February 15, 2018 7:33:25 AM
Well, kids, it's here. Just because MSU spends the first three weeks of the season away from home doesn't mean you can't know what they're up against, so here's a detailed breakdown of every team MSU faces in the non-con.
Southern Miss, Feb. 16-18
The Golden Eagles can rightfully expect to be flat-out awesome in the infield, and MSU has bad memories of the guy at almost every position. Catcher Cole Donaldson beat MSU up in the game in Pearl and he's back; Hunter Slater went 2-4 with an RBI during Jacob Billingsley's perfect game in the Hattiesburg Regional and he's moving to first base; shortstop LeeMarcus Boyd made the final game of that regional interested and he's back; MSU fans will recognize the production of USM's third baseman well since it's Luke Reynolds, he of a .304 batting average on the 2015 MSU team. Southern Miss should be strong offensively and defensively in the infield.
It may be fair to expect less power out of Southern Miss in the early goings of 2018 -- which is all that matters for MSU since this series starts the season. Taylor Braley and Dylan Burdeaux are gone, but there are newcomers such as Reynolds, Jaylon Keys, Robert Iacobelli, and Erik Hoard that the Golden Eagles hope can bring that to the table.
Pitching is a little bit of a different story: Kirk McCarty and Taylor Braley went 17-4 in 31 combined starts and now both of them are in the minor leagues. Colt Smith developed into a nice starting pitcher before last year was up and he'll have a prominent role, but beyond that, it's a guessing game. If USM can just get to the end of the game, it should be really strong there with Preseason All-American closer Nick Sandlin and ULM transfer Keller Bradford in the fold, too.
UC Santa Barbara, Nicholls State and Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, Feb. 23-25
Don't let last year's 24-32 record influence your opinion of UC Santa Barbara: that's been mostly attributed to injuries and now the Gauchos are expected to be a Regional team. Baseball America has been fond of its last two recruiting classes, particularly in the pitching department, so consider that the strength of this team, even if it is young thus unproven.
There are definitely teams in the Southland better than Nicholls State, but the Colonels might be a tougher out than that fact might relay based on this: they return their entire infield and all of them are seniors this year.
Texas A&M-Corpus Christi projects to be a little lower than Nicholls State in the Southland, but might be able to ride its pitching to a few unexpected wins. Chris Cooper had a season unlike many I've seen -- finished second on the team in innings pitched with six starts and seven saves -- and he's back. Starters Dustin Lacaze and Cole Carter are back, as well, so the pitching depth is there.
(Quick note: MSU also goes to Nicholls State on March 27.)
Texas Rio Grande Valley and McNeese State, Feb. 26 and 28
UTRGV.....they got themselves a good coach. They nabbed West Virginia's recruiting coordinator and pitching coach Derek Matlock, so they could see a pitching uptick, but this team was picked to finished seventh in the WAC for a reason.
McNeese State returns the power hitters from last year's team that won the conference regular season crown despite not making the NCAA Tournament. Shane Selman and Joe Provenzano were awesome last year and both are back, backed up by a pitching staff with a ton of experience. This is one of the most serious upset contenders on this list, especially if everything works out for McNeese State and it can start a quality arm such as Rhett Deaton.
UL Lafayette, Houston and Sam Houston State, March 2-4
The Ragin' Cajuns have Baseball America's No. 122 draft prospect in lefty starting pitcher Hogan Harris. His sophomore season saw him finish with a 2.66 ERA and 87 strikeouts in 67 2/3 innings, so it's easy to see how he has the stuff of a tough Friday night starter if MSU faces him. Now, they don't have Gunner Leger, so if MSU doesn't face Harris, it's almost certainly missing an elite starting arm. As for the stars of the lineup....your guess is as good as mine. This is a transition year for the Cajuns at the plate.
Houston is returning a significant portion of a pitching staff that did what MSU could not: host a Regional. Ace Trey Cumbie was the co-conference pitcher of the year and left-handed closer Aaron Fletcher, both awesome last year, are back for more; there's also some young guys and newcomers in that staff that could cause problems in the event that MSU doesn't see Cumbie or Fletcher. The Cougars lose a few key bats, but watch out for first baseman Joe Davis and Grayson Padgett in the outfield.
You may remember the Sam Houston State team that pulled an upset and got to a Super Regional last year; well, if you really paid attention to them in the Super Regional, you're going to remember a lot of those names. Relief pitcher Nick Mikolajchak, infielder Andrew Fregia and first baseman/designated hitter Blake Chisolm all showed up on national award watch lists this year, not to mention pitcher Riley Gossett, who was awesome as a freshman before missing last season with an injury. Sam Houston State is a serious threat for MSU.
New Mexico State, March 6-7
Baseball America's list of top 10 prospects in the WAC is loaded with New Mexico State Aggies: RHP Kyle Bradish, C Mason Fishback, RHP Justin Dehn, RHP Alex Reyes and OF Tristan Carranza. Frankly, it's kind of weird this revived program hasn't made the NCAA Tournament yet under coach Brian Green, and no one should be surprised if this is the year.
Utah Valley, March 9-11
New Mexico State Lite? New Mexico State Lite. This isn't a team loaded with top 10 WAC players, but if someone put out a top 25 list of WAC prospects, you would likely see a few Wolverines on it. Put it this way: if MSU can get through two games against New Mexico State with midweek guys shouldering the load, it should be perfectly fine against Utah Valley with weekend pitchers.
Southeastern Louisiana, March 14
Sam Houston State and McNeese State are understandably getting a lot of love in the Southland Conference, but SELA is the ones returning the conference player of the year, third baseman Taylor Schwaner and all-conference selection Drew Evans in the outfield who stole 29 bases last season. Now crash to Earth alongside the Lions, as proven commodities outside of those two are basically absent. There are a lot of guys that had average to forgettable 2017s that could be more developed products for this season, but there's no good way to project that now.
Memphis, April 18
Unless the American eats them up more than I think it will, which is certainly possible, this strikes me a team that's just going to miss out on a Tournament bid. The names to know: Tyler Webb, a preseason all-conference selection in the outfield, shortstop Alec Trela and the best prospect on the team in starting pitcher Jonathan Bowlan.
Troy, May 9
So I read a story by Ken Rogers of The Dothan Eagle on the Trojans in which, after outlining the fact that Troy has six returning starters in the lineup, a returning ace and six freshmen pitchers that saw action, the first quote in the story is of Troy coach Mark Smartt saying he likes the ability of the team but, "that doesn't mean we're going to win the league or win 40 games, not at all...." I'm not sure I need to say any more than that, honestly: Troy will be fine, they'll be far from the worst thing MSU sees this year, but they don't project to be anything like New Mexico State, Sam Houston State, Houston, Southern Miss, etc.
SWAC Roundup -- Jackson State, Feb. 21; Alcorn State and Texas Southern. March 20 and 21; Southern and Alabama State, April 4 and 11
Alabama State and Texas Southern are the best teams in the league once again after meeting in the SWAC Championship Game last year. All signs point to Alabama State being the better of the two after Texas Southern's losses from last year (and frankly, Alabama State may have been better last year but lost the championship game). In Baseball America's SWAC preview, 5 of the top 10 draft prospects in the conference belonged to Alabama State.
Jackson State actually beat Alabama State in the division but has some holes to fill, among them an outfielder who was drafted in the 15th round. Expectations for Alcorn State and Southern seem relatively low -- especially for Southern, given the coaching change after Roger Cador retired after 33 years and the recruiting limitations from APR issues.
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brett Hudson on Twitter @Brett_Hudson
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