Big East Conference Preview

Red Storm the favorite in stacked Big East


Feb. 22, 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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Not satisfied with just getting the three bids to the NCAA tournament, the Big East reached the promised land in 2007. For just the second time in the new millennium a Big East team made the field of eight in Omaha as Louisville got hot at the right time. Now, what does the conference do for an encore? It'll be fun to see. The fight for the title will be just as competitive as it was last year when Rutgers and St. John's tied for the top rung. The Johnnies may get a slight nod for '08, but they better not look over their shoulders.

 

Favorite: St. John's

Contenders: Louisville, Notre Dame, Rutgers, USF

Darkhorse: West Virginia

 

Cincinnati (28-28, 10-16)

 

The Good News:

This team still plays in the best facility in the conference. LHP Dan Osterbrock (9-1, 2.67) was quietly one of the best pitchers in the Big East. SS Josh Harrison (.327-9-56, 21SBs) and CF Tony Campana (.329, 60SBs) will steal you blind, finishing 2nd in the country in stolen bases.

 

The Bad News:

Leading hitter Neall French is in pro ball and two other .300+ hitters have left along with two of the three weekend starters on the mound. A 3-8 finish against the toughest of the Big East cost Cincinnati a spot in the post-season.

 

The Intangible:

Patience + Speed = Wins

 

Though their team batting average wasn't glamorous (.284), Cincy batters did a lot of things well last year, including 247 walks and 130 stolen bases. Look for more of the same this year.

 

Schedule Note:

The 'Cats avoid St. John's in the Big East rotation and also get Rutgers and South Florida at home.

 

Connecticut (34-27, 10-14)

 

The Good News:

Matt Karl (.301/2-2, 3.18, 11svs) may be the best two-way player in the Big East. In addition, Greg Nappo (4-3, 3.50), Bob Van Woert (7-3, 3.93) and Dusty Odenbach (2-5, 4.78) combined for 31 starts in 2007. 3B Pat Mahoney (.297) and 2B Dale Brannon (.278) are pretty solid gloves.

 

The Bad News:

Four players off the '07 team, including best player Dennis Donovan and most-used starting pitcher Mike Tarsi, have signed pro contracts. To contend in the Big East, the Huskies are going to need better than a .274 average.

 

The Intangible:

That big finish.

 

UConn closed the '07 season on a 9-2 run and barely squeezed into the Big East tournament. But once there, the Huskies were hell bent for leather and made it all the way to the title game before losing to Rutgers. Rekindle that desire and the Huskies will be a team to watch in '08.

 

Schedule Note:

We'll find out about UConn pretty early as they face off against teams like Missouri, Stetson, Ohio State and Penn State in the first three weeks.

 

Georgetown (21-34, 8-19)

 

The Good News:

I know it's modest, but the Hoyas have won 20+ games for four straight years. The entire staff returns, headed up by the righty-lefty combo of Jimmy Saris (4-6, 3.25) and Michael Gaggioli (2-5, 2.86). Relief stud Daniel Kennedy (11svs) backs them.

 

The Bad News:

In those same four years, GU has won only 8, 7, 10 and 8 Big East games. Almost the entire lineup needs total rebooting. 3B Matt Harrigan (.280) is the only starter of note back.

 

The Intangible:

New blood.

Maybe an all-new lineup in the field and at the dish is a good thing. Georgetown only hit .257 and their fielding percentage was a paultry .940.

 

Schedule Note:

There will be lots of chances for the new team to gel with a light early slate that features Saint Joseph's, Rollins, Holy Cross and UMBC.

 

Louisville (47-24, 19-8)

 

The Good News:

The Cards did what nobody thought they would by making it to the CWS in coach Dan McDonnell's first season at the helm. That's pretty freakin' unbelievable. He's got a handful of All-Americans to work with too. 3B Chris Dominguez (.262-15-61) is a potential monster. Arms like RHP Zack Pitts (10-3, 2.52, 91Ks), LHP Justin Marks (9-2, 2.67, 87Ks) and RHP Colby Wark (3-4, 3.56, 75Ks) will keep the Cards pitching. Ole Miss transfer Andrew Clark was one of the Rebs' best recruits in years and is now a Cardinal. He is part of the 28th best class in the country, according to Collegiate Baseball.

 

The Bad News:

Living up to last season's lofty accomplishments will be tough. Everyone, and I mean everyone, in the starting lineup has hit the bricks, including the top seven hitters. Graduated reliever Trystan Magnuson was a key cog to most of the post-season wins.

 

The Intangible:

That's easy, coach McDonnell.

 

This guy's turned everything around at Louisville with a meteoric rise that was even faster than the football teams' in Cardland. He's the reason that, despite the losses to the lineup, you can't count them out for a return to the promised land in 2008. Or, at the very least, an NCAA bid.

 

Schedule Note:

For a College World Series team, that's a pretty easy pre-conference slate, man. Be wary of that come at-large/RPI time. Even the Big East schedule doesn't get tough until St. John's comes calling in early April.

 

Notre Dame (28-28, 11-15)

 

The Good News:

Coach Dave Schrage is a good coach, last year's blip won't last. RHP David Phelps (8-5, 1.88), RHP Kyle Weiland (5-3, 5.66) and LHP Wade Korpi (1-5, 4.02) make a good weekend rotation. Solid gloves like SS Brett Lilley (.371, 27HBPs) and 3B A.J. Pollack (.372) can beat a team in many ways. The outstanding Irish recruiting class was ranked No. 4 in the country by Collegiate Baseball.

 

The Bad News:

A .500 season just doesn't happen in South Bend. In fact, it's been since 1987 that the Irish did not finish with a winning record. The Irish bats were soft last year, hitting just .274 and smacking a bony-armed 24 home runs.

 

The Intangible:

The best thing about a bad season is it comes to an end.

The '07 season was tough from end to end. Coach Schrage dealt with the death of his wife and the tough task of taking over a new program. A much calmer 2008 will result in a better season.

 

Schedule Note:

Un-Maineiri-like, the Irish didn't go for much challenge in this year's schedule. They usually don't duck anybody, but at least this slate will allow them to gel as a team and back to their winning ways. No Louisville on the Big East rotation either.

 

Pittsburgh (27-27, 15-11)

 

The Good News:

In between a poor start and finish, Pitt played some of its best Big East baseball in years. Infielders Gary Bucuren (.319-5-29) and Dan Williams (.301-5-24) are the best of eight returning starters. Two weekend arms also return in Nate Reed (4-5, 4.17) and Rob Brant (4-7, 5.79). Redshirt Frosh LHP Dan Gardo has high expectations.

 

The Bad News:

An 0-8 start and an 0-4 finish did the Panthers no favors. Neither did the light .272 team average. Staff ace Paul Nardozzi and two bullpenners, Peter Paris and Kyle Landis, will be hard to replace.

 

The Intangible:

Coming through in the clutch.

 

Pitt went 11-3 in one-run or extra inning games in 2007.

 

Schedule Note:

Between now and tax day the Panthers will play only five home games.

 



 
 

Rutgers (42-21, 20-7)

 

The Good News:

RU swept the regular season and tourney titles in '07. INF Tom Edwards (.340-7-48 , drafted by the Rangers) and starters RHP Casey Gaynor (4-3, 4.82) and RHP Jon McCue (7-0, 2.62) return. Relievers Kevin Lillis (2-0, 2.90) and Jason Downey (5-1, 4.67) got better as the season went on.

 

The Bad News:

Names like Dave Williams, Todd Frazier, Ryan Hill and Mike Bionde were some of the best players to come through Piscataway in years. Seven of nine starters are gone. Someone has to fill the shoes of Friday starter Steve Healing.

 

The Intangible:

Hot at the right time.

This is the sign of good coaching: The Scarlet Knights turned it on when it needed, going 16-3 in the month of May last season. Had it not been for an even hotter Oregon State team in the Charlotteville Regional... who knows?

 

Schedule Note:

Coach Fred Hill knows that challenging a team is the way to post-season success. Once again he'll take his Knights to Georgia Tech for three and also to Texas A&M.

 

St. John's (41-19, 20-7)

 

The Good News:

Becoming one of the most consistent winners in the East, SJU tied the school record for wins with 41 last year. All-Star candidates abound, including every pitcher in the stable. Look for Scott Barnes (7-2, 2.93, 99Ks) and Colin Lynch (2-2, 2.86, 11svs) to get guaranteed Ws on Fridays. Gil Zayas (.353) and OF Brian Kemp (.348, 25SBs) have a knack of beating out grounders and leads a group of four .300+ hitters.

 

The Bad News:

There's not a lot to dislike about this year's Red Storm. But they did lose four starters in the field, in addition to the fact that Chris Anninos, the regional hero vs. VCU, is the lone power source coming back (.325-8-37).

 

The Intangible:

This is a Junior-Senior Prom.

 

Coach Ed Blankmeyer has a huge smile on his countenance. All those arms coming back and most of the fielders mentioned above are either juniors or seniors. Other than staying healthy, experience is a coach's favorite thing.

 

Schedule Note:

Tough draw for the Johnnies as they face Louisville and Rutgers on the road in their first two Big East road trips.

 

Seton Hall (25-25, 9-15)

 

The Good News:

Nearly got back to their winning ways in 2007. The top two arms and top two bats return to build around: Keith Cantwell (4-1, 2.95), Corey Young (2-6, 3.98), OF Mark Pappas (.314) and OF Greg Miller (.312), who also threw well on the mound (4-1, 1.36, 30Ks, 5BBs).

 

The Bad News:

Despite finally breaking three straight years of 17 wins, The Hall still hasn't had a winning season since 2001. Pirates were the worst hitting team in the Big East at .255. Reliever Dan McDonald takes his six saves and 26 appearances with him.

 

The Intangible:

Destroy the bottom-feeder mentality.

 

Seton Hall has had single digit win numbers in Big East play for four straight seasons.

 

Schedule Note:

Though they avoid Louisville in their Big East draw, four of their first seven games come against 2007 NCAA regional teams.

 

South Florida (34-26, 13-14)

 

The Good News:

Showed promise in '07 and will have the double play combo of SS Addison Maruszak (.329) and 2B Dexter Butler (.324). USF gets a huge boost from RHP Danny Thomas (No. 8 Big East prospect by Baseball America in '06) back from injury. Shawn Sanford (3-4, 3.10, 11svs) will be leaned on again.

 

The Bad News:

This team ran out of gas, going 4-12 down the stretch and having their bats go silent in the Big East tourney. Most of their starting lineup left, including top hitter Walter Diaz. Two-thirds of the weekend rotation also took their gloves and moved on.

 

The Intangible:

The Wallace Non-Watch list.

 

Okay, answer me this: How does a player like Addison Maruszak, who was on the Wallace Award watch list in 2007, go on to bat .329 and NOT be included on the list for 2008?

 

Schedule Note:

Ahhhh, the joys of being a Southern team in a Northern conference. The Bulls will play 18 of their first 19 at home, including games with Oklahoma State, Oklahoma and Florida Atlantic.

 

Villanova (29-25, 12-15)

 

The Good News:

Lots of steady seniors return, most notably All American candidate SS Derek Shunk (.357). His double-play mate 2B Ryan Arcadia (.282, 20SBs) to back him. Also watch for senior hurlers Jordan Ellis (6-1, 3.75) and Bill Hoffman (4-8, 6.30).

 

The Bad News:

Mike Loree, the pitcher who orchestrated wins over Alabama, Louisville and St. John's won't be around any more. More patience is needed at the dish, the Cats struck out an astounding 412 times in '07.

 

The Intangible:

Versatility abounds.

 

With limited scholarships, especially at a school like Villanova, multi-use players are so valuable. Josh Eidell (7-4, 4.00, 4svs) and Gus Guida, a 3B/P, (.235/1-2, 5.30, 3svs) will be leaned on even more.

 

Schedule Note:

That Michigan series to kick things off is a cruel wake-up call. At Louisville and at South Florida makes for a tough April stretch.

 

West Virginia (29-22, 10-16)

 

The Good News:

Statistically speaking, the 'Neers were 2nd in both batting (.317) and fielding (.971) in the Big East last year. SS Tyler Kuhn (.332-5-52) turned down Cleveland as a 33rd round draftee last June. Josh Whitlock (7-5, 3.51, 69Ks) and Matt Yurish (4-5, 4.48, 75Ks) are a good righty-lefty strikeout combo.

 

The Bad News:

Lots of that firepower left Morgantown, including Justin Jenkins and Adam White, the two best bats. The 'Neers had a frustrating finish, ending up a game out of the Big East tournament field.

 

The Intangible:

Mother Nature is a pain.

 

All we ask is for a little better weather in 2008. In the first month of last season, WVU played only 13 games, having lost 11 games to rain and snow.

 

Schedule Note:

WVU will play its first eight games of the season in North Carolina. The pre-conference schedule is lilly-soft anyway, so they'll be able to build some confidence. Should be a 30+ win season in Morgantown... should.

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