Eventful February brings anticipation for March
Look fast. The first month of the season has already come and gone, and we're into month No. 2 for 2014. Before we venture on, let's take a look at what we have learned, because the first three weeks of the season are always the most eye-opening.
Ten Things We Learned From February
1. Everyone Is Overrated
Yes, fans, your team is probably showing dents in the armor already. Just look at some early results:
• No. 1 Cal State Fullerton lost to Washington State
• No. 2 Virginia lost to Kentucky
• No. 4 Mississippi State lost to Western Carolina
• No. 7 Indiana lost three games to Texas Tech
• No. 8 NC State lost to Canisius
• No. 9 UCLA lost to Portland
• No. 13 North Carolina lost a series to College of Charleston
• No. 16 Clemson lost to Eastern Michigan
• No. 17 Miami lost to Maine
Those weren't midweek scores. These were from opening weekend. And those are just the tip of the upset iceberg in the first three weeks of the season.
2. Best Region: Northeast
Yes, this is a little tongue-in-cheek, but looking at the always wildly gerrymandering early Rating Percentage Index (RPI), we see Columbia at No. 4; Dartmouth No. 5; Sacred Heart No. 6; Yale No. 12; and Holy Cross No. 17. And on a serious note, don't forget Seton Hall, which is 7-2 and swept three from Arizona in Tucson last weekend.
3. Best State So Far: The Volunteer State
Vanderbilt is starting to look Terminator-like again on the mound and Tennessee is unbeaten at 12-0. Memphis is quietly out to an 11-1 start, having just beaten Ole Miss, and is at No. 3 in the RPI. Tennessee Tech is a mid-major to watch at 11-2.
4. Worst Rivalry So Far: Georgia-Georgia Tech
The Bulldogs (6-6) and Yellow Jackets (7-5) have started off a little weaker than expected and both have already lost to in-state little brothers Georgia Southern and Kennesaw State. Then the two rivals got together for a game on Tuesday night and even Mother Nature didn't treat them well, as temperatures dipped down to the 30s.
5. Best Conference So Far: Big 12
Although Kansas State has face-planted so far, how about the performance of the rest? Kansas is 11-1 (though check back with us after a trip to Stanford this week); Texas appears to be back with its sweep of the Houston College Classic; TCU is 8-4 with a few good wins; and Texas Tech stunned everyone by going 3-1 opening weekend vs. No. 7 Indiana.
6. Best City So Far: Luv Ya Blue Town
Rice is its usual self, yes, but look at what else is happening in Houston. The Houston Cougars are 9-2 and lead the nation with a 0.80 team ERA. Houston Baptist is 7-5 and handed Kansas its only loss. Texas Southern leads the SWAC West Division. On the outskirts of H-Town, Lamar is off to an 8-5 start. And the biggest mover and shaker is Sam Houston State, which cracked the most recent coaches' poll at No. 24.
7. Some Not-Ready-For-Prime Time Teams Fell Quick
It always happens. There are a handful of teams high in the preseason rankings that just don't live up to their billing. This year, Indiana (4-5), Florida (7-6), Kansas State (4-7) and Stanford (5-7) fit that bill. But put an asterisk next to all of them, as they've played tough schedules and have the talent to get hot and turn things around.
8. South Carolina Is Back
The Gamecocks put to rest some questions last weekend with a resounding sweep of rival Clemson, catapulting them to the top of the coaches' poll and establishing themselves as an odds-on favorite to return to Omaha. No pressure, guys.
9. USC Is Back
On the other coast, it appears the USC Trojans may be ready to get back to national prominence. Sure, 8-3 isn't world-beating, but consider that the past eight Trojans teams would probably be 5-6 or 4-7 at this point, and definitely would not have a win over No. 16 Cal Poly.
10. Rise Of The Mid-Majors
A lot of off-the-radar teams are worthy of high praise. Here are some ranked and others getting votes in the coaches' poll.
• No. 13 Louisiana (10-2)
In a five-day span, the Ragin' Cajuns beat LSU and Alabama (twice).
• No. 24 Sam Houston State (10-3)
The Bearkats took down Rice, Houston and Texas Tech last week.
• San Diego (8-3)
Even Kris Bryant-less, the Toreros lead the nation with a .365 average.
• Fresno State (9-3)
The Bulldogs may not get BCS teams to visit again after sweeping Texas A&M.
• College of Charleston (10-2)
The Cougars opened the 2014 season with a series win over North Carolina.
• FIU (12-1)
FIU has played mostly snowbirds so far, but No. 19 Rice visits in two weeks.
• Memphis (11-1)
Returning just 18 starts on the mound from last year, the Tigers are No. 3 in the RPI.
• VCU (10-1)
Wins over Georgia Tech and East Carolina show this team's promise.
• Tennessee Tech (11-2)
Power-packed, Tech is fourth nationally in team average (.335) and home runs (12).
Hey, Coach: Todd Whitting
I caught up with Houston coach Todd Whitting as he prepared to send his team west to play in the Dodgertown Classic against UCLA, USC and Pepperdine. In his fourth year on the job, Whitting has his team primed to make a big move in 2014. His pitching staff leads the country with a 0.80 team ERA, and the freshman-heavy lineup of a year ago is now an experienced unit playing with confidence.
Eric Sorenson: How frustrating was it to pitch so well last weekend at Minute Maid Park for the Houston College Classic and come away with just one win?
Todd Whitting: You know, had I known going in that we were going to give up just one or two earned runs in three games, I would've thought we would come away with three wins. But in this day and age of these bats, defense is really magnified. One or two slipups can really cost you, and that's what happened with us. You can't emphasize enough to your team that you've got to minimize your mistakes or it will cost you.
ES: You have high expectations here at Houston, but are you surprised at all at your 9-2 start?
TW: I thought we would be good this year. We have everyone in our starting lineup back from last year. And because we lost Casey Grayson and Jake Lueneburg last year to injuries, we had to start five or six freshmen a year ago. Well, what was a negative then has become a positive now, because we've got a year experience under our belts and we've got Grayson and Lueneburg back as fifth-year seniors. Adding those two guys back has been big for us.
ES: You've only scored more than four runs once this season. Does the offense concern you?
TW: I actually thought this would be a highly offensive team this season. We led Conference USA in scoring last year and had everyone coming back. But with these bats, you just don't make too big of a deal about it. We know we can hit and it will come to us. What I would like to see is for us to execute our offense better because in this day and age, executing the short game is what is going to win games. You just can't rely on the three-run home run any longer. I think we'll get there offensively in due time.
ES: Speaking of Casey Grayson, how big is it to have your big first baseman back in the lineup?
TW: It's huge. It really is. I have said since he came to our program that he's the best hitter to come through here that nobody knows about. We knew he could hit and he's progressed each year. So what he's doing has been no surprise at all. Again, his injury has been a blessing in disguise because when he went down, that meant we had to put a freshman at first base in Justin Montemayor. Now he's got that year of starting experience and we have Casey back, so in the end it has helped us.
ES: You didn't have a lot of arms coming back from last year, yet you guys lead the country in ERA at 0.80. What does that say about your pitching coach Frank Anderson?
TW: I can't say enough about Coach Anderson, he's done a tremendous job. I just can't emphasize that enough. We've had eight pitchers sign with the pros the last two years, Daniel Poncedeleon was ruled ineligible and Taylor Cobb, who we projected as a weekend starter, hasn't pitched yet. So what Frank has done with our staff so far this year has been nothing short of amazing. Getting him on our staff has been like getting a first-rounder to come here.
ES: After losing twice last weekend, how important is a bounce-back weekend in L.A. for you guys?
TW: Even though we lost two games last weekend, I look at how hard we're playing. I didn't really feel like we got 'beat' in either game. We just lost. But our effort was there. I'd be much more concerned if we hadn't been giving good effort. So we're not looking at this weekend as being a bounce-back for us. We've got the chance to play three great teams and really help out our RPI down the road. I tell our guys all the time that every game is important, and this is a good example of that. We missed out on the NCAA tournament last year despite 36 wins, so these guys know how big each win can be.
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3: Kent State at Liberty (ESPN3)
3: Pittsburgh at North Carolina (ESPN3)
3: Notre Dame at NC State (ESPN3)
4: Wake Forest at Georgia Tech (ESPN3)
6: Virginia at Duke (ESPN3)
6:30: Virginia Tech at Clemson (ESPN3)
7: Arkansas-Little Rock at Ole Miss (ESPN3)
2: Virginia at Duke (ESPN3)
2: Kent State at Liberty (ESPN3)
2: Pittsburgh at North Carolina (ESPN3)
4: Notre Dame at NC State (ESPN3)
5: Arkansas-Little Rock at Ole Miss (ESPN3)
1: Virginia Tech at Clemson (ESPN3)
1: Virginia at Duke (ESPN3)
1: Pitt at North Carolina (ESPN3)
1: Notre Dame at NC State (ESPN3)
2: Kent State at Liberty (ESPN3)
Week 3 Power Rankings
Five Places To Be This Weekend
1. The Dodgertown Classic (Los Angeles)
Teams: UCLA (7-5), USC (8-3),
Pepperdine (9-3), Houston (9-2)
Tinseltown will be the home of the upstarts this weekend as the Trojans, Waves and Cougars have a chance to make a huge statement here.
Give the edge to UCLA and Houston based on pitching alone. But that West Coast style of baseball could offset the Cougars pitching psyche, and keep in mind that they have scored more than four runs just twice this season.
2. The Hi Corbett Classic (Tucson, Ariz.)
Teams: Arizona (6-7),
Mississippi State (11-4), UC Santa Barbara (7-1)
All three teams have something to prove, especially the spiraling Wildcats, who have lost five straight, all at home. Mississippi State is still snorting fire over the bad publicity it got from that four-game split with Holy Cross two weeks ago, so this is its chance to make amends. But watch out for Santa Barbara, which is third nationally in hitting with a .341 team average and also has a 2.54 team ERA. Each team plays the other two teams twice.
3. The Cal Baseball Classic (Berkeley, Calif.)
Teams: Cal (8-4), San Francisco (5-6),
Tulane (8-3), Arkansas (7-2)
It will be really interesting to see how Arkansas does here, having to go on the road for the first time and having to face USF ace Abe Bob, who has shown flashes of brilliance.
Cal's reloaded staff is 10th nationally with a 1.88 ERA, and the Bears are coming off a doubleheader sweep of Baylor and San Diego on Monday. Tulane lost twice to Sacred Heart last weekend, so it'll need a boost of confidence here.
4. Tennessee (12-0) at Arizona State (6-4)
Like Arkansas, the Vols are leaving their home confines for the first time in 2014, so let's see how the newbies react to a hostile environment. The Vols are hitting .317 as a team and will be going against a talented Sun Devils piching staff. Interestingly, ASU coach Tim Esmay will apparently have former closer and erstwhile starter Ryan Burr go back to the bullpen. So keep an eye on the results of the ASU starting pitchers.
5. San Diego (8-3) at Oklahoma State (10-3)
Great matchup. The Toreros sit at No. 26, if you will, in the coaches' poll, and they have the nation's best offense at .365. But they'll face a pitching-and-defense machine in this Cowboys squad, which is 10th nationally in strikeouts-to-walks ratio (108 K's, 28 walks) and sixth in defense (.987). Something has to give.