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Archive for January, 2010

ElViento: An open letter to Tom Penders‘ squad,

Sure, Marshall had lost three in a row coming into their matchup with the Cougars on Saturday. But those losses were all closely contested against the likes of West Virginia, UAB and Memphis. And y’all ran the Thundering Herd right out of the gym.

You just played like you still didn’t belong on the same court with Memphis. A Tigers team with two conference losses now. The game before that, you got stomped by one of the worst teams in Conference USA – UCF – at home.

I saw those games. I gave up any delusions I had that maybe this team could make a run in the conference tournament and earn that elusive NCAA tournament berth. I resolved to show up to the games, cheer on my team, knowing that nothing would ultimately come of it. Kind of like a parent watching their 5’7″ son play JV ball in high school. You cheer him on, want to see him do well, but you know he’s got no future in basketball.

I had even found the silver lining: I could watch the emerging star that is Aubrey Coleman, pulling for him to win the national scoring and steals titles, and knowing he’ll probably get picked in the next NBA draft, becoming the first Cougar to hear his name called since Alton Ford in 2002.

Then came the Marshall game. You played all-out defense, holding a 48% shooting team to 38% shooting, and still having a gaudy +16 turnover ratio. AC attacked the hoop, taking 22 shots (and scoring 37) but never breaking offensive rhythm to force anything. Newcomers Maurice McNeil and Kendrick Washington had quietly productive games in the post. You even – gasp! – impressively executed an obvious game plan, fearlessly attacking Hassan Whiteside, getting him in early foul trouble and taking him out of his game. If Kelvin Lewis had knocked down some open jumpers, this would have been an absolute slaughter.

What gives? You’re like a hot ex-girlfriend who is always just a little too crazy, who finally mellows out and tells me she wants to get back together right after I get over her. I know this won’t work out. But that little voice in my head keeps telling me you finally figured it out. You are toying with my emotions. Please stop.

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ElViento: If you don’t already know who Jackson Jeffcoat is, use google. I’m cranky, and I’m not typing it all up again.

Friday’s news is a good reason why so many veteran college football fans don’t follow recruiting. It’ll just drive ya nuts. I have, as of now, spent an unhealthy amount of time obsessing over a football player who will never play for my team. (A football player my team will never even play against, in all likelihood, given Austin’s…um…disinclination to schedule Houston.)

One has to speculate that Jeffcoat’s decision is the nail in the coffin that is the 4-3 defense at Houston. With even less depth on the D-line, Kevin Sumlin hinting about change, and a DC experienced in the 3-4 (granted, Brian Stewart has stated that the defensive scheme that best fits the personnel will win out), one has to think that’s where the Cougars are headed. Can we do what we failed to do last year – get a pass rush, and stop the run – in a 3-4? That’s the question facing Sumlin, Stewart, et al.

If you follow recruiting and are bummed by losing out on Jeffcoat, keep in mind that there is still a very stout recruiting class coming in next year. One of the best in the recent history of this school. We will be alright.

Now some (*cough*Steve Campbell*cough*) will argue against the meaningfulness of Houston remaining in contention ’til the last second in the battle for Jeffcoat’s services. But I disagree. It is true that most pundits didn’t give the Cougars a snowball’s chance in hell of landing the 5-star recruit, but Jeffcoat himself made it impossible to completely ignore UH. When Houston is in contention for a recruit of this caliber again (and that’s a ‘when’, not an ‘if’) the road will be a little bit easier. The pundits will give us a slightly better chance because they’ve seen us there before. The endless parade of friends and family members trying to whisper in the kid’s ear might ask about UH, giving the program more credibility in the recruit’s mind. The Jeffcoat recruitment is a step in the right direction, folks. You gotta walk before you can run.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go vomit at the prospect of a good kid like JJ playing for the enemy.

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ElViento: Let’s finish this sucker off


7. Marshall Thundering Herd (22-32, 9-15)

Strengths: Marshall returns a quartet of players who could play for anybody in C-USA in Josh Valle (.337/.459/.487), Victor Gomez (.332, 18 HR), Austin Coan (3.49 ERA, 8 sv) and Shane Farrell (3.88, 8.5 K/9).

Question Marks: Overall team depth, fielding. The losses of Adam Yeager and Nate Lape will hurt the offense, and the one strength of the pitching staff – bullpen depth – takes a hit due to graduation, as well. Starting pitching wasn’t good last year, and there’s little reason to believe it’ll be any better this year. The fielding wasn’t good a year ago either, compiling the worst fielding percentage in conference, and allowing 15 more stolen bases than the next worst offender in C-USA.

Best Pro Comparison: Valle, the short, stocky slap-hitter as Tony Gwynn.

Team Song: Black-Eyed Peas – Gone Going (ft. Jack Johnson)…The Thundering Herd couldn’t crash the NCAA tournament either of the last two seasons with two of the most exciting hitters in C-USA in Yeager and Lape. I have to think their window of opportunity is gone.

8. Memphis Tigers (21-32, 7-16)

Strengths: The top five hitters from last year’s squad return, all of whom hit .285 and above. That experience should make up for the loss of Brett Bowen, who led the team in homers, RBI and slugging. The pitching staff returns almost entirely intact, as well.

Question Marks: Pitching talent, power hitting. Yes, nearly every pitcher who threw significant innings in 2009 is back, but that staff only put up a 6.30 team ERA a year ago. Unless improvement is present, experience won’t matter. With all the starters coming back in the lineup, the Tigers should climb out of the C-USA basement in team batting average, but whether or not they can climb out of the bottom two in HR, 2B and BB will determine how far they go.

Best Pro Comparison: Heith Hatfield as Brooks Kieschnick. Tall dudes who can hit and pitch, but can’t do either particularly well.

Team Song: Elvis – Blue Suede Shoes…Maybe the Tigers have been wearing some, instead of traditional baseball attire. That would explain their play on the field the last couple of years. (Plus: Elvis. Memphis. C’mon, it’s a gimme.)

9. Central Florida Knights (22-35, 9-15)

Strengths: Some quality hitters like Shane Brown (.341, 44 RBI), Beau Taylor (.335, 19 XBH in 164 AB) and D.J. Hicks (.301, 8 HR) are back.

Question Marks: When you put up a team ERA of 7.47, and the only two pitchers on your team who could be described as “talented” or “having potential” (Kyle Sweat and Jaager Good) have graduated, you are probably pretty screwed.

Best Pro Comparison: Hicks as Carlos Lee; big, beefy outfielders who probably should draw a few more walks for how much power they have.
Team Song: BlakRoc – Ain’t Nothing Like You…This song has nothing to do with the UCF Knights. But the prospect of coming up with a song to describe how bad they are depresses me. So they get a kick-ass song.

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ElViento: The Houston Cougars announced the hiring of their new head volleyball coach on Monday in the person of Molly Alvey. Alvey was formerly an assistant coach at Ole Miss, where she saw the Rebels earn back-to-back NCAA tournament berths after never reaching that plateau previously in program history. Alvey also was a lead recruiter who did much of her work in Texas. Alvey comes recommended by the head coach of Penn State, the most dominant program in the land.

Okay, on to baseball. As I mentioned in the comments yesterday, the 3-6 spots in C-USA are pretty up in the air. This should be a 4-5 bid league in the NCAA tournament this year, so the competition for these spots should be fierce.

4. Houston Cougars (27-31, 13-11)
Strengths: Six hitters return who batted .280 or higher a year ago, led by Blake Kelso (.335) and Caleb Ramsey (.332). Michael Goodnight (4.43 ERA) is the likely Friday starter, and figures to have a big season.
Question Marks: This Cougar team has a lot of potential, but the question marks are many. Where is the rest of the starting pitching going to come from? Can Mo Wiley shake off a poor freshman campaign (in which he was recovering from injury)? Can freshman Eric Brooks (a two-time all-state selection in high school) make a smooth transition to pitching at the college level? With a much deeper lineup, will Rayner Noble have Chase Dempsay focus on pitching, and can Chase return to his 2008, Freshman All-American form as a closer? Can anyone besides Chris Wallace hit for power? (Freshman M.P. Cokinos, Ramsey, and senior William Kankel seem like the best bets.)

Best Pro Comparison: Dempsay as Rick Ankiel. After a promising pitching career (freshman All-American closer in 2008) is de-railed (5.00 ERA in ’09), Dempsay re-invents himself as an outfielder, hitting .275 in 51 starts. Hopefully Dempsay breaks the comparison by returning to dominant pitching form this year. (Secondary comparisons: Kelso as David Eckstein, Zak Presley as Scott Podsednik.)

Team Song: Cage the Elephant – Back Against the Wall…Noble probably needs an NCAA tournament berth this year to save his job.

5. Tulane Green Wave (34-25, 13-11)

Strengths: The pitching staff. I like Conrad Flynn (3.93 ERA, 8.3 K/BB) as a dark-horse to become an All-American this year. Matt Petition (5.13, 3-3) returns as a weekend starter and closer Nick Pepitone (3.26, 9 sv) provides stability at the back of the bullpen.

Question Marks: Hitting depth. Six of the eight regulars from 2009 are gone, leaving only Jeremy Schaffer (.311, 14 HR) and Nick Boullosa (.298, 22 SB). The Green Wave have an incredible fifteen hitters on the roster in their first year at Tulane. Look for Stetson transfer Frank Florio to make an impact.

Best Pro Comparison: Flynn as Greg Maddux. Flynn is more physically imposing, but shares Maddux’s impeccable control and effectiveness without relying on the strikeout.

Team Song: John Fogerty – CenterfieldWith all the losses due to graduation, coach might put me in for the Green Wave.


6. Alabama-Birmingham Blazers (31-26, 11-12)

Strengths: A trio of returning power hitters in Digger Towe (.353, 9 HR), Andrew ManningLuke Stewart (.261, 15 HR). Jonathan Merritt (.317) and Jamal Austin (.318, 10 HR) and (.297) are back after stealing 20 bases apiece in ’09.

Question Marks: Some regulars return from the pitching staff, but it’s a staff that put up a 5.91 team ERA in ’09. If Shay Crawford (5.14 ERA) and Beau Pender (6.16) can improve in the weekend rotation, UAB could be an NCAA tournament team.

Best Pro Comparison: Austin as Juan Pierre; short, speed-burning outfielders who don’t strike out, but don’t walk enough, either.
Team Song: AC/DC – It’s a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock and Roll)…It’s not easy to claw your way up to the upper eschelon of C-USA in baseball, but the Blazers are on the right path.

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ElViento: First things first: Congratulations to Courtney Taylor, who surpassed 1,000 career points in a 63-62 victory over UAB this weekend.

But with both men’s and women’s hoops mired in mediocrity, I think long-time reader SACoog said it best, “Baseball, softball, golf..please give me something to live for, this basketball is downright depressing.”

May I say, SACoog, loyal readers, if you start to get bummed out by Cougar basketball, keep in mind you have the following to look forward to:

-6 days until Jackson Jeffcoat announces his college choice.

-8 days until Zombieland comes out on DVD.

-18 days until Houston hosts Ohio State to kick off the college softball season.

-25 days until Houston hosts Texas State to kick off the college  baseball season.

Along those lines, I present to you the Coog Crew Dustin Pre-Season Conference USA Baseball Power Rankings. (Now With Added Capital Letters!)

1. Rice Owls (43-18 in 2009, 16-8 Conference USA)
Strengths: Brock Holt is the only significant loss from an offense that was already scary-good (.320 team avg, 71 HR) last year. This will be a team that hits for a high average, hits a lot of homeruns (five players return who hit 7+ last year), and can steal bases (six players return who stole 7+ bases last year). Mike Ojala and Taylor Wall are a formidable 1-2 at the front of the rotation.
Question Marks: Who else can pitch besides Ojala and Wall? With Ryan Berry off to the pros, the cupboard of proven college pitchers is pretty bare. Mark Haynes is the only other pitcher returning with 20+ IP and a sub-5.00 ERA. As usual, there is a huge crop of young talent coming in, but the Owls will essentially have to find a Sunday starter, a couple mid-week starters, and build an entire bullpen from scratch.

Best Pro Comparison: The left side of the infield as the left side of the New York Yankees infield. Rick Hague as Derek Jeter, and Anthony Rendon as Alex Rodriguez, the more talented player coming in later, and moving from his natural position of SS to 3B to accommodate the other guy.

Team Song: The Sonics – Have Love, Will Travel…The Owls have the cash and prestige to demand a lot of home games, but every year they put together a tough schedule with a lot of roadies. Keep in mind, Conference-USA is a power conference in baseball, so it’s not like a brutal non-conference schedule is required to get in the NCAA tournament. This year Rice was weekend road series against Stanford and San Diego, as well as mid-week contests at UT-Austin, Texas A&M and Oklahoma State.

2. East Carolina Pirates (46-20, 17-7)

Strengths: Even with a couple of stud hitters gone, the Pirates return a frightening amount of offensive talent, including pre-season first team All-American Kyle Roller (.336, 16 HR). Roller, Trent Whitehead (.376, 7 HR, 10 SB) and Devin Harris (.344, 14 HR, 13 SB) are among the five returning .300+ hitters. Ace Brad Mincey (3.16 ERA, 10-5) is back as well.

Question Marks: Pitching depth, and play on the road. The Friday starter (Mincey) seems set, and closer Seth Simmons (3.69, 9 sv) is back, but after that, it’s unsure how things will shake out. Spot starter Kevin Brandt (3.64, 6 GS) will likely move into the weekend rotation, but there isn’t much proven pitching talent after that. ECU will also have to prove that they can win away from home. The Pirates have a team that is perfectly-suited to play in the bandbox that is Clark-LeClair Stadium, and a raucous home crowd. However, East Carolina was just 13-11 in road games in 2009. The Pirates are a legit College World Series contender in 2010, but they’re going to have to learn to win away from home.

Best Pro Comparison: Roller as Mo Vaughn. Similar size (Both 6’1”, Roller actually listed a little heavier, if you can believe that), similar numbers. Roller’s ’09 line: .336/.451/.578, HR every 16 AB. Vaughn’s best season (’96): .326/.420/.583, HR every 14.4 AB.

Team Song: Counting Crows – Hanginaround…The Pirates have been hangin’ around Greenville for way too long. They’re overdue for a trip to Omaha. Anything less this year will be considered a disappointment.

3. Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles (40-26, 12-12)

Strengths: A talented (if top-heavy) roster. USM used two regular starting pitchers, and a handful of spot starters in ‘09, and the top regular – Todd McInnis (3.73 ERA in 101.1 IP) – and  top spot starter – Jeff Stanley (4.23, 6 GS) – are back, as is closer Collin Cargill (3.55, 13 sv). Kameron Brunty (.336, 7 HR) and Joey Archer (.306, 10 HR) are back for the offense.

Question Marks: Overall team depth. Four of the team’s top five hitters are gone and an already-thin pitching staff takes a couple of hits due to graduation, as well. The Golden Eagles will score some runs, but they might struggle to even duplicate 2009’s mediocre 5.14 team ERA.

Best Pro Comparison: Travis Graves as Mike Matheny. The senior catcher is a thoroughly mediocre hitter (.254/.393/.352), but plays Gold Glove-caliber defense (threw out 20 of 49 would-be base stealers).

Team Song: Steely Dan – Do It Again…Golden Eagle fans got their first taste of Omaha in 2009, in former head coach Corky Palmer’s final season, despite a .500 conference record. Can they repeat the feat under the newly-promoted, long-time assistant Scott Berry? Color me skeptical.

Hope that helps tide you over, Cougar fans. Sorry, I couldn’t put UH in the top 3 in good conscience. They’ll appear early in the next batch of previews tomorrow, I promise.

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ElViento: Houston played one impressive half of basketball, battling Memphis to a 39-39 tie at the half. In the second half, the Tigers scored 53. Houston…did not.

When Memphis got done running circles around the Cougars in the second half, the final was 92-77 and Houston dropped down to .500 in C-USA play, and just one game over even overall.

Offensively, there were some bright spots. Kendrick Washington looked powerful underneath, making every shot he attempted and scoring 11 points. Zamal Nixon refused to give up late, gutting his way to 10 points. And Aubrey Coleman consistently attacked the rim, pouring in 31 points on 21 attempts.

But (stop me when you’ve heard this one before) the defense was awful. When teams consistently hit 60%+ of their shots against you, that’s not just good shooting on their part. That’s lousy defense. Memphis was quicker than Houston on the perimeter, and the help defense underneath simply wasn’t there. The Tigers hit a gaudy 30 of their 49 field goal attempts, and even had a +4 turnover ratio on the game for good measure.

This is yet another reason why you simply can’t rely on creating turnovers for your defensive M.O. Eventually you’ll run into good teams who won’t give up a big turnover ratio. And if you can’t stop anybody from scoring the ball when they don’t turn it over, you won’t win.

If you can accept that the UCF game was an exception, because it just so happened that Houston was unbelievably ice cold from the floor, then the Memphis loss was the rule. When a team with an awful field goal shooting defense goes up against a good team, they get manhandled. It took the Tigers a half to realize they could do whatever they wanted on offense, but they figured it out.

I have two bright spots for you, Cougar fans:
Jackson Jeffcoat will announce his decision a week from Sunday.
-Only 27 days until Cougar baseball starts.

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ElViento: The third weekend of baseball season is like Christmas, my birthday and Arbor Day (don’t ask) all rolled into one.

Houston, Rice, and four top college baseball programs all head to Minute Maid Park for the Houston College Classic every year. Nine games in three days. I call into work, I let my loved ones know they won’t be seeing any of me (unless they show up to the park), and I bask in the beauty of it all.

The field for 2010, besides the co-host Cougars and Owls, includes the Texas-Austin Longhorns, Missouri Tigers, Texas Tech Red Raiders, and TCU Horned Frogs. Of those, the Cougars will face Missouri, UT-Austin and Texas Tech (in that order, from March 5-7). Houston will host TCU for a weekend series later in the season.

The Cougars have competed in the event every year since its inception in 2001, and in that span, they have complied a 10-17 record at the event. Last year, Houston went 0-3 for the first time, breaking a 6-year streak of going exactly 1-2 every year. Last time UH had a winning record at the HCC was 2002, when they beat Baylor and Texas A&M.

Looking at their 2010 opponents, Houston has never faced Missouri at the HCC, the Coogs have gone 1-4 against UT-Austin (having lost the last four) and have a 3-1 record against Texas Tech at Minute Maid.

Let’s take a look at the 2010 field, starting with the hosts:

Houston Cougars (27-31 in 2009)
Strengths: Six hitters return who batted .280 or higher a year ago, led by Blake Kelso (.335) and Caleb Ramsey (.332). Michael Goodnight (4.43 ERA) is the likely Friday starter, and figures to have a big season.
Question Marks: This Cougar team has a lot of potential, but the question marks are many. Where is the rest of the starting pitching going to come from? Can Mo Wiley shake off a poor freshman campaign (in which he was recovering from injury)? Can freshman Eric Brooks (a two-time all-state selection in high school) make a smooth transition to pitching at the college level? With a much deeper lineup, will Rayner Noble have Chase Dempsay focus on pitching, and can Chase return to his 2008, Freshman All-American form as a closer? Can anyone besides Chris Wallace hit for power? (Freshman M.P. Cokinos, Ramsey, and senior William Kankel seem like the best bets.)

Rice Owls (43-18)
Strengths: Brock Holt is the only significant loss from an offense that was already scary-good (.320 team avg, 71 HR) last year. This will be a team that hits for a high average, hits a lot of home (five players return who hit 7+ last year) runs, and can steal bases (six players return who stole 7+ bases last year). Mike Ojala and Taylor Wall are a formidable 1-2 at the front of the rotation.
Question Marks: Who else can pitch besides Ojala and Wall? With Ryan Berry off to the pros, the cupboard of proven college pitchers is pretty bare. Travis Wright is the only other pitcher returning with a sub-4.00 ERA, and he only threw 14.2 innings. Mark Haynes is the only other pitcher returning with 20+ IP and a sub-5.00 ERA. As usual, there is a huge crop of young talent coming in, but the Owls will essentially have to find a Sunday starter, a couple mid-week starters, and build an entire bullpen from scratch.

Missouri Tigers (35-27)
Strengths: Outfielder Aaron Senne returns as one of the top hitters in the Big XII.
Question Marks: The entire pitching staff, and the rest of the lineup. Only one pitcher who started even semi-regularly last year returns, and that’s Nick Tepesch, who put up a 6.27 ERA in 2009. Basically every hitter besides Senne who hit for a decent average and/or any kind of power last year is gone. Losing nearly every significant contributor from last year’s team (which wasn’t exactly dominant in the first place) could spell a lot of trouble for the Tigers.

Texas-Austin Longhorns (50-16-1)
Strengths:The pitching staff is the best in the country, without a doubt. The Longhorns had a sparkling 2.95 team ERA a year ago, and lose only one significant contributor in closer Austin Wood, and Austin Dicharry figures to step right in to fill that role. Kevin Keyes, Cameron Rupp and Connor Rowe give Austin a trio of power threats in the lineup.
Question Marks:Will the Longhorns be able to consistently score runs? Three of the top four hitters are gone, and only one .300 hitter (Keyes) returns.

Texas Tech Red Raiders (25-32)
Strengths:Six of the top eight hitters from a team that hit .299 a year ago are back, including three guys who hit above .325, and slugger Jeremy Mayo (.313, 11 HR). Chad Bettis was Tech’s most effective pitcher last year, coming out of the bullpen and making a few spot starts, and he is back.
Question Marks:The rest of the pitching staff. Nobody else who pitched at least 10 innings managed to keep their ERA under 5.00 last year. None of the weekend rotation returns, but given how they performed last year, that might not be a bad thing. The Red Raiders are probably just going to have to outslug people.

Texas Christian Horned Frogs (40-18)
Strengths:If not for UT-Austin, TCU would have a legitimate claim to best pitching staff in the country. All three members of a very effective weekend rotation return, and the Horned Frogs add Matt Purke, one of the top high school pitchers in the nation a year ago, who was drafted 14th overall by the Texas Rangers, but surprisingly chose to come play for TCU. Closer Eric Marshall (1.48, 9 saves) is back, too. Slugger Bryan Holaday (.300, 10 HR) will lead the offense.
Question Marks
:Only three offensive contributors return for the Horned Frogs, so there are plenty of question marks in the lineup.

There ya have it, folks. So how about it? Are you going to be camping out at Minute Maid Park with me?

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