TEAM TO BEAT: Louisiana-Lafayette
The Cajuns reeled off six straight wins to close the season and earn the top seed in the tournament. They’re still something of a work in progress offensively, but their impressive pitching stockpile makes them the favorite.
DARK HORSE: Troy
Though they don’t do one thing that much better than everyone else, the Trojans are a solid all-around club. What makes them intriguing is the front end of their rotation, which should keep them in every game.
MOST TO GAIN: Everyone but the Cajuns
As the tournament begins, the Cajuns are the only team that looks to have an NCAA berth locked up. That includes South Alabama, which is in bubble territory after scuffling to a 6-9 finish in league play. For everyone else, it’s win or go home.
MOST TO LOSE: South Alabama
It wasn’t long ago that the Jags were considered a lock to make the NCAA tournament, but now they might need a couple of wins to feel safe. If South Alabama goes 0-2, it could be on the outside looking in on Selection Monday.
THREE BURNING QUESTIONS FOR THE CAJUNS
1. Do they have enough firepower?
These Cajuns won’t ever be confused with the ’27 Yankees, but do their bats have enough to get the pitching staff enough room to work with? It has been a dance on the razor’s edge at times.
2. Who needs to step up?
To be at their best this postseason, the Cajuns need Stefan Trosclair to play like he did last weekend against UL-Monoe. The reigning tournament MVP is a catalyst when he’s going right.
3. Do they try to win at any cost?
If the Cajuns find themselves in a championship setting, would they, say, throw Gunner Leger on short rest? A win could net them a regional host, but is that worth the risk?
THE BIG BATS
Little Rock OF Ryan Scott
Pick a statistical category, and Scott is probably crushing the competition. He has the nation’s second-best batting average (.433) to go with 11 homers and 63 RBIs.
Georgia Southern 1B Ryan Cleveland
Cleveland, the Sun Belt’s leader in home runs (15), can do a lot of damage at a ballpark that doesn’t do a great job holding big flies within its borders.
Texas State C/1B Tanner Hill
Speaking of balls leaving Bobcat Ballpark, Hill hit 11 of his 14 home runs at home. He also ripped 17 doubles and drove in 40, and he hit .328 against Sun Belt pitching.
THE POWER ARMS
South Alabama RHP Kevin Hill
Hill was dominant, going 8-1 while leading the league in strikeouts (107) and innings (109.2). He gave up one extra-base hit for roughly every 10 innings pitched.
Louisiana-Lafayette LHP Gunner Leger
Calling Leger a power arm might be a misnomer — he won’t reach 90 mph with his fastball — but he knows how to pitch, and his changeup is devastating.
Troy RHP Lucas Brown
Dating to his April 10 start against Appalachian State, Brown has been one of the best pitchers in the league. His stats over that stretch: Seven starts, 51 IP, 1.76 ERA, 12 BB, 42 K.
UL-Lafayette Ragin’ Cajuns
Coach: Tony Robichaux
TOURNAMENT SEED: 1
TRENDING: The Cajuns caught fire at the right time, winning their final six games to secure a share of the conference title and the tournament’s No. 1 seed.
WHAT THEY NEED TO DO: The Cajuns will almost certainly be in the NCAA’s 64-team field, even if they manage to go 0-2 this week. But with a top-20 RPI, they could become an attractive option to host a regional if they have a strong week in San Marcos. They’re aiming to win it all.
GREATEST STRENGTHS: There is nobody in the league — and not many teams in the country — who has pitching depth like the Cajuns’. They can comfortably roll out four starting pitchers, and the back end of their bullpen is the class of the conference. The arms alone are enough to win it.
NO. 1 CONCERN: As good as those arms are, they will mean nothing if the Cajuns can’t score. The offense has been inconsistent, and now is not the time for another down week.
BOTTOM LINE: The Cajuns are the favorites in a tournament that still holds meaning for their postseason future, but they’re far from a lock.
South Alabama Jaguars
Coach: Mark Calvi
TOURNAMENT SEED: 2
TRENDING: South Alabama is the antithesis of the Cajuns, blowing a four-game lead in the final five games of the conference slate. The Jaguars went 3-6 in their last nine games.
WHAT THEY NEED TO DO: At one point, the Jaguars looked like a lock to get into the NCAA tournament, but is that still the case? A co-conference championship likely helps, but after their late-season slide, it would greatly help their case if they at least made it to Saturday.
GREATEST STRENGTHS: South Alabama’s starting rotation is rock solid, led by ace right-hander Kevin Hill. The reigning Sun Belt Pitcher of the Year struck out 33 more batters than any other SBC pitcher (117 in 109.2 IP) while going 8-1 with a 2.38 ERA. His rotation mates aren’t as flashy, but they’ve gotten the job done.
NO. 1 CONCERN: What’s going on between the players’ ears right now? The Jaguars are scuffling at the worst possible time, and it won’t help if their confidence has been shaken.
BOTTOM LINE: The Jaguars need to turn it around in a hurry, not only to secure a spot in a regional, but to have a chance to be competitive in one.
Little Rock Trojans
Coach: Chris Curry
TOURNAMENT SEED: 3
TRENDING: There is no more mysterious team in the field. Little Rock has alternated between being unstoppable and a train wreck, often in the same weekend.
WHAT THEY NEED TO DO: Like everybody in the Sun Belt not represented by a Cajun or Jaguar mascot, Little Rock has zero chance of claiming an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. The Trojans need to pummel the ball offensively and hope some of the teams with better pitching have to tax their arms through the losers’ bracket.
GREATEST STRENGTHS: Little Rock has the league’s best offense, and it’s paced by the league’s best hitter. Ryan Scott is batting .433 with 11 home runs and 63 RBIs. He leads the league in batting average, slugging and on-base percentage, hits and RBIs, and he’s one behind the league leader in doubles.
NO. 1 CONCERN: Pitching, which is also concerns No. 2, 3 and 4. Opponents are hitting nearly .300 against Little Rock pitching. Arkansas State’s offense hung 31 runs on them last week.
BOTTOM LINE: The Trojans do not have the pitching to make it through a tournament setting, but they can make some noise with their bats.
Coach: Mark Smartt
TOURNAMENT SEED: 4
TRENDING: After strangely dropping a home series to a bad UL-Monroe team, Troy closed the season on a strong note, winning five of its final six games.
WHAT THEY NEED TO DO: Troy got a tough draw on the same side of the bracket as tournament host Texas State and the top-seeded Cajuns. To get past them, they’ll need top arms Grant Bennett and Lucas Brown to do what they did against the Cajuns and Bobcats in the regular season, allowing two earned runs in 30.1 innings.
GREATEST STRENGTHS: The front end of the Trojans’ pitching staff has been among the best in the league, with Bennett, Brown and Houston Mabray combining to go 21-9 with a 2.51 ERA. That alone should make Troy a darkhorse contender for the title.
NO. 1 CONCERN: Troy’s pitching staff isn’t deep. Opponents are hitting .274 against Trojans not named Bennett, Brown and Mabray, and the top bullpen arms have been used a lot lately.
BOTTOM LINE: Troy doesn’t have any exceptional traits, but it doesn’t do anything poorly, either, and its starting pitching could make the Trojans scary.
Texas State Bobcats
Coach: Ty Harrington
TOURNAMENT SEED: 5
TRENDING: The past few weeks have been a mixed bag for the Bobcats, who lost a series to Arkansas State, then rallied by winning three of four against Texas and Texas Arlington.
WHAT THEY NEED TO DO: To take the conference’s automatic bid on their home field, the Bobcats need to rediscover the form that had them off to a 9-3 start in league play. The Bobcats benefited from great pitching during that stretch, holding opponents to 2.7 runs.
GREATEST STRENGTHS: Texas State hits well in its home ballpark, especially the long ball. Twenty-six of its league-high 42 home runs have come in Bobcat Ballpark, and Tanner Hill has hit 11 of his 14 home runs on his home turf.
NO. 1 CONCERN: Like many teams in this tournament, pitching depth. The starters have slowed after a strong start, and there isn’t a ton of help in the bullpen.
BOTTOM LINE: Texas State will have a hard time getting past Troy and the Cajuns on its side of the bracket.
Georgia Southern Eagles
Coach: Rodney Hennon
TOURNAMENT SEED: 6
TRENDING: The Eagles closed strong, winning each of their final three Sun Belt series after a midseason swoon that saw them drop eight of 12.
WHAT THEY NEED TO DO: It’s paramount the Eagles get off to a good start and beat Little Rock in their first game. They will probably need to use ace Evan Challenger to do so. If they lose that first game, it’s hard to imagine them winning four more to get to the championship.
GREATEST STRENGTHS: Georgia Southern has the pitching to match up against the upper-echelon SBC teams. Challenger allowed three or fewer earned runs in each of his starts against conference foes; Chase Cohen has a .194 batting average against; and Brian Eichhorn has stabilized after a rough stretch.
NO. 1 CONCERN: Outside of Ryan Cleveland (.296, 15 HRs), this lineup is bad. It bats .256, and nobody outside of Cleveland slugs better than .390.
BOTTOM LINE: The Eagles are a bit too one-dimensional to be considered as a contender, but their pitching will keep games close.
Coach: Darin Thomas
TOURNAMENT SEED: 7
TRENDING: The Mavericks went 9-6 over the last half of the conference slate, including series wins against Troy and Little Rock, to finish 15-15 in league play.
WHAT THEY NEED TO DO: Earlier this season, the Mavericks were one of a number of teams that were swept by South Alabama, but they were swept by a grand total of four runs. If they can get past a struggling Jaguars team on the first day, their path to the conference championship game looks doable.
GREATEST STRENGTHS: One through nine, UT-Arlington’s lineup might handle the bat better than anybody in the league. The Mavericks don’t hit for power, connecting on an SBC-worst 23 home runs, but they have four everyday players who hit better than .320 and eight regulars who hit better than .275.
NO. 1 CONCERN: Mavericks pitchers don’t miss bats (a Sun Belt-worst 316 strikeouts), and they give up too many home runs (a Sun Belt-worst 37). Bobcat Ballpark is not the place to do that.
BOTTOM LINE: With its offense, UT-Arlington might be able to make a run if it gets past South Alabama. But it’s hard to trust that pitching staff.
Arkansas State Red Wolves
Coach: Tommy Raffo
TOURNAMENT SEED: 8
TRENDING: It was an accomplishment for the Red Wolves to make it this far after their 5-13 start in conference play. Since then, they’ve won three of four conference series.
WHAT THEY NEED TO DO: Basically, they need to be a completely different team. Even as they went 8-4 down the stretch, they allowed opponents to score 6.7 runs per game. That’s simply not going to cut it in the tournament.
GREATEST STRENGTHS: The Red Wolves have some players who can rake. They have five guys who slugged better than .400 against conference opponents, and they’ve been doing well lately. Obviously, if they give up nearly seven runs per game and still go 8-4, the offense is doing something right.
NO. 1 CONCERN: The top concern is when they’re not at the plate. The Red Wolves back up bad pitching (4.99 ERA) with bad defense (.966 fielding percentage) — that’s not a winning formula.
BOTTOM LINE: It was a nice run to get to San Marcos, but the Red Wolves probably shouldn’t reserve their hotel rooms for the weekend.