Places to be this weekend
Special to ESPN.com
Editor's note: The NCAA has not released its RPI ratings yet. The RPI ratings listed below are from Boyd's World and are not official.
1. No. 1 Florida (20-1, 3-0 SEC, No. 1 RPI) at No. 8 South Carolina (16-5, 0-3 SEC, No. 15 RPI)
Carolina Stadium, Columbia, S.C.
What's at stake: The great leap forward.
Here it is. The rematch. Last time we saw these two teams face off they were deciding last season's national title in Omaha, Neb.. Though there is a lot of baseball to be played, Florida can make that big move forward and further take control of the SEC (and the national rankings) with a series win here. The Gamecocks have a bit more riding on this as they might get lost in the shuffle a little if they drop this series. The SEC always gets its share of No. 1 seeds in the NCAA tournament, but if the Gamecocks are sitting behind the Gators and Kentucky in the SEC East standings come tourney time, they may find themselves doing some traveling this postseason. It's a strange proposition considering how much baseball is left to be played, but if South Carolina loses this series, is the road back to national seed territory too tough to navigate?
Key matchup: Gamecocks' youth versus Gators' experience
South Carolina's new group of infielders has yet to experience a pressure-cooker series of this magnitude (with all apologies to Clemson, of course). Keep an eye, both offensively and defensively, on the success rate of new infielders Joey Pankake, Erik Payne and Connor Bright as well as freshman catcher Grayson Greiner.
2. No. 20 NC State (15-4, 5-1 ACC, No. 8 RPI) at No. 5 North Carolina (17-4, 5-1 ACC, No. 9 RPI)
Boshamer Stadium, Chapel Hill, N.C.
What's at stake: R-E-S-P-E-C-T.
Kind of like we all did with Kentucky going into last week's series with South Carolina, we're all still playing a bit of a wait-and-see game with the Wolfpack. Sure, taking down Georgia Tech and Wake Forest is good, really good, but let's see how they do in a tough road series before we're completely sold. The Tar Heels sit atop the Coastal Division, tied with Miami, but have been challenged in road wins at Clemson and Maryland. And how about this for statistical evenness: UNC's pitching staff has an ERA of 2.78, 169 K's and 63 walks; NC State has a 2.84 ERA with 167 K's and 64 walks.
Key matchup: Trea Turner and the NC State speed game versus Carolina defense.
The UNC rotation of Kent Emanuel (5-0, 1.67), Benton Moss (2-1, 2.13) and Chris Munnelly (2-0, 2.73) is comprised of complete shutdown arms, to say the least. But they'll be leaned on this weekend even more as the Pack have a knack for giving opposing defenses the willies with their running game and power strokes. NC State opponents are fielding at only a .930 level, which means they're specialists at applying pressure. If the Pack can get on base, look for them to pull out all the stops. That starts with Turner, who is a perfect 21-for-21 on stolen base attempts.
3. No. 11 Arizona (16-6, 2-1 Pac-12, No. 27 RPI) at No. 16 Oregon State (14-5, 3-0 Pac-12, No. 29 RPI)
Goss Stadium, Corvallis, Ore.
What's at stake: Ownership of the Pac-12 lead.
The coaches in both dugouts have won national championships. Both programs are proven winners. Both squads enter on an uptick. This should be a good one in the early Pac-12 rigors. It's similar to the aforementioned SEC and ACC matchups -- it's not quite win-or-else time, but the victor stays atop the conference standings and on the forefront of the national picture. These teams come at you in two different ways: Arizona hits and runs with the best of the Pac-12, with a .327 team average and 44 stolen bases. OSU is much more concerned with making you pay for your mistakes, having pulled 100 walks and 34 unearned runs on offense. Either way, both teams get things done and leave you in their wake.
Key matchup: Wildcats' offense versus Beavers' mound corps.
Seeing both teams in person, it's Arizona's offense that jumps off the page (and off the stat sheet as well) hitting almost .330 and passing the eye test with a lot of diversity, athletic ability and having the top six bats hitting .345 or better, led by Alex Mejia's .393 average. The Beavers have a lot of youthful talent on the bump but this isn't the kind of staff that will blow you away (just 116 strikeouts on the year). If the Wildcats get consistent contact and keep the pressure on, they'll have better than a puncher's chance here.
4. East Carolina (15-5, No. 26 RPI) at No. 21 Central Florida (17-5, No. 59 RPI)
Bergman Field, Orlando
What's at stake: Sending a message.
The winner of this series will light the neon sign signalling its intention to be the burr in Rice's saddle in the Conference USA title race. These are pretty evenly matched teams -- UCF hits slightly better (.289 compared to ECU's .288), but both pitching staffs are at the top of the conference rung and both defend the dickens out of you. The Knights sort of sleepwalked their way over Harvard last weekend, scoring just 14 runs in their three wins, but they have a knack of getting clutch hits. Five of their six runs in a midweek win over South Florida came with two outs. The Pirates, however, have played a much tougher schedule so far (66th nationally compared to 173rd for the Knights) and have been better tested. That could come in real handy in a tough road environment.
Key matchup: Knights' discernible eye versus Pirates' accuracy.
Something's got to give here. Both pitching staffs have great résumés so look for some intangibles to come into play. UCF is second nationally with 124 walks. But the Pirates' staff is efficient, if not dominant. Starters Kevin Brandt (3-1, 1.77), Tyler Joyner (3-0, 1.97) and Jharel Cotton (4-0, 2.22) have combined to issue just 23 walks in 96 innings of work.
5. California (12-7, 0-3 Pac-12, No. 102 RPI) at Arizona State (13-7, 1-2 Pac-12, No. 68 RPI)
Packard Stadium, Tempe, Ariz.
What's at stake: Elimination, or close to it.
Considering their high RPIs and their standing in the Pac-12, both teams desperately need to avoid falling into the conference dungeon by losing this weekend. Cal needs its leaders Tony Renda (.358) and Chadd Krist (.313) to pick their cohorts up and dust them off after a bad three-game sweep at home against Oregon State. The defense has been a sore spot so far, sweeping at a .953 level. With ASU's potent bats, particularly Joey DeMichele at the top of the order, giving the Sun Devils more than three outs in an inning would be playing with fire.
Key matchup: The early innings.
In all three losses to Oregon State last weekend, the Bears saw early deficits that they couldn't overcome. That would be a dangerous modus operandi in the Valley of the Sun considering ASU has outscored opponents 54-23 in the opening three innings of games this year, including a 20-2 count in the first inning alone.
6. No. 10 Texas A&M (16-5, 2-1 Big 12, No. 13 RPI) at Pepperdine (16-5, 0-0 WCC, No. 23 RPI)
Eddy D. Field Stadium, Malibu, Calif.
What's at stake: A stamp of approval.
Pepperdine has weekend series wins over teams like Oklahoma, Fresno State and Kent State, along with a nip-and-tuck series loss at Louisville. But this weekend presents an opportunity to earn an "atta-boy" nationally if they can pull off a best-of-three series win. Texas A&M has yet to play a single game away from College Station, Texas. The tricky hillside overlooking the Pacific Ocean is a tough place to get acclimated to, especially with the winds coming in off the ocean. This will be a weekend of pitching and defense. It could come down to three or four key defensive plays each game.
Key matchup: Michael Wacha versus Jon Moscot.
The Friday mound matchup should be one of the best in the country. I say "should" because Wacha is coming off one of his worst performances as a college pitcher, giving up 11 hits, nine runs and three walks in a 5.1 inning stint against Kansas State. Moscot has been solid so far as the Waves' Friday guy, especially when you consider they've given up just 12 runs in the five games he's started.
7. No. 4 Florida State (19-2, 6-0 ACC, No. 4 RPI) at Wake Forest (16-7, 3-3 ACC, No. 31 RPI)
Wake Forest Baseball Park, Winston-Salem, N.C.
What's at stake: Survival.
It's survival mode for the Demon Deacons, who are in the midst of a brutal stretch. After traveling to NC State last week, they host Florida State this weekend followed by trips to North Carolina and Virginia in subsequent weekends. There's no question that Wake needs a wake-up call after being swept by the Wolfpack. The Seminoles have passed their initial road tests this season, winning twice at UCF and sweeping Duke two weeks ago. The Seminoles' inexperienced starting pitching is growing on the job, helping the team ERA stick at 3.15.
Key matchup: The bottom of the Seminoles' batting order versus Wake's pitching.
With an ACC-best average of .437, it's no secret that James Ramsey is the straw stirring the Seminoles' drink so far. Jayce Boyd (.388), Devon Travis (.354) and Seth Miller (.320) have each contributed, but as evidenced in Monday night's game against Virginia, the bottom of the order has been a problem, hitting .293 as a team and giving the Noles half an offense. If Brian Holmes (4-0, 1.44) & Co. can handcuff the lower half of the Noles' lineup, this series can go either way.
8. Maryland (15-7, 1-5 ACC, No. 24 RPI) at No. 9 Miami (17-4, 5-1 ACC, No. 11 RPI)
Alex Rodriguez Park, Coral Gables, Fla.
What's at stake: Confidence down the stretch.
After a series win at UCLA to start the season, the Terrapins have hit the skids the past few weeks, getting swept at Wake Forest and then losing a series to UNC. But in their defense, the Terrapins were in the fight the entire weekend, losing the Friday night game 4-3 after having the tying run on third. Two of their final three ACC weekends will be road trips to Virginia Tech and Florida State, so getting a few wins here will make a huge statement that the Terps are back and might give them a shot in the arm for when those end-of-season road tests come calling. The Canes still have a little bit of mystery about them, having beaten Boston College and Duke to get to 5-1 in the league. Don't be surprised if the Terrapins revert to opening weekend form.
Key matchup: Maryland relievers versus Hurricanes not named O'Brien.
Peter O'Brien has lived up to billing for the Canes, hitting .400. But can the other bats in the lineup give the Hurricanes an extra punch, especially late in games? Maryland leads the ACC in pitching (2.24 team ERA) and has received stout work from Jimmy Reed (0-0, 0.00 ERA, six saves) and Korey Wacker (3-0, 0.69 in 10 appearances) to lock down W's.
9. No. 3 Arkansas (20-2, 3-0 SEC, No. 16 RPI) at Mississippi State (15-7, 1-2 SEC, No. 34 RPI)
Dudy-Noble Field, Starkville, Miss.
What's at stake: Proof. Very telling proof.
The Bulldogs have to be champing at the bit, coming off a series loss at LSU where, according to head coach John Cohen, they out-pitched the Tigers. It doesn't help that the Bulldogs are still not expected to be at full strength; injuries to six key players have hindered their growth this season. Unlike recent years, the Razorbacks have played a pretty easy slate (167th in the country according to Boyd Nation) and have yet to play a true road game in an opponent's stadium. This will be a big test that should tell us a lot about where the Hogs are.
Key matchup: Hogs' bullpen versus MSU's offense.
The Bulldogs have given Cohen fits, losing five one-run games so far this season. But if the Razorbacks have an Achilles' heel, it could be at the back end of games, when they're outscoring their opponents just 36-30 from the sixth inning on. If the Bulldogs can get to the Hogs' starting pitching early, they could have the upper hand in the late innings when the bullpen takes over.
10. USC (13-6, 1-2 Pac-12, No. 36 RPI) at No. 2 Stanford (13-2, 0-0 Pac-12, No. 3 RPI)
Sunken Diamond, Palo Alto, Calif.
What's at stake: A big welcome back to contention.
After a 13-day break for exams, the Cardinal are back in action, hoping to crush the upset hopes of the Trojans, while also looking to re-establish themselves at the top of the polls. The Trojans are hoping last week's series loss to Utah was a hiccup. A big hiccup, but nothing more. Prior to that, USC was starting to look like it was back among championship circles, playing well in a 1-2 series loss at North Carolina as part of a 12-3 start. But last week's stunning losses to Utah show that these guys need to have a bounce-back weekend, and maybe even need to pull a Kentucky here and shock the Cardinal.
Key matchup: The first pitches of Stanford versus USC's bats.
When Rice took an early lead on Stanford in their Friday and Saturday matchups two weeks ago, they did a lot of their damage by being aggressive and going after early pitches. Mark Appel and Brett Mooneyham had some tough moments when the Owls would go after the first strike they saw. See if the Trojans employ the same tactic here as they hope to welcome the Cardinal back into action in a rude manner.
Top 25 matchups
No. 2 Stanford vs. USC
No. 3 Arkansas vs. Mississippi State
No. 4 Florida State vs. Wake Forest
No. 5 North Carolina vs. No. 20 NC State
No. 6 Kentucky vs. Tennessee
No. 7 Rice vs. Memphis
No. 9 Miami vs. Maryland
No. 10 Texas A&M vs. Pepperdine
No. 11 Arizona vs. No. 16 Oregon State
No. 12 UCLA vs. Washington State
No. 13 LSU vs. Auburn
No. 14 Georgia Tech vs. Boston College
No. 15 Cal State Fullerton vs. Oral Roberts
No. 17 Georgia vs. Vanderbilt
No. 18 Oregon vs. Utah
No. 19 Ole Miss vs. Alabama No. 21 UCF vs. East Carolina
No. 22 Louisville vs. Cincinnati
No. 23 TCU vs. New Mexico
No. 24 Purdue vs. Ohio State
No. 25 Texas vs. Kansas State
Kentucky at Tennessee
How it could happen: Oh come on, don't you think the Wildcats are about as high on the hog as it gets right now? The most dangerous part of last weekend's series sweep of defending national champion South Carolina is that they have to go on the road and take on a heated rival the following weekend. And don't think the Vols aren't capable of pulling big wins, as witnessed by their Sunday win at Georgia, where five pitchers combined on a six-hit shutout. The Wildcats are one win shy of tying the high-water mark of SEC winning streaks at 23, but they can't get caught thinking about it.
Why it might not: First off, the Bat Cats have already turned their attention away from the sweep of the Gamecocks, as they took down Cincinnati 10-7 on Wednesday night on the road. Coach Gary Henderson said this week that his team is still grounded and focused on the goal and is not "giddy" about the South Carolina result, as he put it. So don't expect this team to change its spots too much. The Wildcats' offense is potent, leading the nation in on-base percentage at .433, but it's the pitching staff that makes you think that things aren't going to change anytime soon, tossing 205 K's in 198 innings with a 3.14 ERA. Those numbers go well with their ho-hum attitude about the streak. -- Eric Sorenson
Under the radar
North Dakota State (14-5, No. 77 RPI)
Offense: .311 team average
Pitching: 4.03 team ERA
Defense: .978 fielding percentage
This weekend: Idle. The Bison take off for exams and play again on April 1 versus rival North Dakota in the Metrodome in Minneapolis.
Reason to watch: C'mon, it's North Dakota State and they're 14-5. Isn't that reason enough to bring attention to the Bison? Their strength of schedule isn't any great shakes, just 208th overall, but the Bison do own wins over 11th-ranked Arizona and a pair of midweek wins against Minnesota. The offense is paced by the Colwell brothers: Nick, who hits .461, and Tim, who hits .432. But the heart and soul of the team is two-way player Zach Wentz, a four-year starter who is hitting .347 and is 1-1, 6.16 in four starts on the mound.
-- Eric Sorenson
Tod Brown Q&A
The head coach of the Bison is former Arizona Wildcat Tod Brown. Before he showed up on campus four years ago, the Bison baseball program averaged just 12 wins a season for the previous five years. This year, it has already surpassed that number in the first month alone. I got the chance to catch up with Brown as the Green and Gold were bussing their way from Fargo, N.D., to Minneapolis on Tuesday to take on Minnesota, a team they would go on to beat twice.
Eric Sorenson: I'll start really simple: What do you attribute this great start to?
Tod Brown: It all starts with having good players. Simple as that. Our seniors were part of our first recruiting class and they've been through the wars with us. I can't say enough about them. And with a senior-heavy team like we've got this year, it means we're just more experienced and have better depth. And these guys work their tails off too. Those things all add up.
ES: Was there a benefit with a much more mild winter, allowing you guys to get outside more?
TB: We did have a better winter, and we were able to get out on our football field a few times, just to take some infield and see some fly balls outdoors, but it was nothing over the top. We never had a full practice or anything. But the surprising thing is that we finally had our first practice on our home baseball field [Monday], which is unusual because historically it's usually 30 to 32 games before we can practice on our field. This year it was after 17 games.
ES: What was it like to beat your alma mater at Arizona on opening weekend?
TB: It was a two-year deal where we started there last season and we were a little scared, a little intimidated and we lost all three pretty bad. But this year our guys were a year older and had that experience of playing there already under their belts and weren't intimidated. In fact, our guys were actually disappointed when they lost the 3-1 game on Friday. Then on Saturday we scored six runs in the eighth inning to win the game and it was simply because they weren't scared.
ES: Your senior leader is Zach Wentz, who hit the go-ahead RBI in that win at Arizona. What has he meant to your program?
TB: He's been the rock for us the last four years. From the moment he got here he became our three-hole hitter, and you just don't see freshmen do that. He's been our Sunday starter when he's not playing first base or third base and his overall ability to get our guys to work harder is immeasurable. And on top of that he's a 4.0 student academically too. So he's a leader in every way for us.
ES: What about the Colwell brothers, Nick and Tim? I'm sure they won't hit .461 and .432 the entire year, but you have to like their start.
TB: You know, Nick was actually mad as hell because he was hitting over .600 until he went 0-for-11 in the last three games of our Florida trip. But these guys have incredible work ethic, energy level and just play hard whether it's at practice or during a game. They just speed up the game for us and influence our team in every way possible. And just like Zach Wentz, these guys are 3.6 and 4.0 in the classroom, just raising our level in all areas and set a great example.
ES: Your defense was the best in the Summit League last year and so far your team is fielding .978. That's almost unheard of for a Northern team this early in the season, right?
TB: You hit the nail on the head, that's true it is uncommon for a Northern team. But it's mostly because we have a very veteran infield. Max Casper is the best shortstop I've ever coached. He's a throwback to the Ozzie Smith and Larry Bowa-type of players. He's the captain of our defense and gets everybody on the same page. And we really concern ourselves with concentrating on pitching and defense. I mean, you can be a poor-hitting team but if you're going to be able to pitch and play defense, you're going to have a chance in every game. So we put a heavy amount of emphasis on that.
ES: What is your biggest concern for your team and it's newfound success?
TB: We've had more interviews, more TV features and attention than ever here. There are a lot of pats on the back going on for these guys. They haven't experienced this kind of thing before, so my biggest concern is how these guys handle their success. Are they going to let all this attention go to their heads and lost focus. Because as a mid-major you can slip up really easily and take for granted that you still need to work hard.
-- Eric Sorenson
Appalachian State (No. 19 RPI) vs. Elon (No. 45 RPI)
Both teams sport sparkling RPIs (though Elon's may drop a bit after two midweek losses to Clemson) and aim for more of a boost this weekend. The Mountaineers start a pretty arduous four-week stretch in SoCon play that will include this trip to Elon followed by a visit from College of Charleston and then going to Georgia Southern. But if any team has shown it can handle this kind of high-level challenge it's the Mountaineers, who own a series win at LSU. The Phoenix hit some black ice this week with those two losses to Clemson, but don't scoff at their résumé, since they've already beaten both College of Charleston and Georgia Southern in weekend series. This one could go a long way in deciding what has already proved to be a hotly contested conference race.
-- Eric Sorenson