By: John Lockwood
#17 Rice and #20 Southern Miss have finished the 2011 regular season as CUSA co-champions—the first time in Conference USA’s 16 year history that two teams will share the regular season title. With their series victory of the Golden Eagles this past weekend, the Rice Owls lengthened their streak of consecutive titles to 16 years, and earned the No.1 seed in this week’s CUSA Championship Tournament to be played in Pearl, MS. While the odds of Rice and Southern Miss (the No. 2 seed) receiving at-large bids to the NCAA tournament are high, for the other six teams in the field, a tournament championship is the only guarantee they’ll have for extending their season.
In a departure from the traditional format of conference tournaments, the 2011 CUSA Championship presented by Trustmark will be played using a pool format rather than the traditional double-elimination bracket. The top eight teams from the regular season are seeded (see below) and placed into two four-team pools depending on seed. Each team will then play three games with the teams in their pool, and the teams with the best records from each group after pool play advance to the CUSA championship game. Two-way ties will be broken by the team’s head-to-head decision.
#2 Southern Miss
#3 East Carolina
Since there are far too many games to preview, we’ll simply look at how each pool of teams sizes up.
While one may look at Pool A and think that #17 Rice will be able to walk right through to the conference championship, the Owls actually have a losing record (4-5) against teams in their pool. Both UAB and UCF were the only two teams in the conference to win their series against the Owls, while the Tigers were just one out away from winning their series against Rice at FedEx Park just over a week ago. However, a lot has changed since those series (even the one against Memphis) and the Owls are riding high after taking two of three from #20 Southern Miss to earn a share of the CUSA regular season title. While the Knights won their regular season series against the Knights, it was during the very first weekend of conference play, with the Knights actually owning a better record than the Owls (16-5 vs. 15-9). Since then, the season has gone very differently for both teams, with the Knights only just now regaining their feet after having dropped to eighth place in the conference at one point during the season. Both the Knights and the Owls come into the tournament on a roll: UCF has won 7 of their last eight while Rice has won 10 of their last 12. While Memphis, with their conference-best .306 team batting average, could prove a big challenge to the Owls (who still have the best chances of emerging top dog after pool play), the Tigers also come into the tournament with a conference-worst 4.99 team ERA.
Prediction: Rice moves on to Championship
The tougher of the two groups, Pool B will be the site of some of the hardest fought games in the entire tournament. The pool’s highest seed, #20 Southern Miss, has a 5-4 record against the other teams in their group—a group which includes one of the best pitching teams in the entire country, #30 East Carolina. ECU is one of the hottest teams coming into the CUSA tournament, going 10-2 in the month of May and having won eight of their last nine games. USM bounced back well from a demoralizing 16-2 loss on Friday to beat the Owls 7-3 on Saturday and grab a share of the regular season title. The dark-horse in Pool B (and perhaps the entire tournament) has to be Houston who, despite having the only sub-.500 overall record in the entire tournament, is 6-3 against the other teams in their pool. However, going against the Cougars is their 3-7 record in their last ten games and a serious lack of consistency: in the last two games of the regular season they scored 0 runs and 14 runs, respectively. While Tulane has had somewhat of a storybook second half of the season, their league-worst batting average (.259) and lack of a dominant starting pitcher does not bode well in the tournament’s new pool play format.
Prediction: Southern Miss advances to the Championship
Championship Game Prediction: Rice 7- USM 3
Schedule of Play:
Wednesday, May 25
Game 1: (5) Memphis vs. (4) UCF 9:00am
Game 2: (8) UAB vs. (1) Rice 12:30pm
Game 3: (6) Houston vs. (3) East Carolina 4:00pm
Game 4: (7) Tulane vs. (2) Southern Miss 7:30pm
Thursday, May 26 (all games televised by CSS)
Game 5: (4) UCF vs. (8) UAB 9:00am
Game 6: (5) Memphis vs. (1) Rice 12:30p
Game 7: (7) Tulane vs. (3) East Carolina 4:00pm
Game 8: (6) Houston vs. (2) Southern Miss 7:30pm
Friday, May 27
Game 9: (5) Memphis vs. (8) UAB 9:00am
Game 10: (4) UCF vs. (1) Rice 12:30pm
Game 11: (6) Houston vs. (7) Tulane 4:00pm
Game 12: (3) East Carolina vs. (2) Southern Miss 7:30pm
Saturday, May 28
Championship Game (televised by CBS Sports Network), 7pm CST
Stay tuned to College Baseball Daily for updates on the 2011 Conference USA Championship Tournament from Trustmark Park in Pearl, MS.