The 64-team NCAA baseball tournament, featuring 16 four-team regionals, begins this Friday. The winners of those pods will advance to the eight Super Regionals that will be played the first full weekend in June, and the College World Series starts on June 14.
Here are five things to look for as the Road To Omaha begins.
1. Can the ACC end its drought?
The Atlantic Coast Conference has not won a national championship since Wake Forest did so in 1955. Last year the conference had five No. 1 seeds and sent two teams (North Carolina and N.C. State) to the College World Series and still ended the season without a title for the 58th straight year. This year, a trio of league members have secured top seeds: Florida State, Miami and Virginia.
The Seminoles, the fifth overall seed, should be able to get to the Super Regionals, where a likely matchup with Louisville, which as of next year will be an ACC member, would await. The Hurricanes are hosting a regional but are set up for a potential Super Regional showdown with No. 2 overall seed Florida, meaning it will take an upset for them to reach Omaha.
The Cavaliers, the No. 3 seed overall, might have the clearest path to the CWS. If they can get past Arkansas, Liberty and Bucknell in Charlottesville this weekend, an intriguing matchup is likely to stand between them and a trip to Nebraska: either 2010 and '11 national champ South Carolina, a long-ago ACC member that has frequent traveler points to Omaha, or Maryland, which is competing in its first NCAA tournament sine 1971 and is in its last season as a member of the ACC.
2. Ones to know
In addition to Florida State and Virginia, the other national seeds are Oregon State (No. 1), Florida (No. 2), Indiana (No. 4), Louisiana-Lafayette (No. 6), TCU (NO. 7) and LSU (No. 8). The most intriguing of those are the Beavers and Ragin' Cajuns.
Oregon State, which won back-to-back national titles in 2006 and '07, is bidding to become the first three-time champion in this century. It is already the only team from the Pacific Northwest to win a national championship and it has become a fixture in Omaha recently, making it back last year for the fourth time in nine seasons. This year's team is favored to return, thanks in large measure to ace lefthander Ben Wetzler (11-1, 0.76 ERA) and outfielder Michael Conforto (.364/.518/.578).
Louisiana-Lafayette, meanwhile, has the best record in the nation at 53-7 and is ranked No. 1 by Baseball America. In contrast to the small-ball approach favored by many teams around the nation, the Ragin' Cajuns aren't afraid to try and pound opponents into submission. They boast a .500 slugging percentage as a team and their lineup features eight batters who hit over .300, including outfielder Caleb Adams, who is hitting .386/.504/.711 with a team-high 11 home runs.
3. Do you believe in miracles?
Long Island-based Stony Brook woke the nation up to college baseball in the Northeast two years ago, advancing to the College World Series by pulling one upset after another. A potential sleeper in this year's bracket also comes from the Empire State: the Ivy League champion Columbia Lions, who are the No. 3 seed in the Coral Gables Regional. Columbia is a pesky-hitting team that rarely strikes out, runs the bases aggressively and plays great defense. In Friday night starter David Speer (7-2, 1.86 ERA, seven walks in 87 innings) the Lions have a polished lefthander who won't be overwhelmed pitching the opening game against No. 2 seed Texas Tech. Columbia took its lumps when it traveled to Texas earlier this year, but that experience against big-time competition eliminates the awe that most Ivy League teams feel when they make their way to a regional.
4. Two-way heroes
One of the fun things about the college game are two-way players, and this year's NCAA tournament field features one the best pitcher/hitters in recent memory in Kentucky's A.J. Reed, a 6-foot-4, 240-pound lefthander who is 11-2 with a 2.10 ERA on the mound and a .351 hitter with 23 home runs and 70 RBIs at the plate. He is considered by many scouts to be the best two-way player since John Olerud, who starred at Washington State in the late 1980s before playing 17 seasons as a first baseman in the majors. Reed not only leads the nation in home runs, he's hit more than 193 Division I teams.
Reed is not the only two-way player to watch in this year's tournament, however. Virginia's Nick Howard is a career .300 hitter who is also the nation's most dominant closer. Howard has 18 saves this season and has struck out 50 in 28⅓ innings, while allowing opponents to hit just .180 against him.
5. Shortened games
The powerhouse teams in the ACC and SEC have done an incredible job of convincing pitchers with great arms to join their programs and pitch out of the bullpen. It's not unusual to see coaches mixing and matching in big games, beginning in the fifth and six innings. A team like South Carolina, for example, has six relief pitchers with ERAs under 2.15. Righthander Joel Seddon has made 25 appearances out of the 'pen, pitching 42⅓ innings and posting a 0.85 ERA. Diminutive righthander Cody Mincey has appeared in 28 games for the Gamecocks, going 5-0 with a 1.04 ERA. South Carolina stumbled down the stretch, losing three of its last four, but is a heavy favorite to advance to the Super Regionals, and a likely matchup with Virginia.