John Denton's Knights Insider: Top-20 Showdown A Must See

March 5, 2012

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By John Denton

ORLANDO, Fla. (UCFAthletics.com) - When UCF and Florida State last appeared together in a big-game setting, the scene was the win-or-else NCAA Regional Tournament in Tallahassee last spring.

With the two programs about to face off at UCF on Tuesday and Wednesday nights, UCF head coach Terry Rooney feels the showdown could have an intensity similar to that of an NCAA Regional again. After all, the Seminoles haven't played at UCF in 24 years, both teams are nationally ranked and both hope to make serious runs at the College World Series in Omaha, Neb.

Rooney's hope is that baseball fans throughout Central Florida will come be a part of a two-game series between No. 18 UCF (10-2) and No. 8 FSU (9-1) that figures to be a special one.

"I hope all of Orlando embraces what is about to happen. You have two top 20 baseball teams about to play a two-game series. So this is a great opportunity to see what college baseball has become and see two great teams," said Rooney, the architect of UCF's rise into the national rankings. "What if we had two top 20 football teams and two top 20 basketball teams playing right here on campus on Tuesday night? It would be a full house. I hope people understand the magnitude of this from a baseball standpoint and come out and support it."

UCF made major strides as a program last season, one of those key steps was beating FSU in Tallahassee during the regular season. UCF also whipped Florida (twice), Alabama, Miami and USF last season en route to an appearance in the NCAA Regional for the first time in seven seasons. Both UCF and FSU were in the Tallahassee Region, but never met in the postseason, and Rooney is hoping that these two games can give the Knights a feeling for what the postseason could be like come this summer.

"Winning those big games last year, it demonstrated to our players that we can be a top-20 program," Rooney said. "Up until last year we were talking about it, selling it and believing it, but hadn't done it. Now, we've done it, beaten those teams and it's about taking the next step. To do that you have to play well against these top teams.

"We went to a regional last year because we beat a lot of top teams on the road and at home," Rooney continued. "It's just reality that these two games aren't all or nothing for us, but they are very important games."

Two very important pieces for the Knights this season so far have been D.J. Hicks and Chris Taladay, UCF's No. 3 and No. 4 hitters. Hicks, Conference USA's Preseason Player of the Year, is hitting .395 with five home runs and 23 RBI. He already leads the conference in four major offensive categories and is coming off a week in which he drove in 15 runs and pitched two scoreless innings against USF.

"D.J. is a preseason All-American and after 12 games he's having an All-American type of year," Rooney gushed. "It's what you'd expect out of him. But what people have to understand about him is that he's getting pitched to very tough. He's realizing the pitches that he can hit and he's not missing the mistakes. His pitch recognition is so great. That's key because teams are going to pitch him so great."

"Great" would be an accurate word to describe the play so far of Taladay, who has answered the questions of who would hit cleanup following the graduation of Jonathan Griffin. A seven-hit weekend in UCF's sweep of Sienna pushed his batting average to .408. His ability to come through in the clutch - a team-high 20 hits and nine RBI - have provided some protection for Hicks in the order.

"Chris Taladay is as clutch a hitter as any player in college baseball, period," Rooney said. "He just finds a way to get the barrel on the bat."

UCF's hopes of Tuesday will also rest on the craftiness of junior left-hander Brian Adkins, UCF's Opening Night starter. He pitched five strong innings on Wednesday in a win against Bethune-Cookman. And he has a history against FSU, pitching into the seventh last year in Tallahassee.

"Brian pitched really well against Florida State last year. The key for him is always to get ahead and to stay down," Rooney said. "He's not an overpowering pitcher, but he has great stuff. If he gets ahead and stays down, he'll induce those ground balls and be all right."

Like last season when the Knights beat several nationally ranked teams, Rooney hopes to use the FSU series as a litmus test for his team. Mistakes played a major role in UCF's two losses - to top-ranked Florida and to Boston College - and he knows the Knights will have to play fundamental baseball to thrive against the Seminoles. Do that, and it could be a big couple of days for UCF.

"It should be a great series with two Top 20 baseball teams playing one another. It should be a good couple of nights for college baseball," Rooney said. "These kinds of series help you to get in a position to go to the NCAA Tournament (in terms of RPI). The better the (opposing) team you play it gives you an accurate gauge on the things you do well and the things you need to do better. There have been some games this season when our miscues have been exposed and games where they haven't. Against Florida State we'll have to play well in all areas to get the job done."