Pirates, Cougars to battle for AAC crown
After three member teams reached the NCAA Tournament last year, the American Athletic Conference looks to establish its place as one of the premiere baseball divisions in 2017.
Featuring two teams ranked in preseason top 25 polls, No. 20 Houston and No. 6/10 East Carolina, the AAC features strength up and down the conference.
After finishing 38-23-1 and falling to Texas Tech in the Super Regionals last year, ECU earned six of the eight first-place votes and 48 total points from the conference coaches. The Pirates return senior pitching ace Evan Kruczynski who went 8-1 with 2.01 ERA in 2016 and was picked to be conference co-pitcher of the year.
Despite finishing 36-23, Houston failed to reach the postseason last year and look to return to their fourth straight conference tournament final. The Cougars are anchored by junior Seth Romero, the team’s leader in ERA in each of his two seasons.
Tulane looks to return to postseason play for the second straight season after winning the AAC regular season title at 41-21 in 2016. Predicted to finish third in the AAC, the Green Wave welcome first-year head coach Travis Jewitt to a roster featuring three preseason all-AAC selections.
The third of three AAC teams to reach the NCAA tournament last year, Connecticut finished 38-25 in 2016, winning their first conference tournament. Preseason pick for co-pitcher of the year, sophomore southpaw Tim Cate, anchors the rotation after leading the AAC in strikeouts per nine innings in 2016.
Cincinnati showed a 15-win improvement, tops in the AAC, in 2016, finishing at 26-30-1. The roster features many returnees, including junior outfielder Ryan Noda, the No. 96 prospect according to Baseball America. Last season he led the Bearcats in RBIs and home runs last year.
After missing the NCAA tournament in 2016, South Florida looks to improve on their 24-33 record. The Bulls offense is led by junior second baseman Kevin Merrell, who was named to the all-AAC team after hitting .320 with 22 RBIs, 22 runs scored and 16 stolen bases.
Central Florida and Memphis round out the rest of the conference, both looking to improve on disappointing 2016 seasons. After finishing 26-33, the Knights named Greg Lovelady head coach after he led Wright State to the NCAA Regionals last year.
Half of the conference will make postseason play as ECU, UH, UConn and Tulane all advance. ECU will capture the regular season crown while Houston takes the AAC tournament.
Kruczynski will be named the conference pitcher of the year, and Houston designate hitter Joe Davis is the player of the year.