When the University of Connecticut’s baseball team begins Big East Conference tournament play against Cincinnati today [May 26] at Clearwater, FLA there’s probably more than just that title at stake.
The Huskies (43-12) have just completed the finest season in school history and know that a good showing this week could net them a hosting role when the NCAA tournament starts the first week in June.
UConn officials have proposed hosting a 4- team Regional at Dodd Stadium (likely beginning June 4) and are buoyed both by the Huskies’ record year and the fact that a bunch of New England teams seem headed for the 64-team field this year.
The fact that:
- Dartmouth has already won the Ivy League title and an automatic berth
- Sacred Heart and Central Connecticut are both battling for the NEC title at their conference tournament this week
- Maine is among the favorites in America East and
- Boston College remains in the running for an at-large bid after a good ACC season, all would seem to point toward a Northeast school acting as host.
UConn’s baseball team has been ranked No. 1 in New England all season, has lost only twice to regional opponents and appears to be the obvious choice.
The availability of Dodd Stadium doesn’t hurt, either. The Norwich facility doesn’t welcome its new tenant, the New York-Penn League Connecticut Tigers, until a June 26 opener.
While all of that argues in favor of the Huskies playing a home tournament game for the first time since 1994, there are some questions to be answered.
Despite achieving national ranking for the first time in two decades, Coach Jim Penders’ team has remained locked around the 19-20 spot, unable to crack the country’s top 16.
And, although Louisville and the Huskies have consistently been ranked this year, the Big East is not regarded as an elite national baseball conference.
Pittsburgh has flirted with the country’s top 25 without being able to secure a regular spot.
The Panthers might well be in NCAA-bid jeopardy, especially if the Big East champion is someone other than UConn, Louisville or Pittsburgh.
That’s because the champ gets an automatic NCAA bid and it is unlikely that more than three Big East teams would crack the national field.
It’s all speculation until May 30.
That’s when the NCAA announces the 16 regional sites, a day before the 64-team field is revealed.
Only the top eight teams are actually seeded – they are in line to host second-round Super Regionals if they succeed in Round 1 – so it is not necessarily the top-16-ranked teams that get hosting roles.
“The NCAA has consistently said they are always looking for Northeast hosts,” Penders has said, but recent history has seen area qualifiers like Boston College (shipped to Texas) or Central Connecticut (sent to Arizona State) make long trips for first round play.
Connecticut can put pressure on the committee with a good Big East tournament and also can lift the only cloud hanging around the program after seven terrific seasons under Penders.
This is Penders’ fifth team to win 30 or more games and the third to get in position to play for a Big East title.
Overcoming that next hurdle
It’s at that last step that the team has faltered.
In 2007, the Huskies made a dramatic run to the final Big East tournament game only to lose to Rutgers, 8-6.
That would have been a remarkable championship, since UConn lost on opening day and battled through the losers’ bracket to reach the final.
Last spring, in a rain-delayed Big East tournament final, Louisville jumped on the Huskies in the title game and triumphed, 11-3.
This season, in what developed into an epic pennant race, the Huskies held onto a slim halfgame lead over Louisville until the final day of the season when Seton Hall edged UConn, 3-2, as the Cards were sweeping a doubleheader at Notre Dame.
Those results left Louisville the regular-season champ by a half-game and eliminated the Irish from the Big East tournament.
When the Huskies open against Cincinnati today, they could face a pitcher who beat them in the regular season, freshman Andrew Strenge.
Strenge beat UConn, 3-2, in the series’ finale at Storrs on May 9 and has been the Bearcats’ best pitcher since then.
Strange shut out Georgetown in his last start and finished with a 7-1 record, an 0.62 ERA in Big East play and 29 strikeouts in 29 innings.
UConn is expected to counter with lefthander Elliott Glynn (7-2, 2.12), who beat Cincinnati, 14-2, on May 8, allowing six hits in six innings, coasting behind big run support.
Posted May 26, 2010