Category archive: Illinois-Chicago Flames
Now on to a quick look at eight intriguing conference tournaments.
Host: NC State
Top seed: Georgia Tech
Top challenger: Florida State
Georgia Tech in Twitter length
It's a rare combination, but Georgia Tech is both a great power-hitting team and one of the surest fielding teams in the nation.
Sleeper: North Carolina
No real sleepers, only a sub-favorite. And speaking of defense, the Tar Heels had eight errors in six games against Florida State and Georgia Tech. They had 30 errors in their 48 other games.
Georgia Tech, Florida State and North Carolina are safe, but there could be at least one NCAA seed on the line. With the weakest RPI of the three, Georgia Tech may need to win both the regular season and conference tournament to be among the top 16 in the national bracket.
Host: Stony Brook
Top seed: Stony Brook
Top challenger: Boston University
Stony Brook in Twitter length
Stony Brook led the league in slugging, on-base percentage and ERA, and was second in fielding. It was also last in vulnerabilities.
Leah McIntosh threw four perfect games this season. Considering she has allowed just 77 hits and 17 walks in 149.1 innings, she also threw a lot of near-perfect games.
It's a deep, balanced field of contenders, but this remains a one-bid league.
Top seed: Campbell
Top challenger: Lipscomb
Campbell in Twitter length
Silenced against North Carolina and East Carolina, the offense put up 27 runs in six games against Lipscomb, Mercer and Florida Gulf Coast.
The offense hasn't always been there, but with two of the league's top pitchers in Jenni Holtz and Lacey Richardson, the Bears are built to cause postseason headaches.
Your guess is as good as mine. All three of the top teams are within a few places of each other in the 50-60 RPI range. Any team that doesn't get to the final is probably out. If two of the three make it to the final, the loser has to hope RPI counts.
Host: Neutral (Oklahoma City)
Top seed: Oklahoma
Top challenger: Missouri
Oklahoma in Twitter length
Although it came in limited at-bats, Krystle Huey's .400-plus on-base percentage in Big 12 play added another layer to a potent offense.
Texas and Oklahoma may have been separated by a full three wins in conference play, but they were also separated by all of about nine singles across the statistical spectrum. On paper, Texas is a team with upside.
Oklahoma State needs at least a win to shore up its case. Everyone else looks safe, but a title for Oklahoma might help it host any potential super regional.
Top seed: Tulsa
Top challenger: East Carolina
Tulsa in Twitter length
Tulsa had the best on-base percentage in Conference USA, but in losing two of three at East Carolina, it walked just twice.
Sleeper: Central Florida
Throw out a loss at Florida (and at 3-0, it wasn't a bad loss in its own right) and UCF was 10-5 in its past 15 games. There's no Allison Kime around this season, but junior Ashleigh Cole has allowed just eight earned runs in her past 37.1 innings (1.50 ERA).
If Tulsa and East Carolina get to the final, whichever team loses would have a very strong case for an at-large bid. The math may not be as kind to Marshall and Houston, but reaching the final is probably their only hope of at-large consideration.
Host: Butler (neutral field)
Top seed: Illinois-Chicago
Top challenger: Cleveland State
Illinois-Chicago in Twitter length
The Flames came alive at the plate after a tough early schedule. They don't hit for power, but they draw walks and move runners over.
Sleeper: Wright State
Without a senior on the roster, Wright State may just be setting the stage for next season, but behind Justine Shilt and Jamie Perkins, the Raiders hit the ball hard and field it well.
Only the automatic bid will make it, which is why it's intriguing with so many contenders.
Top seed: Florida
Top challenger: Alabama
Florida in Twitter length
The Gators averaged more than six runs per game in the regular season. Their opponents averaged fewer than six runners per game.
Not exactly going out on a limb with the home team, but the Lady Vols -- fourth in OPS, fifth in ERA and third in fielding percentage -- have the best balance outside of the big three.
Auburn and Arkansas would cement their profiles with monumental upsets, but getting here was probably enough for both. A win against Alabama in a potential semifinal would solidify Georgia's case for a top-eight national seed.
Host: McNeese State
Top seed: Texas State
Top challenger: McNeese State
Texas State in Twitter length
Texas State went 23-6 during the marathon conference season, losing just one series at home along the way -- against McNeese State.
Sleeper: Nicholls State
Only one pitcher worked more innings in conference play than Nicholls State junior Lacey Gros, who struck out 147 batters in 132 innings.
Texas State has an at-large case if it doesn't win, but as it learned last season, that's a route that often leads to disappointment for mid-majors.
Illinois-Chicago at Cleveland State
The top three seeds in the Horizon League get a pass on the first set of games in the double-elimination conference tournament, so as enticing as this is, the series between the conference's current top two teams isn't going to settle anything. (Third-place Wright State also visits fourth-place Loyola this weekend.) Cleveland State ace Amanda Macenko has nearly 100 more strikeouts than any other pitcher in the league.
Maryland at Virginia Tech
Does the ACC get a fourth team into the NCAA tournament? Virginia Tech is 7-8 in the league but five games under .500 overall with nine to play before the ACC tournament. Mathematically, the Hokies could lose one or two more. Realistically, they need them all. Maryland has more to work with. The Terrapins have stopped hitting in league play (.314 slugging percentage), but sophomore Kerry Hickey has a 1.90 ERA despite three starts and a relief appearance against North Carolina and Florida State.
UNLV at Colorado State
Friday's game in Fort Collins is part of a bigger weekend for both teams. UNLV has a reasonably strong at-large profile for the NCAA tournament, but at 2-6 in conference play, that profile can't really afford a loss at Colorado State or New Mexico the following two days. Meanwhile, Colorado State is 4-3 in the league but is buried in the RPI. Yet if the Rams could somehow sweep the weekend at home against UNLV and San Diego State, the Mountain West would get much more interesting.
No. 7 Northwestern at Illinois
Jenna Hall has been gone for a few years, but folks in Champaign-Urbana should still be familiar with the intentional walk. And as the Illini look for at least one win that would go a long way toward cementing their NCAA tournament at-large profile, they may want to use the free pass against Northwestern's Adrienne Monka. The freshman earned NFCA Player of the Week honors last week and is slugging .919 this season. Then again, whom are you pitching to instead? Erin Dyer went 5-for-8 with a pair of home runs against Illinois last season.
Cal State Fullerton at Long Beach State
The second-best home team in the Big West hosts the league's most successful road team, a week after Long Beach separated itself as the lone challenger to Fullerton and Cal Poly. Pitching ruled last season's series, with just 11 runs scored as Fullerton took two of three, but with the exception of Brooke Turner, it'll be new faces in the circle this time around. Ari Cervantes has been excellent for Fullerton in league play (1.72 ERA), and first baseman K.C. Craddick is hitting .448 against the Big West, compared to .130 out of conference.
No. 13 North Carolina at No. 20 Georgia Tech
We're back to the ACC, where Georgia Tech looks to make up some or all of a 2½-game deficit behind first-place North Carolina. Add in Wednesday's doubleheader against Alabama, and it's a make-or-break week for the Yellow Jackets in terms of claiming a seed in the NCAA tournament. Georgia Tech has beaten North Carolina twice in the teams' past eight meetings. During that span, the Yellow Jackets have pushed across just 10 earned runs in 45 innings against current Tar Heels Lisa Norris and Danielle Spaulding.
No. 15 Tennessee at No. 11 Georgia
Strictly speaking, there's not a lot on the line here beyond conference tournament seeding. But with Alabama looming next week, Tennessee could use a road win or two to feel better about a potential NCAA tournament seed. Likewise, a strong closing push for the Bulldogs would help ensure a potential super regional in Athens. And after scoring seven runs in seven games against Washington, Florida and Alabama, it's another chance for the Bulldogs to prove that their otherwise prolific offensive numbers are indeed legit.
No. 14 Oklahoma at No. 10 Missouri
Two of the highest-profile programs unwilling to post their statistics online (making them more secretive than Nick Saban and Charlie Weis) meet in Columbia. The three runs Texas Tech scored in a 10-3 loss against Missouri last week marked only the third time in 15 games that an opponent scored more than two. Both teams are justifiably known for offense, but might this be the week that Missouri coach Ehren Earleywine's pitching depth and innovative bullpen philosophy gain a deserved spotlight?
No. 2 UCLA at No. 8 Arizona State
As usual in the Pac-10, UCLA and Washington swap places for single games Friday. Arizona State freshman Hillary Bach seems to be taking the Pac-10 learning curve with all four wheels on the ground. She's one of only three pitchers with an ERA of less than 3.00 in league play (2.42), joining UCLA's do-everything starter-reliever-slugger Megan Langenfeld and Washington's Danielle Lawrie. And while everyone's line is what it is for a reason, it's worth noting she has a 0.94 ERA in her six conference starts that didn't involve Arizona.
No. 3 Washington at No. 9 Arizona
It's the best offense in the nation against the best pitcher in the nation in a pair of games that will go a long way toward determining whether the conference title is done and dusted for the Wildcats or up for grabs in the final two weekends. What else needs to be said?