Friday, January 8, 2016

Big East Conference Forecast

Team that could surprise: St. John's Red Storm
     (The Red Storm surprised many with dueling regular-season and conference tournament titles in 2015. Riding the arm of Pitcher of the Year Tori Free and Player of the Year Erin Burner, the Red Storm slightly bested preseason predictions that
projected them to finish as runners-up. Undoubtedly the favorite going into this season, even with the loss of Burner, the Red Storm still have a lot of talented pieces and should not have too much trouble repeating as conference champs this year.)

Team that could disappoint: DePaul Blue Demons
     (The preseason favorites for the conference crown and running on a streak of five Regional appearances in six years, the Blue Demons didn't even reach .500 overall at year's end despite a 13-4 record in conference play. This year's non-conference schedule isn't much easier - top level opponents dot the slate including James Madison, Oklahoma State, Nebraska, Notre Dame, Oklahoma, Alabama, Auburn, and Tennessee. I don't expect to see the Blue Demons in the regionals for a second straight season.)

Player of the Year: Alexis Walkden, Seton Hall
Pitcher of the Year: Tori Free, St. John's
Coach of the Year: Amy Kvilhaug, St. John's

Conference Champs: St. John's Red Storm
Top WCWS Contender: St. John's Red Storm
     (As I've said already, I like the direction the Red Storm are headed in and the usually-contending Blue Demons are regressing, so I think the Red Storm as the Big East's best chance to be represented in Oklahoma City.)

Players to Watch:
--> Tori Free, St. John's - Despite her afore-mentioned Pitcher of the Year award a year ago, Free actually experienced a statistical downgrade in some categories in 2015. Though her ERA dropped nearly nearly 0.5 percent below her then-career mark, she showed a sharp tick down both in innings pitched and overall appearances. Opponents still hit less than .220 against her and she gave up just twenty extra base hits across the entire season. She is in prime position for another solid year in 2016 and could set herself up in position for professional prospects in the summer.
--> Alex Kotter, Butler - A second-team all-Mideast region selection a year ago, Kotter was the first Bulldog to end her season with a .400+ batting average in more than thirty years. Her .434 mark led the conference and landed her just outside the top fifty nationally. With a sharp tick up in nearly every offensive category from her career numbers in her first two seasons, she is certainly worth keeping an eye on in the conference Player of the Year race.
--> Alexis Walkden, Seton Hall - Walkden's freshman campaign was one for the books after she posted a .380/20/49 slash line and a stellar .891 slugging percentage. With more than 50% of her hits going for extra bases, she is a true slugger and a dangerous one at that. One of the finest longball hitters in the Group of Five conferences, she is worth keeping an eye on as an underclassman who could easily play her way onto the Player of the Year watch-list and list of Top 25 finalists.
--> Micaela Whitney, Creighton - The former Iowa Hawkeye made quite the impression in her first start as a Bluejay, throwing a no-hitter in Tempe, Arizona in the inaugural game of the season. While the rest of her junior campaign didn't quite reach that height, she posted a solid 3.71 ERA in 132 innings. A 9-10 record at season's-end does not tell the full story of her season; despite a poor strikeout/walk ratio, Whitney is a good pitcher who can be great when she is "on" and she can thoroughly help the Bluejays in her second and final year in Omaha.

Biggest Questions:
* Will DePaul, formerly the conference's top team on a yearly basis, return to top-notch form or continue a spiral downward?
* Can St. John's recapture and continue their momentum from a season ago and 

Top Seniors:
P - Tori Free, St. John's; Kate Poppe, Villanova; Micaela Whitney, Creighton
C - Faith Laudano, Seton Hall
IF - Morgan Maize, DePaul; Kristen Boros, Butler
OF - Shea Palmer, Villanova
UT/DP - Yasmin Harrell, Seton Hall

Conference Projection:
1. St. John's Red Storm
2. Seton Hall Pirates
3. DePaul Blue Demons
4. Butler Bulldogs
5. Villanova Wildcats
6. Creighton Bluejays
7. Providence Friars
8. Georgetown Hoyas

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