The NCAA baseball tournament is down to 16 teams. Jeff Bradley previews what to watch for in all eight matchups with berths in the College World Series on the line.
After a wild weekend of college baseball regional tournament play, the Super Regionals—Division I Baseball’s Sweet 16—is set to begin Friday and Saturday.
While seven of the eight national seeds advanced last weekend, the No. 1 national seed, UCLA, did not. The Bruins were upset by Maryland, earning the Terrapins the right to travel east to play former ACC rival Virginia in Charlottesville.
The Maryland-Virginia series is just one of several geographically-intensified matchups on tap for this weekend. There’s also Florida hosting Florida State, LSU hosting Louisiana-Lafayette and Texas A&M hosting TCU.
There are other compelling storylines to follow as well. Reigning national champion Vanderbilt is still alive in its bid to join Oregon State (2006, '07) and South Carolina 2010, '11) as back-to-back champs in the past 10 years. And Virginia Commonwealth, the tournament's biggest remaining Cinderella, will try to secure a most unlikely College World Series visit.
The eight winners of the best-of-three series advance to TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha for the College World Series, which begins June 13.
Here’s a look at the matchups in the Super Regionals
Maryland at Virginia
How They Got Here: Won the Los Angeles Regional as a No. 3 seed, upsetting No. 1 national seed UCLA, to earn a ticket back east.
Why They’ll Advance to Omaha: The Terrapins average over six runs per game with a nice combination of speed and power, having hit 52 home runs and stolen 60 bases. Maryland’s best player this season has been second baseman Brandon Lowe (.333 batting average, 9 home runs, 53 RBIs), but their depth of talent was on display last weekend, when junior centerfielder Lamont Wade won Most Outstanding Player honors at the regionals, and three others—freshman righthander Taylor Bloom, junior outfielder Anthony Papio and junior catcher Kevin Martir—were all named to the all-tournament team.
Why They Won’t: The Terrapins have a young, largely untested starting staff beyond sophomore ace Mike Shawaryn.
How They Got Here: Won the Lake Elsinore (Calif.) Regional as a No. 3 seed, beating USC twice and San Diego State once.
Why They’ll Advance to Omaha: They’ve been here before, and came within a game of winning the CWS a year ago, so that experience could be huge. Righthander Connor Jones (6-2, 2.90) has filled in capably for injured ace Nathan Kirby while Josh Sborz, one of the nation's best closers, has also proven he can dominate as a spot starter in the Wahoos need him to step in for a decisive Game 3.
Why They Won’t: Offensively,Virginia is led by catcher Matt Thaiss (.324/.413/.529, 9 HR) and shortstop Daniel Pinero (.311/.415/.440, 6 HR), but the Cavs are far from an offensive juggernaut, hitting .273 as a team with 32 home runs.
No. 8 Missouri State at Arkansas
How They Got Here: Swept through the Stillwater Regional as the No. 2 seed, beating Oral Roberts, Oklahoma State and St. John’s.
Why They’ll Advance to Omaha: The Razorbacks get a huge break, hosting the Super Regional because of a scheduling conflict with the minor league team in Springfield, Mo. Beating Arkansas would have been difficult for Missouri State at home. Beating the Razorbacks in Fayetteville? Unlikely. Arkansas also has the best hitter in the series in sophomore outfielder Andrew Benintendi, who enters the week hitting .390 with 18 home runs and a .723 slugging percentage.
Why They Won’t: The Razorbacks have a powerful righthanded closer in Zach Jackson, who combines a high 90s fastball with a 12-6 curveball and just the right amount wildness to make him one of the most uncomfortable pitchers to face in college baseball. Jackson has struck out 80 batters in just 52 innings and proved dominant in Stillwater. But giving Jackson a lead could prove difficult as Arkansas’ starting staff is not overpowering.
Missouri State Bears
How They Got Here: Missouri State took down Canisius and Iowa twice to win the regional it hosted in Springfield.
Why They’ll Advance to Omaha: The Missouri Valley Conference champions are built on pitching and have great arms throughout their rotation with John Harris, Matt Hall and Jordan Knutson. Pitching is the reason why the Bears have lost only 10 games this season and enter the week on a 19-game winning streak.
Why They Won’t: Scoring runs could be an issue. Missouri State’s most potent bat may belong to Tate Matheny, son of Cardinals manager Mike Matheny, who’s hitting .291 with five homers.
VCU at No. 5 Miami
Virginia Commonwealth Rams
How They Got Here: The Rams emerged from the Dallas Regional, getting by highly-touted Dallas Baptist and becoming the fifth No. 4 seed all-time to advance to the Super Regionals.
Why They’ll Advance to Omaha: The Rams are led by a veteran staff, with two senior lefthanders in Heath Dwyer and Jo Jo Howie, and senior righthander Matt Blanchard. They won 11 straight before the regionals, allowing no more than three runs in any of the games.
Why They Won’t: VCU does not boast much power, with only 27 home runs for the year. If Miami puts runs on the board, the Rams just may not have enough bats to respond.
How They Got Here: The Hurricane’s won the regional they hosted, but not without a brief scare. They were shut out by Columbia to force a winner-take-all final, which they won 21-3.
Why They’ll Advance to Omaha: The Hurricanes have hit 61 home runs this season and are hitting .314 as a team. They are led by third baseman David Thompson, who leads the nation with 19 home runs, but their lineup runs deep with six batters who are hitting .296 or better in at least 200 at-bats. The Canes also have speed at the top of the order with Ricky Eusebio and George Iskenderian, who have 19 and 25 stolen bases, respectively.
Why They Won’t: The only thing that can take Miami down is overconfidence.
Florida St. at No. 4 Florida
Florida State Seminoles
How They Got Here: Advanced out of the regional they hosted in Tallahassee, beating Mercer and the College of Charleston (twice).
Why They’ll Advance to Omaha: The Seminoles have a .390 team on base percentage, including five starters who get on base more than 40% of the time, and six hitters with at least seven home runs.
Why They Won’t: In a short series, the ‘Noles may simply strike out too much. They’ve fanned 538 times as a team and are about to run into some big Florida arms.
How They Got Here: Won the regional they hosted in Gainesville, taking down in-state rivals Florida A&M, South Florida and Florida Atlantic.
Why They’ll Advance to Omaha: Arms, arms and more arms. The Game 1-2 starters are Logan Shore (who has allowed opponents to hit just .229 against him) and A.J. Puk (93 strikeouts in 68 ⅔ innings). And their bullpen features closer Taylor Lewis (6-1, 1.27) and setup man Kirby Snead (30 strikeouts in 31 innings).
Why They Won’t: On paper, the Gators are better. But rivalry matchups can be unpredictable.
OTHER SIDE OF BRACKET
Louisiana-Lafayette at No. 2 LSU
Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin' Cajuns
How They Got Here: Advanced as the No. 3 seed out of the Houston Regional, beating Rice, Houston and Rice again, advancing to the Super Regionals for the second straight year.
Why They’ll Advance to Omaha: The Ragin’ Cajuns have one of the nation’s most complete hitters in second baseman Stefan Trosclair (.343/ 16 HR/ 53 RBIs) who embodies what UL-L baseball is all about. That is to say, this is a program that likes to recruit hitters and let them hit.
Why They Won’t: Their pitching staff is young with freshman Gunner Leger and Wyatt Marks likely to get the ball in Baton Rouge. A tall order for kids making their first postseason journey.
How They Got Here: Swept through the regional they hosted, beating Lehigh and UNC-Wilmington twice.
Why They’ll Advance to Omaha: The Tigers could be college baseball’s most well-rounded club. They are batting .319 as a team while their opponents are hitting just .228. They are well-balanced, with four regulars (Andrew Stevenson, Chris Chinea, Conner Hale and Kade Scivicque) hitting over .345 and not a single hitter with 40 strikeouts. They’ve also stolen 123 bases. On the mound Alex Lange (11-0) and Jared Poche’ (8-1) are formidable 1-2 starters.
Why They Won’t: The only thing that can stop LSU is the weight of expectations. They come into this Super Regional ranked No. 1 in the nation and are 31-6 at home this year.
Texas A&M at No. 7 TCU
TCU Horned Frogs
How They Got Here: Advanced out of the regional they hosted, coming from seven runs down to beat North Carolina State 9-8 in 10 innings in the do-or-die final game on Monday.
Why They’ll Advance to Omaha: The Horned Frogs are loaded with pitching. Preston Morrison (11-2, 2.60) and lefty Alex Young (9-2, 2.39) are likely to start games 1-2 against A&M. That’s if they push 6'7" righthander Mitchell Traver (8-2, 1.70) back in the rotation. The Frogs' bullpen features closer Riley Ferrell (14 saves, 45 Ks in 28 ⅓ IP).
Why They Won’t: Offensively, the Horned Frogs don’t have a lot of power. They’ve hit only 26 home runs as a team and slug only .377. They’re going to need lights out pitching to win.
Texas A&M Aggies
How They Got Here: Advanced out of the regional they hosted, coming from out of the loser’s bracket to defeat Cal twice.
Why They’ll Advance to Omaha: The Aggies can crush. They’ve hit 68 home runs as a team and have five hitters (Mitchell Nah, Nick Banks, Logan Taylor, Blake Allemand and Ronnie Gideon) who slug over .500. It’s Big Boy Baseball, personified.
Why They Won’t: Texas A&M will live or die with how it swings the bats. And TCU might have the arms to shut the Aggies down over two or three games.
Vanderbilt at No. 6 Illinois
How They Got Here: The Commodores won the regional they hosted, winning three straight, beating Lipscomb, Indiana and Radford.
Why They’ll Advance to Omaha: Vandy is the defending national champions and has big league prospects at virtually every position. Shortstop Dansby Swanson is playing like a man who’s not only projecting to go No. 1 overall in the MLB draft, but one who wants to go out with another ring.
Why They Won’t: A few slip-ups during the regular season means the Commodores' road to Omaha goes through an Illinois team that’s 25-2 at home.
Illinois Fighting Illini
How They Got Here: Advanced out of the regional they hosted in three games, beating Ohio, Notre Dame and Wright State.
Why They’ll Advance to Omaha: Lefthanded closer Tyler Jay is projected by some to be the No. 1 overall pick in the draft next week. He has struck out 70 while walking seven this season. Starters Kevin Duchene and Drasen Johnson are a combined 21-4. Offensively, the Illini are led by senior first baseman David Kerian (.376 / 15 HR / 52 RBI), who is backed up by six more hitters who are batting over .290.
Why They Won’t: Because they’re playing Vandy.
Cal State Fullerton at No. 3 Louisville
Cal State Fullerton Titans
How They Got Here: Advanced out of the regional they hosted in three straight games, beating Arizona State and Pepperdine (twice).
Why They’ll Advance to Omaha: Junior righthander Thomas Eshelman is fully capable of winning Game 1 on his own. He’s struck out 125 and walked six in 123 ⅓ innings this season. Opponents bat just over .200 against him. If he can set the stage with a win, the Titans could be on their way.
Why They Won’t: Louisville is built on pitching and Fullerton doesn’t hit much. The Titans hit .266 as a team with only 18 home runs (eight by Davi Olmedo-Barrera). They have 64 sacrifice bunts to go along with 65 steals, so they’re small ball all the way. They can advance only if they pitch lights out.
How They Got Here: The Cardinals advanced out of the regional they hosted, beating Morehead State and Michigan (twice).
Why They’ll Advance to Omaha: Righthander Kyle Funkhouser is an ace, despite numbers that were underwhelming this season (8-5, 3.25 ERA). If Funkhouser can win the big Game 1 matchup with Eshelman, second starter Brendan McKay (8-3, 1.71) will be ready to close the series out in short order.
Why They Won’t: Cal State Fullerton will likely pitch around Corey Ray (.327 / 11 HR / 53 RBI) and take their chances with everyone else in the Cardinal lineup. It will be imperative for table setters Sutton Whiting and Nick Solak to get on base in front of Ray and force the Titans' hand. If Fullerton can take care of the top of Louisville’s order, an upset could be in the making.