Big 12 Conference Preview

As usual, Big 12 is wide open with Mizzou, Texas, and Texas A&M at the top


Feb. 13, 2008

By Eric Sorenson

Special to CSTV.com

ERIC SORENSON
Eric Sorenson is a regular contributor to CSTV.com, covering football, basketball & baseball.
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Statistically speaking, the Big 12 was just percentage points behind the SEC in the conference RPI last year, but got six of 10 teams into the Big Dance. Now it's time for someone other than Texas to make a big splash in Omaha and this could be the year they do. In fact, this should be the strongest collection of Big 12 teams since the origins of the conference 10 years ago. There will be a mad rush for the conference title and a dogfight for the Big 12 tournament. But that's nothing compared to the push these teams will make for chance to play under the lights of Rosenblatt in June.

 

Favorites: Missouri, Texas, Texas A&M

Contenders: Baylor, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State

Darkhorse: Kansas State

 

Baylor (35-27, 12-15)

 

The Good News:

Though 2007 was a "rebuilding" season, coach Steve Smith still led the Bears to a Regional berth. Things should get better with experienced leaders like All-American SS Beamer Weems (.321-9-59), fleet-footed OF Ben Booker (.306, 11SBs) and rubber-armed relief ace Nick Cassavechia (6-2, 3.12, 11svs). The last three recruiting classes have all been ranked by Collegiate Baseball and they are ready to wreak havoc in Waco.

 

The Bad News:

The Bears were just 12-17 away from home and will lose top hitter Matt Czimskey and most-used pitcher Jeff Mandel. Big 12 opponents hit a curiously high .320 against the youthful Bear arms last season.

 

The Intangible:

Yearlings become a year better.

 

Though their classes have all been good lately, last year's blue-ribbon freshmen class is a notch better. And now, they are also a year wiser, led by Raynor Campbell (.321), Aaron Miller (.296) and Dustin Dickerson (.292) on offense and Wade Mackey (4-3, 3.18) and Kendal Volz (6-2, 5.16) on the mound. Look for better numbers from all of them.

 

Schedule Note:

Usually the Bears play ridiculously difficult schedules, but other than a trip to Mississippi State, this one is more manageable. At least until Big 12 play kicks in.

 

Kansas (28-30, 9-17)

 

The Good News:

Seven starters are back in Rock Chalk land, led by seniors like John Allman (.333), Erik Morrison (.296-7-44) and Ryne Price (.270-10-31). Lots of good arms to build around too, including LHP Andy Marks (5-6, 5.52, the No. 10 prospect in the Northwoods League), Andres Esquibel (7-3, 4.66) and Nick Czyz (4-8, 4.60)

 

The Bad News:

Last year was the first time in the Ritch Price era where his charges finished with a losing mark. The Jayhawks hit a Big 12-worst .280 and a Big 12 second-worst .963 fielding percentage. 1B Preston Land (just .206-4-27) must revert to frosh All-American form (.370 in '06).

 

The Intangible:

The Curse of the Islands.

 

If the Jayhawks do turn things around and are up for a postseason at-large bid at the end of the season, they must be aware of their early season curse, where they'll play five games vs. Hawaii-Hilo - in other words, an RPI anchor.

 

Schedule Note:

Kansas will go to the ends of the Earth in 2008, starting off in Hilo, then going to Nashville (to face Vanderbilt) and to Florida (Bradenton tournament). But who knows? Maybe they'll earn travel miles they can use in the postseason once again.



 
 

 

Kansas State (34-24, 10-16)

 

The Good News:

KSU made its first Big 12 tournament appearance since 2002 last year. Keep a close eye on these guys as the `Cats welcome back a solid core of seniors, like weekend starters Brad Hutt (9-4, 3.07) and Chase Bayuk (5-6, 5.11) and bullpenner Daniel Edwards (3-0, 2.27, 11svs). OFs Byron Wiley (.366-7-44, 14SBs) and Adam Meunster (.294, 10SBs) are the top two returning hitters.

 

The Bad News:

Wiley is the only .300-plus hitter returning from a team that hit just 24 round-trippers which shows that improving the bats is a must for '08. Other than that, there's not a lot of bad news, as this is a program on an uptick.

 

The Intangible:

The influence of coach Hill.

 

Things are slowly, but surely getting better for the `Cats. They've won 26, 30, 31 and 34 games in coach Brad Hill's four years in the Little Apple. As a national championship coach at Central Missouri State, this guy knows how to win.

 

Schedule Note:

Look for a tough May. KSU will play eight of its last 11 on the road. And the remaining home games? Just top-ranked Arizona State and in-state rival Kansas. Nothing comes easy.

 

Missouri (42-18, 19-8)

 

The Good News:

Shhhhh. Don't tell anybody, but these guys are secretly loaded for a run at the title... that's the NATIONAL title. It all starts on the mound with expected 1st round draftee Aaron Crow (9-4, 3.59), Ian Berger (5-1, 3.96) and Rick Zagone (7-2, 5.03) all back to confound their Big 12 mates. OF Jacob Priday (.297-13-59) seems like he's been in Columbia seven years and is capable of even better numbers. C Trevor Coleman (.282-9-42) and OF Aaron Senne (.289-7-43) are scoreboard-denters as well.

 

The Bad News:

After jumping out 2-0 in their home Regional last June, the Tigers fell twice to Louisville. The missing double-play combo of Brock Bond and Gary Arndt is a huge hole to fill. All-Big 12 CF Evan Frey was a sparkplug on offense and defense.

 

The Intangible:

Solid pen-work.

 

One of the biggest surprises for the black and gold last spring was the emergence of frosh RHP Kyle Gibson (8-3, 4.12, 7svs). But there's more to the bullpen than him, with lefty Scooter Hicks (4-0, 2.73, 6svs) and Greg Folgia (5-4, 4.50) providing support. Good night! These guys are loaded.

 

Schedule Note:

Unlike recent years, the Tigers won't face too many stiff challenges in the pre-conference (other than single games with Cal, San Diego and two at Minnesota) and they also get five home Big 12 series and two of the roadies are at Texas Tech and at Kansas, two teams who didn't make the Big 12 tourney in '07. Needless to say, the slate is favorable for a lot of Ws.

 

Nebraska (32-27, 14-13)

 

The Good News:

Even in what was an "off-year" the Huskers came up big in the postseason, going to the Regional final in Tempe. Staff ace Johnny Dorn (10-3, 5.23) is capable of carrying a heavy load, and he may have to. The Huskers have nearly every fielder back in the fold, led by 3B stud Jeff Tezak (.335), 1B Craig Corriston (.320-5-41) and OF D.J. Belafonte (.307, 10SBs), who was a frosh All-American last year and should use his speed more.

 

The Bad News:

The 32 wins were NU's lowest since the 1997 season. With the loss of ace Tony Watson and most of the other starters means lots of new faces on the mound. That is never a good sign. Andrew Brown's departure leaves a dearth of power in a lineup that wasn't so strong to begin with.

 

The Intangible:

The Two Jakes.

 

The double play combo of Jake Mort (.207) and Jake Opitz (.278) are potentially great gloves, but must show some marked improvement in the batter's box to be able to lead-by-example.

 

Schedule Note:

Any other year you'd have to say that coach Anderson is a masochist by starting off with Stanford and UC Riverside in their first eight. But those teams are on a slight decline. Still, you can't hassle the scheduling effort.

 

Oklahoma (34-24, 11-16)

 

The Good News:

It's not often that a Sunny Galloway coached team doesn't make the post-season, so expect a quick return this year. He's got a pair of All-American hopefuls in 1B Aaron Baker (.321) and RHP Stephen Porlier (8-5, 4.18, 99Ks, a 21st round pick of the A's). CF Aljay Davis (.313, 17SBs) will move from 2B and hit leadoff. The Sooners got a real shot in the arm with the transfer of LSU C J.T. Wise ('06 Freshman All-American). Keep an eye on Trey Sperring (San Jacinto J.C. transfer), a junior college Gold Glove 3B.

 

The Bad News:

Last year's team was too talented to not make more of a national impact in 2007. A 3-7 finish to Big 12 play sealed their postseason fate. With only two returning starters, finding some steady middle infielders and developing confidence from inexperience will be paramount.

 

The Intangible:

Drafted more times than G.I. Joe.

 

With a lot of arms missing from last year, Alabama (and Navarro J.C.) transfer RHP Jake McCarter could be a key contributor. He went 6-1, 2.30 in 2006 with the Tide. McCarter has also been drafted by the bigs four times (2003-04-05 and 06).

 

Schedule Note:

Sooners go coast-to-coast and aren't ducking anybody, opening at UCLA and also playing roadies at USF and at the Minute Maid Classic against Rice, Houston and Tennessee.

 

Oklahoma State (42-21, 16-11)

 

The Good News:

OSU has become dream-wreckers, ending Arkansas' season right there in Baum Stadium two years in a row. Look for moonshots and screamers from the bats of All-Big 12ers 1B Rebel Ridling (.336-14-68) and SS Jordy Mercer (.299), who is also a clamp-down pitcher (3-1, 3svs). LHP Andy Oliver (6-1, 5.52) and RHP Matt Gardner (4-0, 5.70, 32nd round pick of the Dodgers) will be big leaning posts for the arm corps.

 

The Bad News:

Eesh! There's lots of bad news here as only two returning starters means a lot of newbies will have to amp their game up to Big 12 standards. Hell, most of the hurlers on the hill are gone as well, including the top two weekend aces and Justin Friend, the top reliever.

 

The Intangible:

Welcome to Mercenary U.

 

Once again, a high-profile four-year transfer will make a huge difference for the Pokes. Following in the footsteps of Matt Mangini the year before, Washington 3B Matthew Hague (.353-13-49) is the highest profile transfer in the country. Coach Anderson also welcomes in Houston C Luis Flores, a 2006 Freshman All-American.

 

Schedule Note:

Uncharacteristically, OSU's pre-conference schedule has little challenge, save for a game at San Diego. But the mid-week games include two vs. Arizona and one against Wichita State, Rice and Missouri State.

 

Texas (46-17, 21-6)

 

The Good News:

It's ridiculous to think what Augie will do with talents like National Player of the Year OF Kyle Russell (.336-28-71), CF Jordan Danks (.332, 19SBs), 2B Travis Tucker (.307, 21SBs), LHP Austin Wood (8-1, 3.15) and C Preston Clark (.286-8-45) on hand. Add to that transfers like RHP Casey Whitmer (from Florida State), 2B Michael Torres (USC) and SS David Hernandez (Fresno State). And don't forget about the return of strapping 6-foot-10 flinger Kenn Kasparek (a mid-90s thrower who sat out '07). A third straight Big 12 title is well within reach. But `Horn fans want to know whether the second weekend in Omaha is in the cards?

 

The Bad News:

Team went cold for the second June in a row, causing UT fans everywhere to wonder "What gives?" Losing weekend starters Adrian Alaniz and Joseph Krebs is no picnic, nor is long-gone Randy Boone, who gathered 14 saves a year ago. UT also loses vets like Chance Wheeless (a 2005 CWS hero) and Bradley Suttle, the top two hitters from a year ago.

 

The Intangible:

Is the "Augie Factor" vanishing?

 

After the 2005 season, I came to the conclusion that nobody had a better postseason coaching pedigree than Augie Garrido, especially after winning Super Regionals at Florida State and Ole Miss in the previous three years. But the last two post-seasons the `Horns have lost home Regionals to West Coasters Stanford and UC Irvine.

 

Schedule Note:

Unlike Augie's recent history, UT won't go on the road much except in Big 12 play. But one of the all-time greatest non-rivalry rivalries (if that makes sense) has been the recent Stanford-Texas series, including an epic 2001 Regional knock-down, drag-out. The Trees come calling March 7-8-9 at reworked Disch-Falk Field.

 

Texas A&M (48-19, 13-13)

 

The Good News:

Aggies are primed for big things in year three of the Rob Childress era. 2B Blake Stouffer (.398-12-85, 22SBs) led the nation in RBIs and does everything but sell peanuts in the stands. He'll have OF Ben Feltner (.303, 34SBs), CF Kyle Colligan (.284-10-37, 17SBs) and DH Luke Anders (.336-11-46) to bash and steal with. Scott Migl (7-3, 3.77) and Kyle Thebeau (3-6, 4.67) started 21 games between them. RHP Alex Wilson (6-4, 2.51) and 2B Phil Carey (.325) were Winthrop's two best players and are at A&M now, further bolstering an already potent lineup. Look for the Ags to continue to press, since they led the nation with 151 steals last year.

 

The Bad News:

Two-headed aces Kyle Nicholson and David Newmann, both 11 game winners, left for pro ball, along with battery mate Craig Stinson. Some young arms will have to be relied on, especially incoming frosh RHP Barret Loux, a 24th round pick of the Tigers last June. With a fielding percentage of .962, the Ags played the worst defense in the Big 12.

 

The Intangible:

Loyal to the corps.

 

Perhaps no team in the country benefitted from the draft-dodgers of last June than the Aggies. Stouffer was a 4th round pick and RHP Jordan Chambless was a 50th round pick of the Reds (the third time he's been drafted), while Feltner was tabbed by the Brewers in the 26th round. All are back to help A&M's attempt to get back to Omaha for the first time since '99. 

 

Schedule Note:

The Ags slate has gone a little bit softer this year, but the Aggie Classic still brings in good competition like Ohio State and Arkansas to face off with. And it's hard to beat that three-gamer with rival Texas in the seasons last weekend.

 

Texas Tech (28-27, 8-18)

 

The Good News:

The best part is that 2007 is behind them. Longtime skipper Larry Hays is used to the ups and downs of the game. He'll have seven starters returning and get the use of All-American candidates OF Roger Kieschnick (.302-13-36) and staff ace Miles Morgan (injured in '07, 17th round pick of the Indians last June). Doug Thennis (.322-7-41) and Taylor Ashby (.317) will round out a solid outfield. N.C. State transfer Nate Karns went 3-2, 2.67 as a frosh and will play a big part.

 

The Bad News:

A rotten 1-9 finish in Big 12 play blew Texas Tech's chances for any post-season play in '07. This is Texas Tech, they just don't hit a measly .286 for a season like they did last year. 2007 ace A.J. Ramos (8-5, 4.70) is one of only two pitchers back with more than 24 innings thrown last year. The staff itself was the only staff in the Big 12 with an ERA over 5.00, at 5.37.

 

The Intangible:

BeTTer luck.

 

When the Raiders lost Morgan, their ace, early last year it crushed their Friday night hopes. The trickle down affect poisoned their season, ending in a 10th place finish in Big 12 play.

 

Schedule Note:

How 'bout this murderer's row of opponents; from March 14 to the 30th, the Raiders will take on Texas A&M and Texas to open Big 12 play, then play a pair vs. UC Riverside and then travel to Missouri for weekend No. 3.

 

 

 

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