Cougars Come into C-USA Tournament with Work

After their series win at home against Southern Mississippi in the last series of the regular season, it appears that opinions have started to change about the Houston Cougars.

For the last several weeks, many of the national college baseball writers have kept the Cougars out of their regional projections, even after series wins over Tulane and UAB got the team back on track.

But this week, that has changed. Kendall Rogers at Perfect Game, Aaron Fitt at Baseball America and Craig Amick at Chasing Omaha, to name three, have the Cougars currently in the field of 64.

Even though the RPI number, 57 according to BoydsWorld.com and 56 according to WarrenNolan.com, isn't quite where you would like it to be, UH's 5-5 record against the RPI Top 50 and 16-9 against the RPI Top 100 stacks up quite well against other bubble teams.

As nice as it is to be included in these projections, there is still work to be done.

In order to stay in these projections, and more importantly, be included in the actual tournament field, the Cougars need to win a couple of game this week in the C-USA tournament at Reckling Park.

If the Cougars lose two games, they will be in real trouble. Lose all three of their pool play games and they will likely be as good as gone.

In a conference as wide open as Conference USA, there aren't really any easy draws, but UH did get a couple of breaks.

First, against the three teams (ECU, USM, Tulane) in their pool, they have a combined 7-2 record. Against the four teams (Rice, Memphis, UCF, UAB) in the other pool, they have a 5-7 record.

Second, they avoided Rice in pool play. Even though this Rice team is not a vintage Rice squad, they are still very talented and often times, the Cougars save their worst for when they are playing the Owls.

I think they also caught a break when Memphis ended up in the other pool. Because you may end up playing four games in four or five days and because leashes are much shorter on pitchers in tournament play, success in these types of tournaments is all about pitching depth.

As we have witnessed all season, Memphis has that. Eric Schoenrock, the 2013 Conference USA Pitcher of the Year, has a 2.51 ERA, Sam Moll has a 2.38 ERA and Alex Gunn has a 3.11 ERA. And that's not three strategically-selected pitchers on my part. Those are their three weekend starters. No matter who they faced, the Cougars would have seen an ace opposing them on the mound.

East Carolina, UH's opponent in their tournament-opening game on Thursday, rebounded reasonably well after they were swept by the Cougars in the first Conference USA series of the season.

The Pirates finished the season with a 30-24 overall record with a 14-10 record in conference play.

Starting pitchers David Lucroy (4-1, 2.70), Jeff Hoffman (6-6, 2.85) and Ryan Williams (6-2, 4.28) give ECU a chance to win most every time out and the bullpen led by Drew Reynolds (2.79 ERA, 13 saves) and Brett Mabry (2.21 ERA, .218 BAA) did a good job of nailing down wins when they were handed a lead.

Offensively, the Pirates are led by the aforementioned Drew Reynolds (.313 BA, 12 doubles, 21 RBI), Ben Fultz (.305 BA, .407 OBP, 23 RBI), Zach Houchins (.305 BA, 5 HR, 38 RBI) and power bat Chase McDonald (11 HR, 45 RBI).

As I discussed leading into UH's series against them last weekend, the Southern Miss Golden Eagles are a tough team to figure. The way they played the Cougars on the road says that they are better than their record would indicate, as do their statistics.

The tone is set by their steady starting rotation of Andrew Pierce (9-2, 2.36), Conor Fisk (4-3, 2.97) and Jake Drehoff (4-5, 3.82). The bullpen led by Jay Myrick (2.95 ERA, .206 BAA) and Daniel Wineski (2.20 ERA) is littered with pitchers with plenty of experience as well.

On offense, the Eagles are very, very solid. Isaac Rodriguez (.356 BA, .443 OBP, 25BB/14K) is a do-everything player that has the ability to carry their offense. Austin Roussel (.337 BA, .464 OBP) and Chase Fowler (.333 BA, .402 OBP) are on-base machines. Dillon Day (.306 BA, 11 steals) is the sparkplug at the top of the lineup and Mason Robbins (.319 BA, 37 RBI) and Blake Brown (11 doubles, 9 HR, 29 RBI) provide much of the pop in the middle of the order.

For the Tulane Green Wave, it's no secret where their bread is buttered and that's in the pitching staff.

Even though they seem to have all dealt with little health issues at different times, Tony Rizzotti (5-4, 2.20), David Napoli (4-2, 2.64), Alex Byo (5-4, 2.68) and Randy LeBlanc (4-4, 4.58) have given the Wave fantastic starting pitching all season long.

There isn't a ton of depth in the Tulane bullpen, but Ian Gibaut (2.70 ERA, 11 saves) and Andrew Garner (3.57 ERA, 5 saves) give them two solid arms for the late innings. Former starting pitcher Kyle McKenzie (4.14 ERA) is a nice luxury as a long relief option.

They have picked it up a little bit as of late, but Tulane has really struggled offensively this season. As a team, they have a .249 batting average.  The only hitter they have hitting over .300 is Brennan Middleton, who is hitting .300 on the nose with a .380 on-base percentage.

It won't be easy for the Cougars. These teams all have their fair share of talent and it also isn't UH's style to make things easy this season. I can't say with any certainty what is going to happen, but I can say with the utmost confidence that it is going to be a lot of fun to watch.


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