Originally Published: March 8, 2012

Places to be this weekend

By Eric Sorenson
Special to ESPN.com

1. No. 4 Rice (12-2) at No. 2 Stanford (11-1)
Stanford Rice Sunken Diamond, Stanford, Calif.
This is about as good as it gets. Two top-five teams with great pitching and unlimited potential on offense. Oh, and these guys are also from high-academic schools. What's not to like? The Cardinal have become soul-crushers on offense, hitting .329, but they are also one of those teams that if they get momentum on their side, forget about it. The hits overwhelm you in droves. Owls arms like Matthew Reckling (2-0, 0.82) and freshman Jordan Stephens (1-0, 1.88) have been impeccable, and J.T. Chargois (1.29, 3 saves) and John Simms (2-0, 3.09) have been bullpen studs. But Rice will need more quality arms to step forward here to corral those dangerous bats they'll face.

Key matchup: Austin Kubitza vs. his psyche
The Rice ace has been iffy at best, going 1-0, 4.72 so far and walking 11 batters in his 13 innings. If he gets out to another slow start against an offense like Stanford's, well, it'll be curtains for the Owls.

2. No. 14 Cal State Fullerton (8-4) at No. 5 Texas A&M (12-1)
A&M CSF Olsen Field, College Station, Texas
Two things you can count on here: One, the Titans may be a youthful squad with a mostly new pitching staff, but they definitely won't be intimidated by going into Olsen Field and hearing the throngs in that student section throw every taunt in the book at them. Second, the Aggies won't treat this like a series against Holy Cross or something. Fullerton will have their full attention this weekend, and the Ags should play better than their hither-and-yon performances so far. The A&M stat sheet is glossy, to say the least, like the .198 opponent average and opposing pitching staffs having an ERA of 6.01. But this will be a significant bump up in competition and will be a great litmus test of how legit this Aggies team is.

Key matchup: Fullerton starting pitchers vs. Tyler Naquin and Mikey Reynolds
The top two hitters in A&M's order have on-base percentages of .569 and .544, respectively. They also combined for 17 walks and 12 stolen bases. These guys make things happen. If the Titans can't corral them early in games, they'll be playing uphill all weekend.

3. No. 7 North Carolina (10-2) at No. 19 Clemson (6-4)
Clemson UNC Doug Kingsmore Stadium, Clemson, S.C.
After tangling with rival South Carolina last weekend (after weekend series against UAB and Maine), it's obvious to say that Clemson is war-tested and already has faced top-line pitching. Don't expect the two big Tigers bats of Richie Shaffer (.452, 4 homers, 12 RBIs) and Phil Pohl (.371-3-12) to shrill from the challenge of facing arms like Kent Emanuel, Chris Munnelly and ace relievers R.C. Orlan and Michael Morin. Plus, you know the Tigers are champing at the bit to make amends for a couple of near misses versus the Gamecocks. But the Heels have not only good pitching but also three guys hitting .400-plus in Tom Zengel, Cody Stubbs and leading hitter Colin Moran. This just goes to prove that Mike Fox might overhaul a lineup year after year, but the results will be the same.

Key matchup: Kent Emanuel vs. Kevin Brady.
Yes, the ace versus ace matchup on Friday will be huge. The problem has been Brady's starts. It hasn't been so much his efforts but the offense supporting him. The Tigers have lost to UAB, Maine and South Carolina on consecutive Fridays, hitting just .192 in those games.

4. No. 16 UCLA (10-3) at No. 12 Georgia (11-2)
UGA UCLA Foley Field, Athens, Ga.
Both teams are pretty hard to figure out. There's talent in abundance, but both have had their issues, particularly on offense. While that is one area the Bruins seem to be getting better at, the Dawgs look like the Bruins of 2011: great pitching and talent at the dish, but no numbers being put up on offense. (UGA has hit just .278 against some pretty weak pitching staffs.) Meanwhile, after early struggles versus Maryland, the Bruins are doing something they haven't done in years, that is, hit above .300 (at .307 to be specific). The knee-jerk reaction is to look at the two schedules -- the Bruins have played the fifth-toughest slate in the country, and the Dogs have played 224th toughest -- and think it'll be the boys from Westwood, Calif., in three straight. But this is also UCLA's first real road game, and this will be a tough environment to find a comfort level in.

Key matchup: Bruins' starting rotation vs. Georgia's batting order.
The Dawgs didn't bat well last weekend against Western Illinois, and this time they'll face a staff with way more talent and killer instinct than the Leathernecks could throw up at them. Will the .278 average take an even bigger hit?

5. The Nike College Showcase
PK Park, Eugene, Ore., and Goss Stadium, Corvallis, Ore.
No. 10 Oregon (10-1); Oregon State (8-4); No. 18 Oklahoma (9-3); Connecticut (4-6); Illinois (4-5); West Virginia (6-6)
One of the best jamborees of the early-season slate, the northern BCS conference teams (UConn, Illinois and West Virginia) need to win here more than the other teams, as each has suffered some numbing one-run losses, and all are looking for RPI points. But it's the Ducks who come into this one as a bit of a surprise as the heavy favorite. George Horton's 2012 edition has shown a penchant for winning the close ones, going 6-0 in one-or-two run games, including all three versus Long Beach State last weekend. If Oregon leadoff hitter J.J. Altobelli starts to heat up again (he's hitting just .264 now), the Big Green won't have so many close calls. They'll take on Oklahoma and UConn on Saturday and Sunday for their toughest assignments. This is also Oregon State's best chance at getting back into the rankings discussion before Pac-12 play kicks in next week.

Key matchup: UConn's RPI matchups.
The Huskies have come up snake-eyes in games with Mississippi State, Purdue and College of Charleston so far. This could be their last chance at earning some top-quality nonconference wins to impress the NCAA selection committee. In other words, wins here versus Oklahoma, Oregon State and Oregon could be the difference between an at-large bid or needing to win the Big East tournament.

Surprised at Maryland's fast start? Don't be.

By Walter Villa
Special to ESPN.com

Under his bed back home in Westminster, Md., pitcher Brett Harman keeps binders full of autographs he collected from athletes during his younger days.

Some of his more prominent "gets" include George Brett, the player he was named after, and Ken Griffey Jr.

[+] Enlarge
AP Photo/Larry GorenBrett Harman's return to the mound after missing all of 2011 is one reason for Maryland's fast start to 2012.

"I also got a University of Miami football helmet signed by Ray Lewis and Ed Reed," Harman said of the former Hurricanes and current Baltimore Ravens stars.

These days, Harman and his University of Maryland teammates delight in signing autographs for young Terps fans. And the way the Terps have started this season, those signatures may be gaining in value.

The Maryland revival started on opening weekend, when the Terps went to UCLA, which was No. 14 in the nation at the time, and took two out of three games, winning their first road series since 2009.

The good times have since continued for the Terps (11-1), who are off to their best start since 1967.


• Their 10-game win streak is closing in on the school record of 12 set in 2002. They can break the record if they can sweep their ACC-opening series this weekend at Wake Forest.

• They are ranked No. 25 in the nation by Baseball America, the first time in the 32-year history of that poll that the Terps have been ranked.

• Their 0.95 ERA leads the nation.

All those numbers represent a sharp turnaround from last year, when Maryland finished 21-35, including 5-25 in the ACC. But third-year Maryland coach Erik Bakich downplays his team's start.

"It's nice to be recognized in the polls, and it's good for recruiting, but we haven't done anything yet," Bakich said. "I feel like all we've done is talk the past two years."

Bakich recognizes that the Terps, who haven't appeared in the NCAA tournament since 1971, had previously set a low bar.

"Maryland baseball doesn't exactly have a long tradition of success," he said. "If we do what we're supposed to, a lot of those records should come down."

Harman, meanwhile, said he saw the potential for better things in the 2011 Terps, but the team was just too young to have that reflect in the win column. The Terps lost 13 games by two runs or fewer.

"Our [2011] record didn't reflect the talent we had," said Harman, a redshirt senior who graduated last year with a 3.7 grade-point average and a degree in kinesiology. "We still have a lot of talent."

Harman is a big part of that talent base. After missing last season thanks to Tommy John surgery, he's off to a 2-0 start with a 0.00 ERA and 17 strikeouts in 17 innings. In his first start back from surgery this season, he led Maryland to a 5-1 win over UCLA to give the Terps the series.

But the Terps are about more than just Harman. All eight position starters and eight of the top 11 pitchers are back from last season. There are nine seniors on the team, including six who are on the Terps' seven-player leadership council.

Five current Terps have already been drafted, including two freshmen, an indication the program is now getting a higher level of recruits. At 34, Bakich is the youngest current head coach at a BCS school. He was a volunteer assistant at Clemson when the Tigers made the College World Series in 2002 and spent seven years as Vanderbilt's recruiting coordinator. All seven of the recruiting classes brought in at Vandy during that span were ranked in the top 25, including two that were in the top two.

When he arrived at Maryland, Bakich counted 15 players from the state who were playing at other ACC or SEC schools, including stars such as Virginia's Danny Hultzen, who is now part of the Seattle Mariners organization.

Bakich has vowed to keep those players home and in 2010 brought in a 22-player class that was ranked in the top 25. He also has seen good things already from last year's 12-player class.

"When I got here, this program was built for mediocrity," Bakich said. "We were below average in everything -- facilities, budget, atmosphere, support.

"We've worked hard to make tangible improvements in facilities and fundraising, and our administration is supporting baseball in a more positive way.

"But we're light-years behind the rest of the conference."

Maybe, but perhaps the hot start by Harman and his senior-laden Terps teammates is simply a sign of things to come.


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