National seedings, new CWS home help spice NCAA baseball tourney

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1. National seeds don't always equate to national titles. Seeding of the 64 teams in the NCAA tournament begins with selection of the top eight national seeds -- theoretically the top eight teams in the nation -- which are bracketed in such a way they would only meet in the College World Series. Several of the usual suspects are in line this season for one of the coveted national seeds, which bring with them the probability of hosting a regional and/or Super Regional. Defending national champion South Carolina (45-14) as well as former champions Texas (43-15) and Rice (41-19) were expected to receive national seeds. So were perennial powers Florida (45-16) and Florida State (42-17), which, like South Carolina, reached the CWS last season. Virginia (49-9), which made its only CWS appearance in 2009, and Vanderbilt (47-10), bidding for its first trip to the CWS, are the most notable upstarts in the mix. Will a national champion emerge from among those eight teams? Perhaps. But recent history suggests otherwise. LSU, seeded No. 3 in 2009, is the only top-eight national seed to take the title in the past seven years. Pitching-rich teams like UCLA (33-21) and Cal State Fullerton (39-15) could get into the mix with a few timely hits. Of course, this year's champion could be playing below the radar right now. Fresno State proved that in 2008, when it (as a No. 4 seed in its regional, which equates at best to the No. 49 overall seed) became the lowest-ranked team in any sport to win an NCAA championship.

2. Plenty of eyes on the top players. Pitchers are expected to dominate the first round of this year's major league draft and several of them -- along with the nation's top hitter -- will be playing in the NCAA tournament. Plenty of eyes will be on Rice junior third baseman Anthony Rendon (.327, 6 HRs, 35 RBIs), who has been limited to DH much of the season because of a shoulder injury. During the recent Conference USA tournament, he played second base to get him back on the field without stressing his shoulder. Rendon hit 26 home runs last season, but hasn't had a chance to approach that number this year because of the injury and a nation-leading 78 walks.

Like Rendon, TCU sophomore lefthander Matt Purke (5-1, 1.51 ERA, 55 SO/18 BB in 47.2 IP) has struggled with his health this season. Shoulder woes have limited him to 10 starts and he was on a strict pitch count at last week's Mountain West Conference tournament. Purke's fastball was clocked in the low 90s in a game against New Mexico and he has obviously still been dominant, but the Horned Frogs are hoping to again see the pitcher who went 16-0 last season and led them to their first CWS appearance. UCLA junior righthanders Trevor Bauer (12-2, 1.27, 189/34 in 127.2 IP) and Gerrit Cole (6-7, 3.28, 108/23 in 107 IP) pitched the Bruins into the national championship series against South Carolina last year. Bauer, who leads the nation in strikeouts for the second straight year, has had a statistically superior season. Cole has a fastball that flirts with triple digits, however, and can be every bit as dominating. Virginia junior left-hander/first baseman Danny Hultzen (10-3, 1.59, 136 SO/16 BB in 96.1 IP/.305, 1 HR, 29 RBIs) is a two-way star who will focus on his pitching as a professional. In the meantime, the Cavaliers appreciate his presence at the top of their rotation and his bat in the middle of their lineup. Texas right-hander Taylor Jungmann (13-0, 0.95, 116/27 in 122.2 IP) is hoping to lead the Longhorns to a record 34th CWS appearance.

3. Bat restrictions telling a tale. All the talk during the offseason centered on bat restrictions that some coaches cautioned would give too much advantage to the pitchers. The complaints subsided after the season's first pitch, but the bats have put hitters in a hole. Midseason trends released by the NCAA do indicate that offense is down compared to last season, so it bears watching in postseason play. Batting averages have gone from .301 to .279 and ERA from 5.83 to 4.62. Scoring per game has dropped from 6.98 to 5.63 and home runs from 0.85 to 0.47. In addition, shutouts were up 60 percent. More than anything, the change seems to have restored some balance. Purists have enjoyed seeing scores that don't reach into double digits. One other noticeable difference is the aluminum bat "ping" associated with the college game has been muted, with many new bats producing more of a "thwack". The ball still seems to come off the bat the same, but it doesn't have the same carry. Observers will note outfielders playing more shallow than they did before.

4. Can the ACC make it to the top? The ACC will always be known as a basketball conference, but it has been building its reputation in baseball for nearly a decade. Now, if one of its members could only win a national title. It hasn't happened since Wake Forest won in 1955, although North Carolina finished runner-up in 2006 and 2007. There will be plenty of ACC teams carrying the flag again this year, as seven teams are expected to receive tournament bids. Only the SEC, which expects eight invitations, should surpass that. Five of the conference's schools -- Clemson, Florida State, Georgia Tech, North Carolina and Virginia -- were announced Sunday as host sites for regionals. The SEC (Florida, South Carolina and Vanderbilt) and the Pac-10 (Arizona State, Oregon State and UCLA) were the only other conferences with as many as three host schools. Hosting provides a leg up on the competition. Host schools have won their regionals 70 percent of the time since the field was expanded to 64 teams in 1999.

5. There's a new home for the CWS. The road to the College World Series still leads to Omaha, but it takes a turn downtown. The lights were dimmed on 63-year-old Rosenblatt Stadium after last year's final out and the stadium has been replaced by the $131 million TD Ameritrade Park. There will be noticeable differences inside and out. For fans attending the series, modern amenities such as open concourses and more legroom between rows of seats and will be appreciated. Higher prices and tailgating restrictions, not so much. For viewers, the field will look pretty much the same (although it has been turned 90 degrees clockwise). The biggest difference -- how the park plays -- remains to be seen. The Missouri Valley Conference tournament was hosted at the new venue this past week and scores were down nearly two runs per game compared to last year's CWS at Rosenblatt. But that's not much of a survey set. This much we know: Rosenblatt sat on a hill and when the wind blew out, the ball flew out. TD Ameritrade Park's downtown location could make quite a difference in that regard. Regardless, it will take some time before the new ballpark approaches the reverence of Rosenblatt. A few unforgettable moments this year would go a long way.