Sun Belt Tournament Preview: Bracket Two
The Sun Belt Conference Tournament is slated to begin Wednesday in Statesboro, GA. Here is my analysis of the teams in bracket two: Seeds 2,3 and 6
#2 SEED: UTA MAVERICKS (30-24, 20-10) Coach: Darin Thomas (10th season)
STRENGTHS: Overall, probably the best three man rotation in the league. Kadon Simmons is a seven game winner, and Trae Patterson and Jakob Hernandez are All-Conference guys. Daniel James and Austin Gardner are two solid late inning guys out of the pen. Omar Salinas and Noah Vaughan are good power hitters. The Mavericks are the hardest team to strike out in the league. All of their hitters have a good approach at the plate and while they may not wow you with their numbers, they can be really effective by finding holes and making the opposition make plays. Their defense is solid, especially up the middle.
WEAKNESSES: A lack of pitching depth, especially in the bullpen, has kind of been a UTA trademark since they've joined the Sun Belt. Their biggest issue during the season was finding a fourth starter and they never solved that issue. Simmons struggled down the stretch. They ask their starters to go deep because they don't want to have to go deep into their bullpen, using Gardner and James as much as possible. While their on base percentage is quite good, their slugging percentage is not. They eschew the short game and that could be an issue in a tournament setting. There are only a couple of speed threats in the lineup.
OUTLOOK: Everyone keeps talking about USA, CCU and Louisiana, but this team won the West...and it wasn't a fluke. It's a pretty solid club that keeps coming at you with a lineup that you aren't going to overpower. Their starting pitching makes them a huge threat to get through the bracket. But if you chase the starters (easier said than done) their underbelly gets exposed. They might struggle if they drop into the loser's bracket.
#3 SEED: SOUTH ALABAMA JAGUARS (36-19, 22-8) Coach: Mark Calvi (6th season)
STRENGTHS: No team in the Sun Belt, and few teams in the country, are as good putting up runs as the Jaguars. And they score in all sorts of different ways. They have pop with both gap and home run power. They have some guys who can run and they have an uncanny ability to get men on base. They easily lead the league in walks and they've scored 80 more runs than anyone else in the Sun Belt. If you don't have a strike-thrower, they can embarrass you. They're also an outstanding defensive team. Matt Peacock can be pretty nasty at the end of a game.
WEAKNESSES: Their three starters aren't bad, but they aren't as good as the other elite teams in the league. Randy Bell has been up and down and hasn't been the dominant game one pitcher they were hoping for. Huston and Carr have had both good and bad moments. Other than Peacock, their bullpen is very ordinary and really doesn't go very deep. Their offense hides their pitching drawbacks and if they need a fourth starter, their go to guy, Arguelles, has been inconsistent.
OUTLOOK: These guys are scary offensively and they've had a great season. But beware game one. If the Jags can solve Mr. Crane and/or the Trojans bullpen, they're in pretty good shape. But I don't know if that offense can overcome a paper thin pitching staff if they wind up in the loser's bracket early. The #3 vs. #6 matchup looms as the biggest game of the first round...for a lot of reasons.
#6 SEED: TROY TROJANS (31-24, 16-14) Coach: Mark Smartt (2nd season)
STRENGTHS: Andrew Crane has turned into one of the great stories in college baseball. He became a starter midway through the season and all he's done is dominate everyone in sight. Marc Skinner has been very good in the back of the pen. Aggressive team with some athleticism. They've got four guys who are going to run anytime, in any situation. Brandon Lockridge is one of the league's best pure hitters. They've got six players with ten or more doubles and use their gap power to their advantage. They're solid, albeit not spectacular defensively. While there is a dropoff after Crane (obviously) there is some depth to the overall staff.
WEAKNESSES: After Crane, all of their starters are hit or miss. That forces Smartt to piece together any game not involving Crane. None of the relievers are what you'd call lights out, but between the guys who have been part time starters and the rest of the bullpen, The Trojans, for a team that plays in a small park, don't have a lot of home run power. The bottom third of their lineup hasn't been as good as it needs to be.
OUTLOOK: This team has played pretty well down the stretch. Smartt isn't afraid to use his bench or his bullpen to find ways to win. Coaches will tell you that you have to be able to depend on your whole roster and that's what the Trojans do. Crane gives them a chance to win and this is a team you undervalue at your own risk right now. I used to think there were five teams with a chance to win this tournament. Now there are six.