Sun Belt Conference Tournament Preview – Bracket “B”
Bracket "B" for the Sun Belt Conference Tournament features teams seeded 2 ,3 ,6 and 7. The round robin bracket games will begin Wednesday at Bowling Green Ballpark in Bowling Green, KY. For a preview of Bracket "A' featuring the 1, 4, 5 and 8 seeds, click here.
#2 ARKANSAS STATE RED WOLVES (32-21, 19-9)
SBC Tournament Titles: 1994, All-time tournament record: 15-30 Coach: Tommy Raffo (4th season)
STRENGTHS: Solid rotation led by SBC Pitcher of the Year Jacob Lee. Cory Kyle and Daniel Wright both carry ERA under 5, which isn't bad in this league. Bullpen has depth, led by closer John Koch, who saved eleven games without a blown save. Seth McWilliams and Brandon Farley have been solid out of the pen as well. Lineup has some depth as well, led by third baseman Claude Johnson. Logan Uxa has nine homers, pretty impressive considering how hard it is to hit at Tomlinson Stadium in the second half of the season. Michael Faulkner led the league in stolen bases with 38 and was only thrown out once. Defense is solid. Team excels at the short game.
WEAKNESSES: Nothing really glaring. Team doesn't have a lot of power, but
part of that is due to the wind blowing in at their ballpark. Outside of Faulkner, not much team speed. Like everyone else, Raffo would love to have another dependable arm. Pitching staff gave up sixteen more home runs than the team hit.
OUTLOOK: This could be the league's most complete team. Lee upped his game to star status this year and although this team isn't really flashy, they put the ball in play throughout the lineup and aren't afraid to manufacture runs if they have to. They'll have to navigate a bracket with some dangerous teams to get to Sunday, but they're very capable of getting it done.
#3 FIU PANTHERS (31-23, 15-14)
SBC Tournament Titles: 1999, 2010 All Time Tournament Record: Coach: Henry "Turtle" Thomas, 5th season
STRENGTHS: The league's best hitting team, capable of swinging it throughout the lineup. Powerful middle of the order, with four players tallying between 40-50 RBI. Mike Martinez is a four-time all-conference selection and the Sun Belt's best pure hitter. Jabari Henry leads the team in homers with 12, but the team has five players with five or more home runs. And, they're not afraid to run either. Six dependable pitchers, led by starter/long reliever Eddy Pidermann and closer Michael Gomez. Pitching staff has power, averaging nearly a strikeout per inning as a staff, best in the league.
WEAKNESSES; No way to sugar coat things. This team is just terrible
defensively, maybe the worst I've seen in twenty years covering the league. Their infield has combined for 60 errors, which is more than some teams have totaled on the whole staff. Bullpen dependability is a question mark after Pidermann (if he doesn't start) and Gomez. FIU's staff really doesn't have a #1 guy, which can get them in trouble when they face a really good arm. Not much depth on this squad as Thomas relies pretty much on the same guys every day.
OUTLOOK: FIU swings it well enough to hit their way through the tournament. Their first game against Middle Tennessee will be interesting, because the Blue Raiders have some guys who can hit as well as the Panthers. I keep looking at that defense, though and it explains why, despite their talent, FIU only finished one game above .500 in the league.
#6 TROY TROJANS (26-29, 14-16)
SBC Tournament titles: 2006 All-time Tournament record: 12-9 Coach: Bobby Pierce-10th season
STRENGTHS: A team that struggled offensively for a good part of the season is hitting now. Logan Pierce and Boone Shear would start for anyone in the league. Danny Collins has provided great power from the third base spot and Tyler Hannah is rock solid. Very good defensive team, as always. Nate Hill and Thomas Austin make for a good 1-2 combination out of the bullpen.
WEAKNESSES: Consistency from the starting pitchers has been a concern all year. Tyler Ray just hasn't been close to the guy who was the Pitcher of the Year in the league last year. Joe Hernandez has had his moments, but hasn't
been good game in and game out. Team has a couple of holes near the bottom of the lineup. Not a lot of team speed here and Troy doesn't do much with the short game.
OUTLOOK: This team rallied down the stretch to get the #6 seed after being in last place with nine games to go. Troy is capable of scoring some runs and if they get something out of their starters, they could cause problems in this tournament. But if those guys are only fair, I don't know if they're going to outscore the other three teams in this bracket.
MIDDLE TENNESSEE BLUE RAIDERS (29-27, 14-16)
Tournament Titles: 2003, 2009 All Time Tournament Record: 25-14 Coach: Steve Peterson, 25th season
STRENGTHS: Trent Miller is one of the best power hitters in the league and Justin Guidry can swing the bat as well as anyone in the league. Johnny Thomas gives power at a position (2B) not known for power. Hank LaRue is solid as a hitter and fielder at third. Johnathan Frebis was named SBC Freshman of the Year. Frebis, Jordan Cooper and Jonathan Sisco all have ERA under 4.00. Paul Mittura and Joey McClung are a good left/right combo in the bullpen. This is the league's best defensive team. Three players have double digit stolen bases.
WEAKNESSES: The starting pitching, the strong point for MT early in conference, has become very inconsistent. Hunter Adkins looked like he might be the pitcher of the year; now his ERA is over five. The lineup isn't scary after about the #5 spot. First baseman Ethan Williams is academically ineligible and the Raiders won only two of six conference games down the stretch without him. Team isn't as good in manufacturing runs as they need to be with the bottom of the lineup that they have.
OUTLOOK: Three weeks into the conference season, this team looked like they might be the team to beat. But Williams is gone and the starting pitching has gone south at a bad time. Middle limped into the tournament, finally qualifying on the last day. But be careful before you write them off. This is traditionally a very tough team come tournament time.
I don't think I've correctly predicted the tournament winner since....well...I can't really remember. If that trend continues, it's bad news for Arkansas State.
( all photos courtesy school websites)