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June 1, 2010

Campus Notes

NCAA Regionals Preview, Part 1

by Charles Dahan

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As discussed last week, the top five national seeds were guaranteed with Florida’s late surge and Coastal Carolina’s domination of their conference, leaving TCU, South Carolina, Louisville, UCLA, Auburn, Cal State Fullerton, and Georgia Tech vying for the final three national seeds.  Prior to the conference tournaments, UCLA, Fullerton, and South Carolina seemed to be the front runners, though South Carolina cooled during the final week and seeding both UCLA and Fullerton seemed unlikely. Largely as expected, national seeds went to Arizona State, Texas, Florida, Coastal Carolina, Virginia, UCLA, Louisville, and Georgia Tech.

In the end, the biggest controversy wasn’t Georgia Tech receiving the final national seed over South Carolina, but Virginia being pushed down to fifth behind not only a surging Florida squad but also Coastal Carolina.  Moreover, geographic necessities provided Connecticut with a regional as the only team north of the Mason-Dixon line, despite significantly stronger resumes from Florida State (the No. 1 seed in the Norwich regional), Vanderbilt, and Clemson. 

The SEC has eight teams in the 64-team tournament, though Kentucky failed to get a bid despite finishing 33rd in the RPI.  The ACC and Pac-10 also placed eight teams in the tournament, a record for the Pac-10, and a surprising bid for North Carolina who, despite failing to make the ACC tournament, finished the year with a sweep of Virginia Tech and an RPI ranking of 22. 

Along with receiving eight bids, Pac-10, ACC, and SEC teams will be hosting two, three and four regionals respectively, with the PAC-10 and ACC also receiving two national seeds and the SEC, Big East, and Big South each receiving one.

Let's take a look at eight of the 16 regionals. Wednesday, we will break down the other eight regionals. Teams with asterisks have received a national seed.

Tempe Regional

*1. Arizona State (47-8), PAC-10 champion, first in RPI.

2. San Diego (36-20), West Coast Conference champion, 29th in RPI.

3. Hawaii (33-26), Western Athletic Conference champion, 76th in RPI

4. Wisconsin-Milwaukee (33-24), Horizon League champions, 211th in RPI

Despite finishing the season by losing two of its last four games, Arizona State enters the tournament as the No. 1 overall seed and in a favorable bracket.  San Diego was No. 22 in the RPI before falling last week and proved formidable by taking two of three at Coastal Carolina in March.  Yet one day after returning from South Carolina, USD faced Hawaii, losing 8-6, and lost both games at Arizona State in troubling fashion the following weekend, 15-0 and 11-6.  USD’s top two starters, Kyle Blair and Sammy Solis, are both impressive, keeping opposing hitters under a .220 batting average with ERAs in three and K:BB of 4.2:1 and 3.3:1, respectively.  Both pitchers saw time in the first game against ASU, with Blair giving up two runs (one earned) in one inning, and Solis surrendering four (three earned) over two innings. 

Wisconsin-Milwaukee rode Chad Pierce’s arm to the Horizon League title, though after pitching both Thursday (throwing 150 pitches) and Sunday, it’s unclear whether he’ll have anything left to make things respectable against Arizona State.

Fayetteville Regional

1. Arkansas (40-18), at-large, ninth in RPI

2. Washington State (34-20), at-large, 28th in RPI

3. Kansas State (36-20), at-large, 39th in RPI

4. Grambling State (22-30), Southwestern Athletic Conference champion, 272nd in RPI

Washington State was sporadic this season, with sweeps of California and series victories over Arizona State, Oregon State, and Stanford, but losses to Brigham Young, Dallas Baptist, and Utah.  Similarly, the Razorbacks head into the NCAA tournament on a 2-7 skid, but with the region’s most dangerous lineup and a comparatively deep pitching corps, they shouldn’t suffer the same fate against Kansas State and Washington State.

Kansas State was a bubble team after losing series to Texas Tech, Texas A&M, Oklahoma, Texas, Missouri, and BYU since April 1, but in a winnable bracket, the Wildcats will try to ride the bats of Nick Martini, Adam Meunster, and Carter Jurica to make it out of Fayetteville.

The lowest RPI squad in the field, Grambling won the SWAC tournament to reach the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1985.

Los Angeles Regional

*1. UCLA (43-13), at-large, seventh in RPI

2. LSU (40-20), SEC champion, 22nd in RPI

3. UC Irvine (37-19), at-large, 45th in RPI

4. Kent State (39-23), Mid-American Conference champion, 116th in RPI

The Group of Death, as UCLA, LSU, and UC Irvine would all be dangerous participants in Omaha.  UCLA’s late-season run was rewarded with a national seed (though potential super regional opponent Cal State Fullerton would also have been a reasonable selection for a Southern California super regional) while LSU’s SEC championship has it about as far away from home as possible. 

LSU—a pre-season favorite to return to Omaha—dropped 10 runs on Florida in the first round of the SEC tournament and didn’t look back, defeating Vanderbilt 7-5 and Alabama 4-3 in 11 innings Sunday to become the first No. 8 seed to capture the conference title.  The Tigers’ weekend in Hoover, Alabama, catapulted their national status from fringe tournament participants to No. 2 seed. Ace pitcher Anthony Ranaudo’s return makes the Tigers dangerous.

UC Irvine finished the season by sweeping Long Beach State on the road, though it is No. 45 in the RPI due to a relatively weak schedule.  The Anteaters are in the tournament for the fifth straight year. UCLA’s pitching depth—as well as an opportunity to let UC Irvine and LSU beat up on one another in the first game—give it a distinct advantage.

Fullerton Regional

1. Cal State Fullerton (41-15), Big West Conference champion, 11th in RPI

2. Stanford (31-23), at-large, 36th in RPI

3. New Mexico (37-20), at-large, 46th in RPI

4. Minnesota (30-28), at-large, Big Ten champion, 114th in RPI

Mark Marquess’ Stanford squad shined throughout the year, most notably during a six-game winning streak against Oregon State and California at the end of April.  Yet the Cardinal inexplicably followed that success with a four-game skid against Santa Clara and Washington, neither powers of Stanford’s caliber.  The Cardinal couldn’t have ended the season with a more difficult schedule, with series against Washington State, at Arizona, and against Arizona State.  They were 1-2 against the Cougars and Sun Devils, and 2-1 against the Wildcats while taking a single contest versus Hawaii. 

Fullerton center fielder Gary Brown, out since May 16 when he broke a finger against Long Beach State, won’t be available until at least the Super Regional, leaving a gaping hole behind projected first round pick shortstop Christian Colon in the batting order. Even without Brown, however, the

Titans defeated UCLA and are 7-0 since May 21 and 25-2 since April 17, with wins over UCLA, San Diego, and UC Riverside.  Fullerton also has Noe Ramirez, the best starter in the regional, with a K:BB ratio near 6:1. 

The Big 10 continues to struggle, finishing the season with Michigan (35-22) as the highest-ranked team in the RPI at 70, and placing a single, fourth-seeded team in the tournament.

Louisville Regional

*1. Louisville (48-12), Big East champion, seventh in RPI

2. Vanderbilt (41-17), at-large, 13th in RPI

3. Illinois State (31-22), Missouri Valley Conference champion, 85th in RPI

4. St. Louis (33-27), Atlantic 10 Conference champion, 206th in RPI

Battle-tested Vanderbilt comes off an early exit from the SEC tournament to face a deep Louisville squad in what is perhaps the nation’s most top-heavy bracket.  While the Billikens made a surprising run through the A-10 tournament, the middle of the Illinois State order—anchored by Kevin Tokarski who is hitting .429/.702/1.253—is dangerous, Vanderbilt dominated ISU in March and Louisville showed its ability to take care of weaker opponents throughout the season in the Big East. 

Norwich Regional

1. Florida State (42-17), ACC champion, 14th in RPI

2. Connecticut (47-14), at-large, 23rd in RPI

3. Oregon (38-22), at-large, 31st in RPI

4. Central Connecticut State (33-21), Northeast Conference champion, 195th in RPI

Oregon drew the shortest straw of the tournament as it not only has to travel to Norwich and play against a Connecticut squad benefiting from home-field advantage purely due to its geographic location, but also is placed with a red-hot Florida State squad that captured its fifth ACC tournament title over the weekend, including an 11-4 victory over Virginia. The Seminoles knocked UVA star pitcher Robert Morey out of the game, posting six runs and forcing him to throw 113 pitches in only four innings. Morey had a league ERA of 3.27 and ACC were batting a mere .227 against him.

Although Greensboro is a lot closer to Tallahassee than Connecticut, FSU’s ability to run through the ACC tournament on a neutral field certainly demonstrates it is ready for the Ducks and Huskies.  Oregon’s pitching after prospects Tyler Anderson and Justin LaTempa is questionable.

Coral Gables Regional

1. Miami, (40-17), at-large, eighth in RPI

2. Texas A&M (40-19), Big 12 champion, 20th in RPI

3. Florida International (36-23), Sun Belt Conference champion, 50th in RPI

4. Dartmouth (26-17), Ivy League champion, 145th in RPI

Miami will be a regional host for an incredible 23rd time.  While the Hurricanes were able to defeat eventual conference tournament champions Florida State in Greensboro last weekend, losses to Virginia and Boston College in extra innings kept them out of the conference title game.  This bracket is favorable for the Hurricanes, as no team has the 1-2 punch to match starters E.J. Encinosa and Eric Erickson, and the lineup gives opposing teams no easy outs, with all but one hitter above .270 with at least five homers. 

While Texas and TCU earned the opportunity to host regionals, three teams (Baylor, Texas A&M, and Rice) from the Lone Star state made the tournament, meaning one would have to travel.  Despite winning the Big 12 conference title, the Aggies are headed to Coral Gables. 

Garrett Wittels hit safely in his 54th consecutive game in the Sun Belt Conference title game against Troy, and if the Golden Panthers play four games in Coral Gables Wittels can tie Robin Ventura’s NCAA record of 58.    

Gainesville Regional

*1. Florida (42-15), at-large, fourth in RPI

2. Florida Atlantic (35-22), at-large, 38th in RPI

3. Oregon State (31-22), at-large, 25th in RPI

4. Bethune-Cookman (35-20), Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference champion, 99th in RIP

The committee clearly believes the good folks from Oregon are in need of frequent flier miles, sending both the Oregon and Oregon State nearly as far flung as possible.  Moreover, somehow Oregon State’s impressive Pac-10 schedule, nearly identical record, and significantly higher RPI warranted a No. 3 seed in a distant region, in comparison to Florida Atlantic, which until Monday appeared to be a team on the bubble.  All of this will be academic, however, if Florida performs anywhere near its potential, as it should roll through to the super regionals.  The Gators lost a single weekend series all season, to Mississippi in March, and although the Beavers’ impressive track record in June and solid conference play give them a shot, UF has simply dominated the nation’s best conference over the past two months.

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