NCAA Baseball Tournament Preview
The Florida Gators earned the top overall seed in the 2016 NCAA Tournament after finishing with the best RPI and reaching the SEC Championship in Hoover last weekend. They feature a balanced offense, where all nine starters bat at least .260 and an elite bullpen anchored by Shaun Anderson who has only given up 5 runs in 41.1 innings. They could see a dangerous two seed in the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets, who boast ten top 25 wins led by one of the best outfields in the country. The Connecticut Huskies come in hot having won 13 of 14 and winning the AAC Tournament. The Bethune-Cookman Wildcats are the four seed after upsetting Florida A&M in the MEAC Tournament, but they are in way over their heads here. This is certainly an intriguing regional with UConn coming in hot, and Georgia Tech having their share of big wins, but Florida is the most talented team here, and it would be a surprise if they didn’t advance.
The Florida St Seminoles locked up a hosting bid by beating Miami and NC State to advance to the ACC Championship in Durham. They have an impressive .405 OPS as a team, but will need to have improved starting pitching to make a run. The Southern Miss Golden Eagles were very close to hosting after winning 40 games and the C-USA Tournament, but instead will travel to the Sunshine State. The Golden Eagles have a solid ace in Kirk McCarty, but will need to find consistency in the rotation behind him. They will first meet the South Alabama Jaguars who beat USM twice early this season. The Alabama St Hornets are the only team in the country with a perfect conference record, going 24-0 in the SWAC, but the only NCAA Tournament opponent they faced was South Alabama, who they split a pair of games with. This is probably the favorite for the highest scoring regional, and I like Southern Miss to come out of it as long as their pitching can hold up.
Baton Rouge Regional
The #RallyPossum propelled the LSU Tigers to a hot finish and the final national seed. They proved they can beat anyone in the country with a series win over Florida and wins over Florida and Mississippi St in Hoover. They appear to have a pretty favorable draw as both the Rice Owls and the Southeastern Louisiana Lions enter the tournament pretty cold. Rice has lost 8 of their last 12 games, and SELA lost series to New Orleans and Central Arkansas to close out the regular season. The Utah Valley Wolverines will join them in Baton Rouge, after winning the WAC Tournament for their first NCAA Tournament appearance. LSU is certainly the hottest team in this regional, and with the home field advantage of baseball’s Death Valley, it’s hard to imagine them getting knocked off here.
It was certainly a great weekend in Raleigh, with the North Carolina St Wolfpack being selected to host, and their bitter rivals North Carolina being left out of the tournament entirely. NC State certainly deserved the one seed with a top ten RPI and 19 top 50 wins, but got a tough draw with the Coastal Carolina Chanticleers. The Big South champs have the best RPI of any non-host at 12, and have an elite pitching staff led by ace Andrew Beckwith (1.79 ERA) and closer Mike Morrison (0.87). Coastal first has a date with the WCC Tournament champion St Mary’s Gaels, who are in their first NCAA Tournament. The Gaels cooled off down the stretch, but had an impressive week in Stockton, beating Gonzaga twice. The Navy Midshipmen are certainly the underdogs here, but have excellent starting pitching, and could very well pull off an upset. This looks like the toughest regional to pick. St Mary’s has the talent to advance, but the travel from the Bay Area to Raleigh makes it tough to pick them. NC State and Coastal Carolina are very evenly matched, but I lean towards Coastal because of their pitching.
The Texas Tech Red Raiders have the distinction of being the only national seed outside of the SEC and ACC. They dominated the Big 12 all season, winning 19 of 24 conference games, including series wins on the road at both Oklahoma St and TCU. They have the best pitching in the regional to pair with a solid lineup led by star first baseman Eric Gutierrez. The Missouri Valley champion Dallas Baptist Patriots earned the two seed here, and have a solid rotation led by Colin Poche and Darick Hall who are a combined 17-3 on the season. The New Mexico Lobos won the MWC Tournament, and most likely needed the win to enter the field of 64. They struggled against the other teams in the regional, losing 2 of 3 to Texas Tech and getting swept by Dallas Baptist. The Fairfield Stags have quite the road trip traveling from Connecticut to West Texas. They’re led by the hard hitting Jake Salpietro, but lack the depth of the other teams in this regional. Texas Tech is probably the most under the radar national seed, but they are consistent and well rounded. They shouldn’t have too many problems at home here.
You can tell it is officially springtime when the Virginia Cavaliers start to heat up again. The defending champs won their last five series to earn a host spot, and are led by two of the hottest pitchers in the country in Adam Haseley and Tyler Shambora. The East Carolina Pirates already won a series in Charlottesville, but will need to rebound after losing a late series to South Florida and going two and out in the AAC Tournament. The Bryant Bulldogs are very interesting team who jumped on the national radar with an incredible 47-10 record. However, they only played one at large team, and got thumped 16-2 by UC Santa Barbara. We’ll see how they handle the step up in competition. The William & Mary Tribe are one of the most unlikely tournament teams. After losing the first game of their conference tournament, the Tribe looked to be finished when they went down 8 runs in the ninth inning against top 25 mainstay UNC-Wilmington. However, an 8 run inning led to a 12 inning win, propelling William & Mary into the NCAA Tournament. Given their recent history and hot run down the stretch, it’s difficult to imagine Virginia not coming out of this regional.
Fort Worth Regional
The TCU Horned Frogs made their statement to host by winning the Big 12 Tournament in a thriller over West Virginia. They have one of the most talented players in the country in Luken Baker, who has a 1.70 ERA in ten starts, and bats .376 while playing DH on his off days. The Arizona State Sun Devils played very well in the nonconference, sweeping tournament teams New Mexico, Cal St Fullerton and Xavier, but couldn’t find any consistency in conference. They’ll look to rebound from an ugly loss to USC where they gave up 31 runs in the regular-season finale. The Gonzaga Bulldogs made their case to be the best team in the west, winning a share of the WCC and going 7-1 against the Pac-12. The Oral Roberts Golden Eagles are arguably the most dangerous four seed in the tournament, and proved it with a series win at Dallas Baptist and a two game sweep at Oklahoma St. They play well on the road, and won’t be intimidated. This is perhaps the only regional where I feel that all four teams have a genuine shot at advancing. However, the safe bet is TCU as they have more offensive firepower than the other 3 teams.
College Station Regional
The Texas A&M Aggies have been a staple in the top five all year, and are as talented as any team in the country. They have arguably the best infield in the country led by Boomer White, Austin Homan and Hunter Melton, as well as a pitcher in Kyle Simonds, who no hit Vanderbilt. The Minnesota Golden Gophers are one of the best stories of the season, as they rallied to win the Big Ten as pitching coach Todd Oakes battled cancer. However, the Gophers feel like a real reach as a 2 seed as they didn’t win a series against any NCAA Tournament teams. The Wake Forest Demon Deacons are one of 10 ACC teams in the field, and cemented their place with wins over Duke and Virginia in Durham. Wake can hit with anyone, especially when 3B Will Craig gets going, but their pitching was very inconsistent all year. The Binghamton Bearcats shook off a 2-13 start to finish 30-23 and win the America East. This is definitely Texas A&M’s regional to lose, as they are just much more balanced and deep than the other 3 teams here.
The Louisville Cardinals have been possibly the most consistent team all season, and are the only team nationally in the top ten for both batting average and ERA. They also have the advantage of playing at home, where they are 33-1 on the year. The Ohio St Buckeyes ride a hot finish complete with a Big Ten Tournament title into the NCAA. They have a dynamic offense, but will need much better pitching, especially out of the bullpen. The Wright St Raiders are back in the NCAA Tournament after once again dominating the Horizon League, going 23-6. They took care of business in conference, but were easily beat in their two series against top 50 opponents against NC State and Georgia. The Western Michigan Broncos struggled for most of the season, finishing 22-32, but stunned the heavily favored Kent St in the MAC Tournament. They can score runs, but their pitching isn’t nearly at the level to compete with the other three teams. This appears to be the easiest regional to pick. Louisville is deep and talented, and has been dominant at home against far tougher opponents. It would be a major surprise if they got knocked out at this stage.
Tim Corbin’s Vanderbilt Commodores finished as national runners up last year, and won the title the season before. They’ve reloaded every year, and feature one of the best rotations in the country along with a balanced lineup. They also have more big game experience than any other team in the tournament. The Washington Huskies had a chance to win the Pac-12 in their final series, but consecutive losses to Utah gave the title to the Utes. Washington is still a tough opponent with the ability to play up or down to their competition, shown by wins over Arizona, Arizona St and St Mary’s, and losses to Washington St and UC Riverside. The UC Santa Barbara Gauchos looked to be the team to beat out west for most of the season, but faltered down the stretch to finish third in the Big West. They have a gritty team that never lit up the scorebooks, but find ways to win. The Xavier Musketeers are no stranger to Nashville, as they lost to Vanderbilt in the 2014 Tournament and got swept there earlier this season. They enter the field largely due to their 4-1 mark against Creighton. Vanderbilt is a very consistent and well coached team, and seemed to get a favorable draw with two west coast schools traveling to Tennessee. They’re heavy favorites at home here.
Monte Lee’s first season managing the Clemson Tigers has been a phenomenal one, as they earned a national seed off of an ACC Tournament championship. Their lineup features the best freshman in the country in Seth Beer, whose .372 average and 63 RBIs certainly make opponents want to drink. The Oklahoma St Cowboys have been a mainstay in the top 25 all season, and are led by a very solid middle infield of Donnie Walton and JR Davis. The Cowboys will first meet up with their old Big Eight opponent, the Nebraska Cornhuskers. The Huskers were very hot down the stretch, winning their last five series before crashing and burning in Omaha at the Big Ten Tournament. Finally, the Western Carolina Catamounts qualified after upsetting Mercer to win the SoCon Tournament. This is a tough regional with Oklahoma St certainly capable of advancing, but given Clemson’s hot streak and home field advantage, the Tigers are the safe pick.
Chad Holbrook’s South Carolina Gamecocks have been one of the best turnarounds from last season. They have quality pitching and one of the best pure hitters in the country in Gene Cone. Making a short drive down the coast are the UNC Wilmington Seahawks, one of six teams to qualify from the state of North Carolina. They have a very solid lineup featuring Brian Mims, a power hitting second baseman which is very rare. The Duke Blue Devils are in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1961 after impressive series wins against Florida St, Clemson and Georgia Tech. The Rhode Island Rams round out the regional, and do have a legit ace in Tyler Wilson, who is 12-1 on the year. While Duke and Rhode Island definitely could win a game or two, I think this regional comes down to the Gamecocks and Seahawks. I lean towards Wilmington because I think their offense is slightly better.
Coral Gables Regional
The Miami Hurricanes look to make it back to back Omaha trips, and certainly have the talent to do so. Jim Morris has led this team to a 45 win season, with an incredible 19 of those coming against the top 25. They have the best catcher in the country in Zack Collins, who has a .540 on base percentage. The Florida Atlantic Owls won Conference USA and beat Miami in a midweek game, but cooled off down the stretch costing them a hosting chance. They have proven that they can play with anyone in the country, boasting a win in Coral Gables and two on the road at Mississippi St. FAU will take on the Long Beach State Dirtbags, who lost a chance at the Big West crown by falling to bitter rival Cal St Fullerton on the last day of the season. They have series wins against Fullerton, Arizona St and Nebraska, but will be leaving the west for the first time all season. The Stetson Hatters are no strangers to the NCAA Tournament, but face an uphill battle in Coral Gables. They finished just 9-12 in the Atlantic Sun, but won 4 games in 4 days to take the conference tournament. This regional should come down to Miami and FAU, and while the Owls can give Miami a run for their money, the Hurricanes will be too much.
After making a semifinal run in Hoover, the Ole Miss Rebels came just short of a national seed. The Rebels are a force at home, as LSU and Louisville both learned the hard way this season. They aren’t a team that features a lot of stars, but they are very solid across the board, especially with their pitching. No strangers to SEC matchups, the Tulane Green Wave will head over to Oxford after finishing on top of the AAC standings. They’ve struggled to score at times, but the Tulane pitching is good enough to keep them in just about any game. Another ACC team, the Boston College Eagles, will head down south. They play up or down to their competition as much as anyone in the country, having beaten NC State, Louisville and Virginia, but losing to Pittsburgh and Notre Dame. It’s not every year that the Pac-12 champ comes in below .500 and as a 4 seed, but that’s exactly where the Utah Utes stand. They started off 3-11, but kicked into gear once conference play started, holding off Washington for the title. This is a pretty wide open regional, where any of the teams could get hot, but I like Tulane and their pitching.
The Mississippi State Bulldogs shocked most of the country by winning the SEC, and it was certainly no fluke. They have a solid lineup with no holes, a deep and talented pitching staff, and have continued to improve as the season has gone on. It wouldn’t be the NCAA Tournament without the Cal State Fullerton Titans in the field. Fullerton had some ups and downs, but finished strong to overtake Long Beach St for the Big West title. The Titans have had some offensive struggles, but have one of the best pitching staffs in the country, and are one of few teams to go 4 deep in their rotation. The Louisiana Tech Bulldogs finished very strong to ensure their place in the field, sweeping Northwestern State and Rice. They have a great outfield, where all three bat over .325. The fourth seeded Southeast Missouri State Redhawks also have a chance to be dangerous. They went 22-8 in the OVC and have an ace in Joey Lucchese who will give teams problems. This is probably the toughest regional in the field. Cal State Fullerton would be my pick in many regionals, but Mississippi St has pitching to match them as well as a much better lineup.
The Sun Belt champ UL Lafayette Rajin’ Cajuns were rewarded for their play in conference, as well as their brutal nonconference schedule. Their strengths are primarily defense and pitching, where they have one the best bullpens in the country. The Arizona Wildcats had chances to host, but likely blew them by dropping series to Oregon and Arizona St. They have a solid lineup that gets on base, but will need to find a third starter behind JC Cloney and Nathan Bannister. The Sam Houston State Bearkats will be looking for revenge, as they were swept in Lafayette to start the season. They won 10 of 11 down the stretch, including taking the Southland Tournament. Finally, we have the first team who punched their ticket, the Princeton Tigers. Princeton won the Ivy, going 13-7. This is another balanced regional, but I like Arizona to win a couple of low scoring games here.