Feb. 14, 2014


Nice Meeting You

By Sean Ryan

CollegeBaseballInsider.com Co-Founder

sean@collegebaseballinsider.com @collbaseball


Across the country, pregame handshakes will be more than exchanging pleasantries.


This year, thanks to conference realignments from coast to coast, many coaches – and teams – will be making introductions to each other.


The American Athletic Conference mixes Big East brothers with Conference USA cousins and an Atlantic 10 uncle to form a modern family of today’s college athletics. Louisville, meet Houston; UCF, this is UConn.  


“It’s very exciting going into the American Athletic Conference,” UCF coach Terry Rooney said. “There is some familiarity with some teams from the Big East and Conference USA, but there are potential unknowns.”


Added Temple coach Ryan Wheeler: “It’s exciting, I think it’s a little scary not knowing a lot about the other teams, their style, how they play. When you’ve been in a league for a number of years, you know the style and how a team plays.”


“It is exciting, for us it’s certainly a step up in competition level. You always want to play against the best. I feel like we’re going to be learning something new every weekend in the conference.”


What the Owls and the rest of the league will learn is that their new home has some serious talent at the top and serious depth in quality of teams.


“I think one of the strengths when you look at the new conference, from top to bottom, it’s outstanding teams,” Rooney said. “Look at the success that all these teams have had.”


It starts with Louisville, fresh off a trip to the College World Series in 2013.


The Cardinals went 51-14 – including 33-5 at home – and swept second-ranked Vanderbilt in the Nashville Super Regional to reach their second College World Series in coach Dan McDonnell’s seven seasons.


And Louisville is loaded again. Offensively, outfield stars Cole Sturgeon (.339/1/33) and Jeff Gardner (.337/9/43) and slick infielder Sutton Whiting (.308/1/30). If there’s a question mark, it’s that the Cardinals must replace 43 starts in trying to find a way to All-American closer Nick Burdi, whose fastball can reach triple digits.


“Louisville’s obviously the front-runner, they’re the team to beat,” Houston coach Todd Whitting said.


The league’s coaches picked UCF, UConn and Houston to follow the Cardinals.


The Knights – like the AAC teams – have been making plenty of introductions. Rooney’s squad has 24 new players out of 35 on the roster.


“It’s been a very exciting fall and preseason putting all the pieces together,” said Rooney, whose team finished 29-30 a year ago. “We are going to defend. And we’re very athletic. I think our immediate strength is up the middle.”


The Huskies captured the Big East’s final conference title and earned their third trip to the NCAA Tournament in four years. Senior Anthony Marzi and junior Jordan Tabakman give UConn two veteran starters, but it will miss starter Carson Cross, a 24th round pick by Pittsburgh, who will miss the season with a shoulder injury.


Houston narrowly missed the NCAA Tournament field with a 36-22 record. The Cougars return every position player, and they also will get a boost at the plate with the return of Casey Grayson and Jacob Lueneburg, both of whom missed 2013 with injuries.


Like the other coaches, Whitting is looking forward to the new experiences the new conference will bring. But is it exciting or a bit nerve-racking battling a bunch of teams you don’t know very well.


“It doesn’t really change the things we do,” Whitting said. “It’s pretty exciting. Ask me that in a couple of months and I’ll tell you the difference.”