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ASU Baseball: Previewing the 2016 nonconference slate

The Sun Devils start the season this weekend against Xavier in Phoenix. We take a team by team look at their nonconference foes in this piece.

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Throughout this week, we will take you through the 2016 Arizona State baseball team as the Sun Devils prepare for their February 19 opener. Next up is a look at the team's nonconference schedule, which features some challenging road games and a fairly easy home slate.

Arizona State will start the season against Xavier at Phoenix Municipal Stadium, which will be the first ever meeting between the two programs.

The Musketeers will be in town for four games over the course of three days. They struggled mightily a year ago but do return the Big East's top freshman from a club that went 15-38.

"I'm looking forward to Xavier the most because that is the first one," said head coach Tracy Smith when asked about the nonconference schedule. "It will be fun because one of my former assistants, Scott Googins, is now the head coach there."

Only two of their top five offensive leaders will be returning for Googins' team, but an infusion of youth to the lineup should really help Xavier.

While this opening series might not be as sexy as the Oklahoma State set that christened Phoenix Muni last February, these games will still carry plenty of importance for a Sun Devil team looking to find their footing early in the season. They should be able to easily win three, if not all four, games.

The team's stretch of five games in five days will conclude at home on the following Tuesday against Nevada. The Wolfpack will be in the same boat, however, coming off a four game series across the Valley in Mesa against Northwestern.

Last year, Nevada went 15-6 against teams ranked in the RPI top-100 and finished first in the Mountain West. This is a dangerous team that returns nearly everyone except its head coach (who is now down at Arizona) from what was probably the first team left out of the 2015 NCAA Tournament.

After Tuesday night's contest, Smith's team will embark on their first road trip of the season. Awaiting them is a three game series against Long Beach State, serving as a return trip after the Dirtbags paid a visit to Phoenix last season.

Smith and company will be hoping for a better result than the team got in their last game against Long Beach State at Blair Field, which featured an 11-0 drumming back in 2014. The 2016 Dirtbags are headlined by right-hander Chris Matthewson, who earned a freshman All-American honor last year. Matthewson posted a 1.94 ERA a year ago and is the clear leader of this year's staff.

Considering the fact that Arizona State didn't play a road game until March 20 last year, this is a big set for the club. Life away from home isn't always easy for inexperienced squads, but those players will grow up quickly after this series.

The Sun Devils will open up the month of March with five games in six days. The first three of those will come at Phoenix Muni against Eastern Michigan before the team embarks on another trip to Southern California, this time for a two game set against Cal State Fullerton.

The Eagles opened up their 2015 campaign down in Tucson and were swept by the Wildcats, and things didn't get much better after that. Mark Van Ameyde's team finished the year with a record of 20-35 and are once again projected to finish towards the bottom of the MAC this year. The three game series should provide a much-needed respite between the two road trips up north for Smith's team.

That second trip will be a familiar one for Arizona State after playing in the Fullerton Regional last May. The Titans figure to be the toughest nonconference opponent of the season, coming in at No. 21 in D1Baseball's preseason rankings. They hit .263 as a team last year and return do-it-all leadoff man Josh Vargas in addition to freshman All-American John Gavin.

"I know the fans are intrigued by that matchup," Smith says. "It'll be fun to go back to the scene of the crime."

The Sun Devils final out of conference series before jumping into Pac-12 play will be played March 11-13 at home against UC Davis. The Aggies have a sneaky good, albeit young, lineup that could easily surprise the maroon and gold.

Where Smith's team can take advantage in these games is at the plate. UC Davis only returns one weekend starter from last year, and he missed the final half of the season due to an injury. They will have played just one true road game coming into the series in Phoenix, so a lack of experience away from home could hurt Matt Vaughn's club.

The maroon and gold's next two nonconference affairs will be Tuesday night games with their Pac-12 opener at Oregon State sandwiched between them.

First up will be an exhibition game against Meiji University on March 15. The Meijirō are taking a Spring Camp expedition to the states and will be playing their third game in four days when they visit the Muni. They are coming off a 9-4 record in fall league play back home in Tokyo.

ASU will then begin league play up in Corvallis before stepping back into nonconference action for a singleton at home against San Diego. The Torreros don't return much from last year's team that finished atop the WCC standings in the regular season, but righty C.J. Burdick should bolster a solid bullpen.

San Diego will have already faced quality opponents such as Vanderbilt, San Diego State, and Oregon State before facing Arizona State, so this will be a well-tested team that isn't afraid of the name on the front of the uniform. They will host the Sun Devils back at home for another one-game affair in the final week of the season.

While the April 12 meeting with Arizona technically serves as a nonconference game (as will the 4/26 matchup), the next time ASU plays a team outside of the Pac-12 will be on April 19 against UNLV.

That game will be played in Phoenix, and a return trip will be made to Sin City on May 10. The two clubs also faced twice in 2015, with both games being decided by one run and one featuring a strange lighting delay that ended up giving the Sun Devils an extra night in Las Vegas as a result.

The Runnin Rebels are led by senior Kenny Oakley on the mound, but the right-hander will likely not pitch in either of these games since his services will be needed on the weekend. Oakley's team finished 25-31 last year but had enough talent to win some big games both inside and outside of Mountain West play. Expect more of the same out of UNLV this season, but the group still looks to be a year away from returning to the NCAA Tournament.

The maroon and gold's final nonconference series will be a three game set starting on April 29 against New Mexico at Phoenix Muni. Infielder/catcher Carl Stajduhar hit nine home runs a year ago and is back from that 32-win team. The Lobos will be able to outhit most anyone in the Mountain West in 2016 and should finish either at the top of the league or near it this season.

It was New Mexico that was responsible for one of Arizona State's most frustrating losses last year, knocking off the Sun Devils in what was a much bigger game for ASU than it was for the Lobos. It seems unlikely that Smith's team would overlook UNM two years in a row, but odd things can happen in these late-season nonconference battles.