this week, too.

Fresno State: You can’t say enough about what coach Mike Batesole and the Bulldogs are doing this season. The Bulldogs are winners of six-straight contests and are coming off a series sweep over San Diego. They should experience more success this weekend in a series against San Francisco.

WHO’S NOT

Duke: The Blue Devils put together a solid record in non-conference play, but are having issues in the ACC. The Devils are losers of eight-straight contests and have the tough chore of playing red-hot Georgia Tech at home this weekend.

Rutgers: The Scarlet Knights had high hopes for conference after playing well at times in non-conference, but have lost three of their last 10 contests, including a home series against Louisville in Big East action last weekend.

George Mason: The Patriots typically do OK in conference play, but are having issues getting on track so far this season. GMU has lost three-straight contests, nine of its last 10 games and is a dismal 1-8 in CAA play.

The Citadel: The Bulldogs were the cream of the crop in the Southern Conference last season, but that isn’t the case this spring. The Citadel is 10-15 overall and has lost three of its last seven games.

San Diego: The Toreros are having a campaign to forget. They got swept on the road by Fresno State last weekend and are losers of nine-straight contests. USD also is 1-9 in its last 10 games with a dismal 4-17 overall record.

STORYLINES TO WATCH

Arkansas. LSU in must-win situations: The Razorbacks have compiled a 16-2 non-conference record, but are in a must-win situation the third weekend of SEC play. The Hogs dropped a road series to Auburn to begin conference play before returning home and dropping two of three to red-hot Vanderbilt. The Hogs now hit the road to face a better than expected Alabama club with a 2-4 league record. Arkansas can’t afford to lose its first three conference series. The same applies to LSU, who got swept at home by Florida two weekends ago and dropped two of three on the road to Georgia last weekend. The Tigers are 1-5 in conference and can’t afford to fall to 2-7 or worse after a weekend series against Ole Miss.

North Carolina gets tested: It’s not common for the Tar Heels to be flying under the radar, but that’s exactly what’s happening this season. UNC isn’t ranked in the top 10 despite having a fantastic 23-4 record with an RPI of 4. The Tar Heels didn’t play an ultra tough non-conference schedule and started ACC play with series against Wake Forest, Virginia Tech and Duke, losing the series to the Demon Deacons. UNC has a chance to earn its first marquee series win this weekend against Clemson, a team with a fantastic RPI of 9.

Texas Tech’s potential statement weekend: The Red Raiders seemed to make a fantastic hire a couple of seasons ago when they plucked then assistant Dan Spencer away from Oregon State. Spencer has had trouble turning the corner since his arrival, but the Red Raiders have a chance to take a huge step forward this weekend. Tech had a chance to make a statement against TCU a few weeks ago, but dropped all three games at home. Now, the Red Raiders have won series against Baylor and Nebraska to begin Big 12 play, and hit the road to face Oklahoma this weekend. A series win over the Sooners would be huge for the program’s morale moving forward.

Big showdown in the Big East: Sure, the Big East lost a lot of its luster in non-conference play with St. John’s, Louisville and Connecticut struggling. But the series between the Johnnies and Huskies could have national implications as the season progresses. The Johnnies, led by stud shortstop Joe Panik and pitcher Kyle Hansen, swept Cincinnati to begin Big East play last weekend, while the Huskies took two of three from Pittsburgh. The expected pitching matchup to begin the series between Hansen and Huskies top prospect Matt Barnes should be a dandy.

Big weekend in the Pac-10: Another important weekend is on tap for the Pac-10 with a few teams in need of series wins and others hoping to put distance between themselves and others. California sits atop of the league with a 3-0 record and hosts struggling USC this weekend in a series it should win. Washington State, who is in a must-win situation after getting swept last weekend, has Stanford at home in a winnable series, UCLA hosts Washington in a series it should win, Oregon begins league play with a showdown against Arizona State that should be filled with pitching, and Oregon State travels to Arizona for the biggest series. The Beavers hope to begin conference with a bang, while the Wildcats aim to rebound from a tough series loss to rival Arizona State last weekend. It’ll be interesting to see who makes a move.

SERIES TO WATCH

No. 1 Vanderbilt at Auburn: The Commodores earned solid series wins over Mississippi State and Arkansas, and now hit the road again this weekend to face an Auburn club coming off a tough weekend series loss to Mississippi State. The ‘Dores have a huge advantage on the mound with an excellent starting rotation and a 2.29 ERA, but the Tigers have the ability to get rolling offensively at home. Vandy should win the series, but the Tigers are playing with a chip on their shoulder.

Oregon at No. 7 Arizona State: The series between the Ducks and Sun Devils was expected to be one of the season’s most hyped before the year began. But the Ducks have since lost some important contests and enter the three-game set unranked. Oregon, though, is currently playing a better brand of baseball and has an excellent pitching staff with ace left-hander Tyler Anderson leading the way. The series boils down to the UO offense, which enters the series with a dismal .235 average.

Texas Tech at No. 12 Oklahoma: The Red Raiders seemed to take a hard punch before last weekend’s series against Nebraska when they announced starting pitcher Daniel Coulombe would miss the rest of the season with an arm injury. But instead of sulking and taking a step back, the Red Raiders won their second-straight Big 12 series against Nebraska at home. The Red Raiders have a chance to make their biggest statement this weekend against Oklahoma, who has dropped a series to Texas A&M and split a snow-shortened two-game set with Missouri in Big 12 action.

No. 25 Clemson at No. 16 North Carolina: The Tigers have dealt with some serious injuries the past few weeks, and it showed last weekend in a road series loss to N.C. State. The Tigers bounced back in midweek action against Georgia and now hopes to surprise some with a road series win over North Carolina. The Tar Heels, meanwhile, have been better than expected this spring with freshman Colin Moran leading the way at the plate. There’s some uncertainty about the Tar Heels considering their ACC opponents so far, but we’ll know more about them after this weekend.

Arkansas at Alabama: The Razorbacks have had a tough past few weeks. They lost talented pitcher Geoffrey Davenport for the season with an arm injury, and now they’ve started SEC play with series losses to Auburn and Vanderbilt. Though the Hogs have been somewhat disappointing the first two weekends of conference, the Crimson Tide has been the opposite with series wins over Ole Miss and Kentucky. The Tide has a talented trio of pitchers in Nathan Kilcrease, Adam Morgan and Tucker Hawley. This should be an interesting series to follow this weekend. The Hogs realize they desperately need a series win.

Mississippi at No. 17 LSU: Outside of ace pitcher Matt Crouse proving to be one of the nation’s better pitchers so far this season, the Rebels have been just OK. That needs to change this weekend as they hit the road to take on the bruised Tigers. The Rebels split their first two SEC series against Alabama and Tennessee. The Tigers, meanwhile, were swept by Florida to begin conference and dropped a road series to Georgia last weekend. At 1-5 in the SEC, the Tigers can’t afford to lose a third-straight series. There’s much pressure on young pitchers Kurt McCune and Kevin Gausman.

No. 19 Oregon State at No. 18 Arizona: We’ll find out a lot about the Beavers this weekend as they travel to Arizona to face the Wildcats. The Beavers have a marquee series win over Long Beach State to their credit this spring, while the Wildcats also have a series win over the Dirtbags and are hoping to rebound from a tough series loss to rival Arizona State last weekend. OSU has an excellent ace pitcher in Sam Gaviglio, while Arizona also has one of the best in the business with Kurt Heyer leading the way. This is expected to be a fantastic series, with the home team having a slight edge.

No. 14 Stanford at Washington State: The Cougars entered the season with high hopes and almost were ranked. But instead of compiling a great record through the first week of Pac-10 play, the Cougars are searching for answers after losing five of their last six with Stanford in town this weekend. This series has upset written all over it with the Cougars in a must-win situation at home with a talented weekend rotation consisting of Adam Conley, James Wise and Chad Arnold. We’ll find out a lot about the Cougars this weekend.

No. 22 Southern Mississippi at Central Florida: Two of the best stories in college baseball so far this season butt heads in the Sunshine State this weekend. The Golden Eagles were expected to make an NCAA Regional this season, but no one expected them to be as good as they’ve been thus far. UCF, meanwhile, is having a fantastic campaign with a plethora of young talent leading the way. Both teams have high RPIs, and the winner would be in great shape with USM and UCF coming off series wins over Tulane and Rice, respectively.

St. John’s at Connecticut: The fact this series isn’t too huge on the national stage shows just how much the two programs have struggled this season. The Johnnies still have a decent RPI of 50 and are 8-2 in their last 10 games. The Huskies, though, have been a huge disappointment despite having a plethora of talent. The Huskies are 11-10-1 and have a terrible RPI of 132. The Huskies likely are out of at-large NCAA postseason contention no matter what happens the rest of the regular season, but a series win over the Johnnies would be a step in the right direction.

Oklahoma State at Nebraska: If you’re looking for a lot of offensive production this weekend, this isn’t the series to follow. The Cowboys have an excellent weekend rotation with Mike Strong, Brad Propst and Andrew Heaney leading the way, while the Huskers also have a solid pitching staff with Jon Keller and Matt Freeman in charge. The Pokes hope to build off a huge home series win over Texas last weekend, while the Huskers hope to bounce back from a tough road series loss to Texas Tech. This should be a fantastic series between two improved clubs.

Liberty at Coastal Carolina: This just might be the series that finally gets the Chanticleers back on track. Coastal Carolina has played an uncharacteristic brand of baseball this spring, struggling offensively at times. The Chants are just 15-10 and have a surprisingly low RPI of 122. They’re also coming off a horrible series loss to UNC Asheville. Liberty, meanwhile, is 5-1 in conference, 15-11 overall and could use a morale boosting road series win over the Chants. Both teams have something to prove this weekend.

Mississippi State at Georgia: The Bulldogs have been one of the more intriguing stories in the past week. They dropped two of three at Vanderbilt to begin SEC play before returning home last weekend and sweeping Auburn. The Bulldogs, with starting pitchers Devin Jones and Chris Stratton leading the way, now hope to establish some consistency. Georgia, meanwhile, hopes to build off a huge home series win over LSU last weekend. The Bulldogs have a solid RPI of 31, but need to start winning more consistently sitting three games below .500 at 11-14.

Purdue at Minnesota: It’s safe to say the Big Ten title race is wide open with Michigan State, Penn State, Purdue, Indiana and Minnesota leading the way. But the regular season race could have more clarity after this weekend when Purdue and Minnesota, the preseason title favorite, meet in Minneapolis. It would come as a surprise if the Golden Gophers don’t earn the league’s automatic bid at the end of the season. Purdue, though, has a solid club with talented catcher Kevin Plawecki leading the charge.

Texas A&M at Kansas State: The Aggies are atop the Big 12 standings after two weekends and series wins over Oklahoma and Kansas State. But we’ll now see how the Aggies perform with a huge target on their chests. The Aggies carry a stellar trio of weekend starters into the series with John Stilson, Michael Wacha and Ross Stripling leading the way, while Kansas State hopes to finally taste success after losing series to Texas and Baylor to begin conference play. It’s a big series for the Wildcats from a confidence standpoint.

TALKING POSTSEASON

Race for the top national seed: Though we’re still two months away from the NCAA postseason field being unveiled, it’s never too early to start looking at national seeds. Just a week ago, Florida was the headliner as the top national seed. But the Gators have since lost to South Carolina twice and in a midweek affair to Florida State, thus dropping their record against RPI Top 25 teams to 2-4. Virginia likely would be the top national seed if the season ended today. The Cavaliers have an RPI of 2 with a fantastic 8-2 mark against RPI Top 25 clubs. The Cavaliers also are 13-2 vs. RPI Top 100 clubs.

The rest of the national seeds: Outside of Virginia, there are several others putting together impressive campaigns this spring. After midweek action, our eight national seeds, in no particular order, would include Virginia, Georgia Tech, Florida, South Carolina, Fresno State, Texas A&M, Vanderbilt and Florida State. Tech is 7-0 vs. RPI Top 50 and 18-4 vs. RPI Top 100, Florida is 8-4 vs. RPI Top 50 and 15-5 vs. RPI Top 100, South Carolina is 8-4 vs. RPI Top 50 and 11-5 vs. RPI Top 100, Fresno State is 10-0 vs. RPI Top 50 and 13-1 vs. RPI Top 100, Texas A&M is 8-4 vs. RPI Top 50 and 11-5 vs. RPI Top 100, Vanderbilt is 6-3 vs. RPI Top 50 and Florida State is 5-5 vs. RPI Top 50 and 14-6 vs. RPI Top 100.

What about those regional hosts?: We broke down our 16 NCAA Regional host sites earlier this week, but have we had a change of heart on any host sites since the end of midweek action? As of right now, our 16 host sites, in addition to the eight national seeds listed above, would include Southern Mississippi, North Carolina, Stanford, East Carolina, Cal State Fullerton, Stetson, Texas and Mississippi State. The Bulldogs edge out Baylor and TCU from an RPI standpoint and would give the SEC a fourth regional with a guaranteed large gate.

Some interesting conference RPIs: When it comes to the college baseball landscape, it’s assumed the Big 12, Pac-10, SEC and ACC are always going to be the top conferences. Well, at least from an RPI standpoint, that isn’t the case so far this season. The SEC and ACC sit 1 and 2 in the conference RPI, while Conference USA sits at 3 with Rice, Central Florida, East Carolina, Tulane and Southern Mississippi sitting pretty with solid RPIs. It’s also worth noting the Atlantic Sun is at 6, just behind the Big 12 and Pac-10. Interestingly, the Big West isn’t having such a great year with an RPI of 15, behind leagues such as the Mountain West, Big South and Big Ten.

The biggest surprises: There are some big surprises in the latest RPI. Southern Mississippi sitting at 6 this early in the season is surprising, while Texas State, despite a bad midweek loss to Missouri, still has a solid RPI of 19. Additionally, it’s important to note that Arkansas, LSU, Oklahoma and Texas have RPIs in the 33-40 range, with the highly ranked Longhorns sitting at 40, while perennial power Miami has an RPI of 45 and highly ranked TCU has an RPI of 46. It’ll be interesting to see how each of these RPIs moves as the season progresses.

Kendall Rogers is the managing editor of college baseball for Perfect Game USA and has covered the sport for over 10 seasons. He can be reached at kendall@perfectgame.org



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