Conference tournament fact or fiction
By lunchtime on Day 1 of the SEC tournament, the dying flicker of Kentucky's season went dark in Hoover, Ala.
A 4-1 loss to Ole Miss finished the Wildcats' regular season and, in every imaginable scenario, any hopes of an NCAA tournament berth. Immediately, a thought bubble formed: "Fact: Kentucky had the most disappointing second half in the country."
For me, Kentucky (30-25, 11-19) is one of the biggest overall disappointments of the 2013 season. That's something of a compliment -- yes, in the most backhanded of ways -- because bad teams aren't disappointing. Kentucky is not a bad team. It's a team that exchanged a dollar bill of talent for two quarters and a dime of performance.
There was a time Kentucky was 22-6. That was April 2. I spoke with head coach Gary Henderson two weeks before then, and he raved about A.J. Reed's two-way talent and J.T. Riddle's offensive maturation and Jerad Grundy's improved efficiency on the mound. Only one thing about Henderson's club left him empty.
"The only question I have now is how will we respond on the road in SEC play?" Henderson said. "That's obviously something you can't answer until you go do it."
Since April 2, Kentucky went 8-19, including 5-16 in the SEC and 3-9 in league road games. Henderson's answer was typed out with 48-point clarity.
But a couple of days into the meat of conference tournaments, not everything is so dour. Let's keep up the thought bubbles and play fact or fiction with a wide range of tournament topics.
Oklahoma State is one of the season's best surprises.
Fact ... the Cowboys went 39-14 in the regular season, finishing second in the Big 12 at 13-10, and make their tournament debut Thursday against TCU. Josh Holliday's first season as a skipper in Stillwater couldn't have gone any better. He has found two really good starting pitchers in Jason Hursh and Tyler Nurdin, while discovering at least enough offense in a pile of guys who can get on base if not hit for power. It has been more than Holliday could have reasonably expected in the first run leading his alma mater.
"Our expectation was to teach these guys to play the right way, develop their bodies and minds to be a competitive team every day, and set no limitations or expectations on what we can accomplish," Holliday told me earlier this spring. "The kids have been awesome about that."
Vanderbilt should be concerned about its loss to Texas A&M.
Fiction ... the Commodores were shut out 5-0 Wednesday evening and will play South Carolina Thursday afternoon. I suspect, secretly, Vanderbilt head coach Tim Corbin wouldn't mind losing the second game, too. Why? Because here's the reality about conference tournaments: For teams whose NCAA tournament status is secured, they don't mean anything at all.
In 2010, South Carolina lost to Ole Miss and Auburn in its first two SEC tournament games. Of course, the Gamecocks won the national championship that season. In 2011, South Carolina won only one game in the SEC tournament. Of course, the Gamecocks won the national championship that season. Do you try to lose? Well, no. But a fresher pitching staff in the regionals is better than a bleary-eyed and dead-arm bunch adorned in conference-title T-shirts.
Jonathan Gray is the most intriguing pitcher across all tournaments.
Fiction ... that would be Oral Roberts right-hander Alex Gonzalez, who has seen his draft stock soar in recent weeks. Gonzalez pitched Wednesday against Stephen F. Austin in the opening round of the Southland tournament. He wasn't great -- he allowed two earned runs in six innings, walking four and striking out only one -- but he has generated a lot of first-round talk among evaluators. At 6-foot-3 and 200 pounds, he has the frame pro scouts like, and he has a fastball that sits in the low 90s, touching a bit more, and a slider/cutter and changeup.
Gray is still interesting, of course, because it's nearly impossible to envision any scenario in which he falls out of the top three in the MLB draft. The Pac-12 doesn't have a conference tournament, so Stanford's Mark Appel will pitch Friday against UCLA. I spoke this week with an official of one MLB club picking in the top five of the draft, and he favored Gray slightly more than Appel right now, because he prefers Gray's fastball and delivery, noting Appel has the better breaking ball.
The Scott Sitz 'stache is the best thing you'll see on a field all week.
FACT! ... there's no acceptable counter argument.
The Kris Bryant-Colin Moran battle is more compelling than Appel-Gray.
Fact ... the battle between San Diego's Bryant and North Carolina's Moran is to be the first hitter taken in the MLB draft. Both play Thursday in their respective conference tournaments -- Bryant against BYU (WCC) and Moran against Miami (ACC). Most expect Appel or Gray to go to Houston as the No. 1 overall pick, with the other going to the Cubs at No. 2.
But there have been rumors of the Astros seriously considering a hitter, which in all likelihood would mean Bryant or Moran. "Moran is getting some No. 1 overall buzz right now, but I'd take [Bryant]," one MLB official said this week.
The question facing both of those hitters is their ability to remain at third base as professionals, specifically if they have the feet and lateral agility to play the position at a high level in the big leagues. If you take Bryant, you're taking his 30-homer potential and figuring out the defense later. If you take Moran, you're taking a high-OBP guy who should hit 15 to 20 homers and a bunch of doubles. Both Stockton, Calif., and Durham, N.C., will be packed with evaluators getting their last looks at Bryant and Moran with the draft nearly two weeks away.
Buck Farmer reminded us Wednesday that he's more than a cool name.
Fact ... the Georgia Tech right-hander threw seven innings of three-run ball against Florida State, striking out and walking two. I watched a lot of Farmer's outing, and his fastball sat 89-92 with good run, and his changeup at 81-83 was really good, with enough fade to miss bats against left-handers and be effective in right-on-right situations. There's some deception in Farmer's delivery, as he slings the ball from a three-quarter slot as though he's whipping a lasso at cattle. That whipping action creates some quality sink and run, which is deadly when he starts the ball off the plate outside against right-handed hitters and runs it back to the corner for strikes, as he was doing against FSU.
I think Farmer's future in the big leagues is more likely as a reliever, because of the delivery and the lack of an above-average breaking ball. He does spin one over in the low-80s with some slurve action to it, which could be enough to make him a viable starter if he can tighten the break and throw it for strikes consistently. But for Georgia Tech's purposes, Farmer has shown he can go deep into a game and match up well with any opposing pitcher, which makes Georgia Tech one of the 12 to 15 teams legitimately good enough to get to Omaha.
Cody Glenn has become LSU's de facto ace.
Fiction ... it just feels that way since Glenn started the first game of the last three SEC series for LSU and Game 1 of the league tournament Wednesday. Because of television, LSU's last three SEC series of the season began on Thursday night, so instead of bumping No. 1 starter Aaron Nola off his normal throwing routine, LSU head coach Paul Mainieri decided to lead off series against Florida, Texas A&M and Ole Miss with Glenn. The southpaw will also likely be throwing Game 1 of the Baton Rouge Regional next week, with Nola lined up for Game 2.
One note about right-hander Ryan Eades, who would pitch Game 3 of LSU's regional and is a potential first-round pick this June: There is legitimate concern among MLB clubs regarding Eades' medicals. He had shoulder surgery once in high school -- a primary reason why Eades even got to LSU -- and one MLB official told me this week many teams are skeptical about Eades' ability to stay healthy long term. Eades has elite stuff but not the best delivery or arm action. His right elbow lifts above the shoulder line during his arm swing, a movement that places significant stress on the shoulder and is often an indicator of impending injury. But, of course, not all guys with red flags get hurt. If Eades shows velocity into the mid-90s and holds it in his final handful of starts this season, some team will pop him in the first round.
The Pac-12 needs to get in on the conference tournament action.
Fact ... it's atrocious that UCLA, Stanford, Arizona State, Arizona, Oregon and Oregon State aren't squaring off in an elimination tournament this week. The Pac-12 may have the best choice of venues for its tournament, too, if it had one. It could go with any number of major league ballparks -- I'd put San Francisco first and Dodger Stadium second -- or choose from a number of elite college facilities within its own league. Instead, the Pac-12 completes a final weekend of conference play while the rest of the country enjoys tournament action. Attention Larry Scott: We need to rectify this. The level of ball in the league is too good not to.
Ryne Stanek is Arkansas' most important starting pitcher from here on out.
Fiction ... with a huge caveat. Stanek is certainly the most talented Razorbacks arm and will be a first-round pick in a few weeks. But I'd say right-hander Barrett Astin is the most critical to Arkansas' success, because if he pitches like he did Wednesday against Ole Miss, then he gives the Hogs the two above-average starters they need to get to Omaha.
Astin allowed one run in eight innings against the Rebels. His fastball sat at 90-92 mph, and his breaking ball had good depth at 80-83. When Astin is aggressive in the strike zone with those two pitches, he's capable of being very good. Arkansas can be relatively certain what it's going to get in Stanek's starts, and it can be relatively confident that, if need be, it can patch together nine innings in a Game 3. But to win a postseason series, you need at least two quality starters. If Astin becomes that guy, Arkansas will be a tough out in any regional or super regional.
Today in Omaha: High of 73 degrees, partly cloudy, 23 days until CWS Game 1.
Correction: The original version of this column had an incorrect reference to Colorado as it relates to the Pac-12's tournament status. The appropriate paragraph has been updated.
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