As the best-of-three Super Regionals begin, members of the NCAA selection committee must be feeling pretty good about themselves right about now.
That's because 14 of the 16 regionals were won by No. 1 seeds -- a figure reached just two other times since the field expanded to 64 teams in 1999 -- and seven of the eight national seeds remain alive (No. 8 seed Oregon was eliminated by Rice).
Many of the usual suspects are here; 13 of the 16 Super Regional teams have been to the College World Series within the past decade and seven of the past 10 national champions are still playing.
Even with all these favorites, there is an underdog element present. Kansas State and Indiana are two wins away from reaching the CWS for the first time, which would provide rare Midwestern flavor to an event that has been staged in the region since 1950 when it moved to Omaha, Neb. North Carolina State's lone CWS appearance was 45 years ago, so consider the Wolfpack new blood as well.
Here's a look at the Super Regionals matchups, starting with the four that will take place on Friday, Saturday and Sunday:
South Carolina (42-18) at No. 1 North Carolina (55-9)
The matchup: North Carolina played with fire at the Chapel Hill Regional and almost got burned. Again. The Tar Heels were the only national seed to lose in last year's regionals. This year, as the national No. 1 seed, they were on the verge of elimination in the regional final against Florida Atlantic before rallying — twice — for an amazing 13-inning, 12-11 victory. FAU scored six runs in the ninth inning to turn a 6-2 deficit into an 8-6 lead but the Tar Heels answered with two to send the game into extra innings. FAU scored three in the 11th but UNC tied it again before finally winning in the 13th.
It was quite a contrast to the Columbia Regional, where the only thing that delayed South Carolina's three-game march to the Super Regionals was rain that necessitated waiting a day to complete the Gamecocks' regional final win over Liberty.
Rain has again become a factor in this round. Friday's opener was washed out, which allows North Carolina coach Mike Fox to use his ace, ACC Pitcher of the Year Kent Emanuel, in Game 1. Emanuel was originally slated for Game 2 because he threw 175 pitches last weekend, including 51 in relief on Monday.
Third baseman Colin Moran (.348, 13 HR, nation-leading 86 RBIs), first baseman Cody Stubbs (.372, 8 HR, 76 RBIs) and outfielder Brian Holberton (.308, 10 HR, 52 RBIs) power a UNC offense that averages eight runs a game. Emanuel (11-3, 2.70 ERA), a lefty, and freshman righthander Trent Thornton (9-1, 1.17 ERA, 8 SV) have been the Tar Heels' top two pitchers.
Seniors LB Dantzler (.322, 15 HR, 51 RBIs) and Tyler Webb (3-2, 1.36 ERA, 17 SV) would like nothing better than to lead South Carolina to its fourth straight CWS. The pair has the rare distinction of playing for three straight national championships, winning in 2010 and '11.
A pair of players to watch: It was a ho hum week for Moran. First there was Monday's epic game. On Tuesday he was named one of three finalists — with Vanderbilt righty Tyler Beede and San Diego third baseman Kris Bryant — for the Golden Spikes Award as college baseball's best player. On Thursday he was chosen by the Marlins with the sixth overall pick in the MLB draft and this weekend he will help the Tar Heels in their bid for the school's sixth trip in eight years to the CWS. One question: What happened Wednesday?
As for South Carolina, indulge us, please, as we highlight a coach rather than a player. Chad Holbrook took over this season for longtime Gamecocks coach Ray Tanner, who moved upstairs to the AD's office. Holbrook was Tanner's right-hand man the past four seasons. Interestingly enough, Holbrook came over from North Carolina, where he was an assistant coach for 15 seasons following four years playing for the Tar Heels.
And the winner is: North Carolina. UNC's somewhat shaky — although ultimately successful —showing in the regionals notwithstanding, this prediction is predicated on the Heels being the nation's best team all season.
Rice (44-18) at North Carolina State (47-14)
The matchup: All this talk about the Carolinas must make N.C. State feel a bit self conscious. The school's lone trip to the CWS was in 1968. The Wolfpack has reached regionals 11 of the past 12 years, but this is just the school's third Super Regional appearance, having lost in both 2003 and 2012. Hard-throwing lefty Carlos Rodon (9-2, 3.19 ERA, nation-leading 161 Ks in 110 IP), shortstop Trea Turner (.377, 7 HR, 41 RBIs, 27 SB) and first baseman Tarran Senay (.292, 8 HR, 56 RBIs) will lead the Wolfpack.
Rice is aiming to become one of the few road teams to win both a regional and a Super Regional to reach the CWS. The success rate is less than three percent. But longtime Owls coach Wayne Graham knows something about adversity. After all, he played on the 1964 Mets team that lost 109 games. And Graham knows something about success, too. He is just three wins shy of his 1,000th victory at Rice.
If the Owls are to reach the milestone this season, it will be with their pitching. Their weekend starters — righties Austin Kubitza, John Simms and Jordan Stephens — sport identical 8-4 records and sub-3.00 ERAs. Closer Zech Lemond (7-1, 1.5 ERA, 14 SV) frequently finishes what they start. Outfielders Michael Aquino and (.312, 8 HR, 42 RBIs) and Michael Ratterree (.270, 9 HR, 41 RBI) highlight the Owls' offense.
A pair of players to watch: Want to get a glimpse of next year's first overall pick? Take a look at Rodon, who definitely will be in the discussion for the honor. Heck, he would have been in the discussion this year had he been eligible. ... The 6-foot-5 Kubitza has a fastball with movement that touches 95 mph. It is complemented by a plus-slider that helped him rack up 126 strikeouts in 102 1/3 innings pitched.
And the winner is: North Carolina State. With Rodon leading the way, the Wolfpack is ready for a breakthrough.
UCLA (42-17) at No. 5 Cal State Fullerton (51-8)
The matchup: Cal State Fullerton posted a 5-2 win over UCLA three weeks ago, but it was a midweek game with both teams resting their front-line pitching resting for the weekend.
Those formidable starting rotations will finally face off this weekend. UCLA righties Adam Plutko (8-3, 2.51 ERA) and Nick Vander Tuig (11-4, 2.51 ERA) and lefty Grant Watson (8-3, 3.22 ERA) head a staff that has compiled a 2.75 team ERA. Fullerton's staff has a 2.47 ERA, led by freshmen Thomas Eschelman (12-2, 1.59 ERA, 78 SO/2 BB in 102.7 IP) and Justin Garza (12-0, 1.92 ERA) and sophomore Grahamm Wiest (9-3, 3.27 ERA), all righthanders.
UCLA's offense is a concern, with a .252 team batting average that has produced fewer than five runs a game. Shortstop Pat Valaika (.260, 5 HR, 42 RBIs) and third baseman Kevin Kramer (.285, 3 HR, 40 RBIs) are the home run leaders on a Bruins team that has totaled only 19 longballs for the season.
Fullerton's production has come throughout the lineup. The team's 35 home runs are spread among 10 players. The Titans have compiled a .285 team batting average with 74 stolen bases (opponents have only 18).
A pair of players to watch: Check out the teams' closers. UCLA righty David Berg (6-0, 0.81 ERA, 20 SV) has a sidearm delivery that was effective enough to earn him Pac-12 Player of the Year.
Fullerton has one of the top two-way players in the nation in junior outfielder/pitcher Michael Lorenzen (.335, 7 HR, 53 RBI, 12 SB/3-0, 1.99 ERA, 19 SV), who sometimes comes in from centerfield to close out opponents.
And the winner is: Cal State Fullerton. This is the fourth postseason meeting in seven years for the SoCal rivals. UCLA finally got the best of Fullerton in a 2010 Super Regional that propelled the Bruins to Omaha. These pitching staffs are pretty even, but give the edge to the Titans because of their more productive offense.
Oklahoma (43-19) at No. 4 LSU (55-9)
The matchup: If you have to go on the road in the regionals, it helps when you're shipped to a school hosting for the first time. That was the situation for Oklahoma, which was well positioned to win the Blacksburg Regional. Host Virginia Tech lost its opening game against No. 4 seed UConn, paving the way for the Sooners to sail through into the supers. Oklahoma junior righty Jonathan Gray (10-2, 1.59) is the ace on a staff that includes Dillon Overton (9-2, 2.91 ERA). Matt Oberste (.376, 11 HR, 60 RBIs, 12 SB) is far and away the team's biggest run producer, followed by Hector Lorenzana (.279, 42 RBIs).
LSU has one of the nation's most balanced teams, demonstrated by how it ran away with the SEC West title, won the SEC Tournament and swept through the Baton Rouge Regional. The Tigers have a pretty good one-two punch in their rotation with Aaron Nola (11-0, 1.82 ERA) and Ryan Eades (8-1, 2.81 ERA), along with one of the nation's best closers in senior Chris Cotton (4-1, 1.29 ERA, 16 SV). They also possess one of the nation's top defensive teams and top offenses (.308), led by Mason Katz (.378, 15 HR, 68 RBIs), JaCoby Jones (.283, 5 HR, 29 RBIs, 12 SB) and freshman shortstop Alex Bregman (.385, 6 HR, 52 RBIs, 15 SB).
A pair of players to watch: Gray, who was taken by the Rockies with the third pick in the MLB draft, has a four-pitch mix highlighted by a fastball that touches triple digits. For the Tigers, Eades has good size, with room to fill out his 6-foot-3, 198-pound frame. He also has the talent — including a mid-90s fastball — and mound presence to go with it.
And the winner is: LSU. Go ahead and search for a weakness in the Tigers' lineup. We'll wait. LSU will be in Omaha before you find one.
NEXT: Saturday, Sunday, Monday matchups
Louisville (49-12) at No. 2 Vanderbilt (54-10)
The matchup: These teams have become regular postseason opponents, meeting for the third time in five years in the NCAA Tournament. Louisville hosted regionals in both 2009 (beating Vanderbilt in the regional final) and 2010 (when the Commodores won). This is the first Super Regional meeting between the teams. It's also the first time the Commodores have gotten Louisville on their turf. Vanderbilt beat the Cardinals 10-2 in a midseason meeting in Louisville. It was a season-high third straight loss for the Cardinals, who have gone 19-2 since. Vanderbilt has gone 18-4 over the same stretch.
Louisville has a solid 1-2 punch on the mound with Jeff Thompson (10-1, 2.06 ERA, 100 Ks in 96.1 IP) and Chad Green (10-3, 2.22 ERA). Vanderbilt counters with Kevin Ziomek (11-2, 1.92 ERA, 111 Ks in 112 1/3 IP) and the aforementioned Tyler Beede (14-0, 2.20 ERA, 101 Ks in 98 1/3 IP), who leads the nation in wins.
Two statistics stand out for the Cardinals — they outhit opponents .292 to .213 and outstole them 147 to 34. No fewer than 13 players had at least one stolen base, led by Adam Engel with 40. Third baseman Ty Young (.349, 4 HR, 57 RBIs), DH Jeff Gardner (.340, 9 HR, 43 RBIs, 26 SB) and outfielder Coco Johnson (.332, 8 HR, 50 RBIs, 21 SB) are the main run-producers.
Vanderbilt also has a big edge on opponents in hitting (.317 to .219) and stolen bases (132 to 40). Tony Kemp (.398, 33 RBIs, 32 SB) and Connor Harrell (.313, 12 HR, 66 RBIs) were both members of the CWS all-tournament team when the Commodores made it to Omaha two years ago. Senior outfielder Mike Yastrzemski (.322, 3 HR, 43 RBI), the grandson of Hall of Famer Carl Yastrzemski, and junior first baseman Conrad Gregor (.314, 3 HR, 47 RBI) also are CWS veterans.
A pair of players to watch: Dace Kime (5-1, 3.14 ERA, 79 SO in 66 IP) is third in the Cardinals' starting rotation, but he's first among the team's pro prospects. . . . Kemp, who was selected SEC Player of the Year, hits leadoff for Vanderbilt and is among the game's most disruptive players.
And the winner is: Vanderbilt. This is a very even matchup of similarly-constructed teams, but the Commodores have the edge in experience and the advantage of playing at home.
Indiana (46-14) at No. 7 Florida State (47-15)
The matchup: After dispatching Austin Peay to win the Bloomington Regional, Indiana coach Tracy Smith said: "It seems like everything, every game or every step we take, we are making history for Indiana baseball."
It's true. The Hoosiers are bidding for the school's first CWS appearance but must go through the Seminoles, who have made 21 trips to Omaha, more than every team except Texas (34), Miami (23), Arizona State (22) and USC (21). Then, again, Indiana has just as much to show for it as FSU, as neither school has won a national title.
Indiana is trying to act like it's been there before, or, at least, is on its way there. The Hoosiers' regional celebration did not end with players piled atop one another on the mound.
"The reason you didn't see a dog pile," said Smith, "it wasn't because the coaches said, 'We are not going to have a dog pile.' It's because these guys believe, and I keep saying it, they have a lot of baseball left to play."
Indiana catcher Kyle Schwarber (.372, 17 HR, 50 RBIs) is among the nation's home run leaders, matching the number of homers Indiana's talented pitching staff has given up. Aaron Slegers (9-1, 1.94 ERA) and Joey DeNato (9-2, 2.65 ERA) lead that staff. Florida State counters with Scott Sitz (10-1, 1.59 ERA) and Brandon Leibrandt (10-4, 3.44 ERA), among others.
A pair of players to watch: Sam Travis (.317, 9 HR, 51 RBI) earned Most Outstanding Player in both the Bloomington Regional and the Big Ten Tournament, going 14-for-26 (.538) with three homers, four doubles and 11 RBIs in seven postseason games. He has not struck out in 26 postseason at-bats. . . . Injuries and inexperience limited Florida State catcher Stephen McGee (.292, 9 HR, 51 RBI) to just 19 games his first two years, but he has started all 129 games the past two seasons.
And the winner: Florida State. The Seminoles have experience -- this is their sixth straight Super Regionals appearance -- and home-field advantage on their side and they roll into the series after outscoring regional opponents 32-4.
Mississippi State (46-18) at No. 6 Virginia (50-10)
The matchup: Mississippi State's season-opening 17-game winning streak came to an end against Central Arkansas, the same team that forced the Bulldogs to play a second game for the Starkville Regional title. Mississippi State avoided the indignity of falling to a No. 4 seed with a 6-1 win. The Bulldogs' experience — led offensively by Hunter Renfroe (.352, 15 HR, 58 RBIs, 9 SB), Wes Rea (.276, 6 HR, 35 RBIs) and Adam Frazier (.344, 33 RBIs, 7 SB) — made the difference. A pair of sophomore relievers, lefty Ross Mitchell (12-0, 1.41 ERA) and righty Jonathan Holder (2-0, 1.17 ERA, 17 SV), anchor the pitching staff.
Virginia reached the Super Regionals for the fourth time in five years, this time with a team that entered the season unranked. Questions surrounded the pitching staff, but newcomers like freshman lefty Brandon Waddell (6-2, 3.80 ERA) combined with veterans like juniors Kyle Crockett (4-1, 1.68 ERA, 12 SV) and Austin Young (5-0, 2.25 ERA) and senior Scott Silverstein (10-1, 2.93 ERA) to answer them emphatically. The Cavaliers rank among the nation's top hitting teams (.313), led by freshman Joe McCarthy and sophomores Mike Papi and Brandon Downes.
A pair of players to watch: Scouts took note of Renfroe's prodigious power, which is why he was a first-round draft pick. He still needs to make contact more often. But his raw power, combined with a strong arm and good speed, is noteworthy. ... Crockett packages a low-90s fastball with a solid slider and outstanding command.
And the winner is: Virginia. Mississippi State struggled to get this far and the Cavaliers should use their experience and balance to reach the CWS for the third time in five years.
Kansas State (44-17) at No. 3 Oregon State (48-10)
The matchup: Kansas State is another newcomer to the Super Regionals, after ousting Arkansas in the Manhattan Regional to advance for the first time. The Wildcats set a school record for victories with the win. Kansas State's strength is up the middle with shortstop Austin Fisher (.363, 2 HR, 37 RBIs), second baseman Ross Kivett (.363, 3 HR, 39 RBIs) and centerfielder Jared King (.327, 6, HR, 51 RBIs). The Wildcats' starting pitching has been a bit suspect. They needed bullpen mainstays Jake Matthys (8-1, 1.96 ERA, 9 SV), Nate Williams (4-3, 2.98 ERA) and Gerardo Esquivel (2-2, 4.39 ERA) to bail them out with 7 1/3 innings of relief in the 4-3 regionals-clinching win over Arkansas.
Oregon State's pitching staff, which features the nation's second-best ERA at 2.15, sets the Beavers apart. They knew what they had with senior Matt Boyd (10-3, 2.20) and junior Ben Wetzel (8-1, 1.98), but freshman Andrew Moore (13-1, 1.22 ERA) has been a pleasant surprise. A deep bullpen is led by Scott Schultz (2-1, 2.09, 10 SV) and Max Engelbrekt (5-1, 1.32 ERA, 5 SV). Tyler Smith (.301, 2 HR, 24 RBIs, 9 SB), Michael Conforto (.326, 9 HR, 42 RBIs, 6 SB) and Dylan Davis (.349, 4 HR, 55 RBIs, 9 SB) pace the offense.
A pair of players to watch: King is a switch-hitter who hits for power and average and uses his speed effectively on defense. ... Moore doesn't have an overpowering fastball (it tops out in the low 90s). But he has an outstanding slider and a good curveball and change-up, giving him a tough four-pitch mix.
And the winner is: Oregon State. This is the most balanced Beavers team since the 2006 and '07 clubs claimed back-to-back CWS crowns.
Kirk Kenney is a freelance writer from San Diego who has covered college baseball since the early 1980s, when the Road to Omaha was still being paved.