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Southern Highlands a de facto NCAA preview

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There was not an official NCAA Preview last fall at Prairie Dunes.

No matter.

This weekend’s Southern Highlands Collegiate should help identify which teams are trending upward as we reach the final leg of the 2013-14 college season. Consider it a de facto NCAA preview.

Eight of the top 15 teams in the country – including each of the top 5 (Alabama, Oklahoma State, Georgia Tech, California and Georgia) – will tee it up in Las Vegas in the strongest regular-season field of the year.

What’s more, 10 of the top 12 players in Golfstat’s individual rankings (including No. 1 Joey Garber, No. 2 Robby Shelton and No. 3 Brandon Hagy) will compete at Southern Highlands. 

“To have so many top teams and players get together on a good golf course, it’s great to stack them up and see where they stand,” said Stanford coach Conrad Ray. “It’s a really high-quality event with all the big teams there.”

Here’s a quick primer on the three-day event, which begins Friday:

WHICH TEAMS ARE MOST INTRIGUING?

• This is Alabama’s first start since it lost to Houston earlier this week in Cabo. That runner-up finish – against a field that did not feature a single other top-10 team – stopped the Tide’s 11-event win streak and showed the rest of the country that they could be beaten if not on their A-game.

• Cal lost one of its best players, Michael Kim, to the pros during the winter, but the Golden Bears have won each of their two starts this spring. They’re the defending champions at this event, and another victory here would send a message that they’ll still be one of the teams to beat at NCAAs. Senior Brandon Hagy has asserted himself as one of the best players in the game – he has yet to finish worse than eighth in seven starts this season – while junior Joel Stalter has a pair of wins and two other top 5s in his last four appearances.

• Can a team with four consecutive wins still be underrated? We will find out this week with second-ranked Oklahoma State. The Cowboys have notched a few big-time victories this season, but another title here would move them out from Alabama’s considerable shadow.


WHICH TEAM COULD SURPRISE?

• On paper, at least, it seems like Stanford should win nearly every time it tees it up. The Cardinal have junior Patrick Rodgers, a two-time All-American who announced this week that he would turn pro after NCAAs; Cameron Wilson, a crafty left-hander who has surged to No. 3 in the country; Viraat Badhwar, the 2013 Australian Masters of the Amateurs champion; David Boote, a decorated amateur player in England; and Jim Liu, a former U.S. Junior champion. Stanford has struggled with week-in, week-out consistency, but when all of the pieces come together, this group will be dangerous.


DOES A TEAM’S PERFORMANCE HERE USUALLY PORTEND NCAA SUCCESS?

Not always. Let’s take a look back at the team and individual champions here since 2009, the first year that the NCAA Championship implemented match play. 

2013: Cal won by double digits, but that wasn’t surprising since it won 11 of 13 events a year ago. The top 3 teams at the Southern Highlands all eventually advanced to match play at the NCAA Championship, including NCAA champion Alabama, which tied for second here. Individual winner: Patrick Rodgers, Stanford. 

2012: UNLV swept both the team and individual titles, though that didn’t help the Rebels much come postseason time. They failed to even advance past NCAA regionals, while Texas (sixth at Southern Highlands) and Alabama (T-9) eventually got the last laugh. Individual winner: Blake Biddle, UNLV.

2011: Oklahoma State had both the team and individual champion in Las Vegas, and the Cowboys eventually reached the semifinals of the NCAA Championship. Georgia, meanwhile, tied for sixth at Southern Highlands but advanced to the NCAA finals. Individual winner: Morgan Hoffmann, Oklahoma State 

2010: Host UNLV and UCLA shared the team title at Southern Highlands, but that didn’t help either school when it came to NCAAs – they both didn’t advance to match play, and neither did the teams that finished third and fourth, respectively, in Vegas, USC and Texas A&M. Oklahoma State finished 11th at Southern Highlands and eventually lost in the NCAA finals. Individual winner: Jesper Kennegard, Arizona State

2009: Since 2002, when the event was moved to Southern Highlands, UNLV has won the title outright five times and tied another (2010). This was another one of those victories, though the Rebels failed to even make the cut at NCAA regionals. The team that won the NCAA title that year, Texas A&M, was 11th in Vegas. Individual winner: Cameron Tringale, Georgia Tech


SO, WHO WINS?

The best team doesn’t always win here, as we just highlighted, so let’s go with third-ranked Georgia Tech. Making their first start in this event since 2011, the Yellow Jackets have won or finished second in five of their six starts this season, and they’re solid (and experienced) all the way down their lineup. Individually, it’s hard to look past Alabama super-freshman Robby Shelton, who has four top 5s in six starts, but there hasn’t been a first-time winner here in the past several years. So here’s predicting a Patrick Rodgers repeat. With the clock ticking on his college career, he’s ultra-motivated to hunt down Tiger Woods’ school record of 11 wins.