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Andrew Cyr | NCAA.com | March 1, 2018

6 reasons why you need to follow the Shriners College Classic

Some of the best teams and individual talents in college baseball will be on display at Minute Maid Park this weekend when No. 7 Kentucky, No. 12 Vanderbilt, No. 21 Mississippi State, No. 24 Houston, Sam Houston State and Louisiana face off in the Shriners Hospitals for Children College Classic.

2018 Shriners College Classic schedule

Date Time Team vs. Team
Friday, March 2 12 p.m. Vanderbilt vs. Sam Houston State
Friday, March 2 3:30 p.m. Kentucky vs. Houston
Friday, March 2 7 p.m. Mississippi State vs. Louisiana
Saturday, March 3 12 p.m. Sam Houston State vs. Kentucky
Saturday, March 3 3:30 p.m. Vanderbilt vs. Louisiana
Saturday, March 3 7 p.m. Houston vs. Mississippi State
Sunday, March 4 11 a.m. Louisiana vs.  Kentucky
Sunday, March 4 2:30 p.m. Mississippi State vs. Sam Houston State
Sunday, March 4 6 p.m. Houston vs. Vanderbilt

Here's six things we'll be watching this week in Houston during the three day, nine-game tournament, which will be broadcasted regionally on AT&T Sportsnet Southwest:

1.) Kentucky’s massive mound presence 

The Kentucky Wildcats are known for their dominant big men (usually in basketball), and right-handed starter Sean Hjelle fits the mold of tall, lengthy athletes that have succeeded in Lexington. Standing at 6-11, Hjelle would have been tied for the tallest if he was on the basketball team. He’s taller than former Kentucky legend Anthony Davis and measures at the same height as Demarcus Cousins.

The ace of the Wildcats baseball staff, and the reigning SEC pitcher of the year, is already off to a dominant start in 2018. Hjelle is 2-0 in his two starts, allowing just three hits and one earned run over 13.2 innings pitched. He owns a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 16:2 and an earned run average of 0.66. If Hjelle keeps up at this pace, he may not only retain his Pitcher of the Year crown, but will be in serious contention for the Golden Spikes award later in the season.

2.) The Vandy boys are back

Vanderbilt is a national powerhouse in the college baseball world, and after failing to reach the College World Series for the past two seasons, the Commodores look like they’ll be knocking on the doors of Omaha once again in 2018. Vandy won nine games of its 10-game home stand to start the year and much of that can be credited to its balance lineup top to bottom, which currently leads the country in hits (119), is second in runs (102) and is sixth in batting average (.358).

Leadoff-hitting first baseman Austin Marin has been off to an unbelievable start with .517/.650/.690 splits while three Commodores are hitting over .400, and nine of their 10 qualified hitters are over .300. Vanderbilt has one of the deepest rosters in the country, and this weekend will be huge for momentum with games against Long Beach State, UCLA, USC and TCU upcoming after this.

3.) Jake Mangum is as good as advertised for MSU

With lofty expectations coming into 2018, Mississippi State hasn't lived up to expectations with a 3-4 start. But the Bulldogs can change the narrative with a solid weekend in Houston.

Junior centerfielder Jake Mangum, who was on numerous preseason All-American teams, has been impressive through the first month of the season hitting .429 with a team-leading 12 hits including a pair of doubles and a triple. The switch-hitting leadoff hitter has one of the best swings in the country, and is one of the best individual players to watch in the Shrines Hospital Classic along with Hjelle.

MORE: 2018 Golden Spikes Award Preseason watch list | D1Baseball.com rankings

4.) Houston is for real, and have the chance to take a huge leap this weekend

The Cougars have lived up to preseason hype so far and are coming off fo an impressive road series win against then-No. 13 Cal State Fullerton in Titans country. The American Athletic Conference has been off to an excellent start this season (see Wichita State and East Carolina) and Houston has a change to put its name on the map with matchups against No. 7 Kentucky, No. 21 Mississippi State and No. 12 Vanderbilt.

Houston’s weekend rotation of Trey Cumbie, Aaron Fletcher and Ryan Randel all have ERAs under 3.00 — Cumbie and Fletcher are sub 2.00 — and will be tested this weekend against SEC lineups.

RELATED: Meet Wichita State's 'Bash Bros. 2.0' | 5 facts about ECU's hot start

5.) Sam Houston State’s 3-4 punch 

After being tabbed as the preseason Southland Conference champions, the Bearkats (6-1) have come out of the gates roaring and are winners of six straight. The biggest reason behind Sam Houston State’s hot start been its middle of the order, No. 3-4 combo of Andrew Greg and Hunter Hearn, who are looking like the best duo in the conference.

Hearn (.429/.452/.750) and Fregia (.357/.387/.643) have put up almost identical numbers this year and have contributed for a combed 12 runs scored, 22 hits, two triples, four home runs and 18 RBI. The Bearkats have made five NCAA regional appearances in the last six seasons, so keep these two names in mind down the road if they can make it six out of seven. 

6.) The emergence of Louisiana's Brock Batty 

Freshman lefty Brock Batty has been a weapon for the Ragin Cajuns out of the bullpen this year — and it looks like he’s only getting started. Batty has made three appearances in relief this season and has allowed just one run and five hits through 10.1 innings of work for an ERA of 0.87.

The 6-foot-1 reliever pitched six solid innings and picked up the win in a 2-1 victory over then-No. 14 Texas after Louisiana’s starter left after 2.2 innings after suffering an injury. With matches against three ranked SEC opponents this weekend, solid appearances will only help grow his stock on the national level.