Thrill of Victory

A bad weekend for favorites in the NCAA Tournament

The NCAA Tournament’s first weekend was almost entirely predictable, but its second weekend was not.

Last weekend, 14 of the 16 one-seeds moved on to this weekend. That included all the national seeds but Oregon, which failed to advance past Rice.

This weekend figured to be more of the same; to me, it looked like a pretty good gap between the top five or six teams in the tournament and the rest of the field. That group included Vanderbilt and Cal State Fullerton, both of which were swept on their home fields this weekend.

Having watched both of VU’s games, I was surprised that the Commodores lost to Louisville, but in retrospect, not shocked. Vanderbilt played at a ridiculous level all season, but what few cracks the Commodores had — namely, some of their pitchers couldn’t throw strikes or hit their spots at the right time — started to be exposed a little more during a May 16-18 series vs. Alabama. Vandy won two of three games that weekend, but also gave up 21 runs.

That was the first time that VU’s ace, Tyler Beede had a poor start, as the sophomore couldn’t come close to finding the strike zone. That would repeat itself last weekend in a regional against Illinois, and then again on Sunday against Louisville. Vandy’s would-be No. 3 starter T.J. Pecoraro also had troubles and evidently never fully recovered from a February injury, and never pitched in the NCAA Tournament.

Then in the Southeastern Conference Tournament, the Vandy bats started to look suspect when Texas A&M shut the Commodores out in the opener. From there, they would go cold for long stretches of games (and a whole game, period, when Georgia Tech beat VU by a 5-0 count last weekend) and that carried over to this weekend, as they scored just four total runs vs. Louisville.

As for the Cardinals, they were very, very impressive on the mound. Starter Jeff Thompson pitched as well as anyone pitched against Vandy all year. That had to please the Detroit Tigers, which picked Thompson in the third round of last week’s draft. Louisville’s bullpen, led by closer Nick Burdi, brought out arm after quality arm from both sides of the mound, and may have un-matched pitching depth.

The Cards didn’t hit much, but they were also facing a tremendous Vandy staff. I doubt anyone wants to face them in Omaha.

UCLA’s sweep of Fullerton was also surprising. The Titans didn’t give up a walk all through their regional, but like Vandy, got beat at their own game of pitching and defense in the super. UCLA coach John Savage called Fullerton “the most complete team in the country,” and yet the Titans (51-10) won’t be in Omaha for the fourth-straight season.

Speaking of stunners, how about Indiana eliminating Florida State in two games? IU has never been to the College World Series, and the Seminoles have been 21 times. FSU was a national seed playing on its home field, and yet the Hoosiers advance to Omaha after scoring 21 runs in two games. They’ll now match up with Louisville in a test of strength vs. strength.

Mississippi State was given the toughest road to Omaha, and yet the Bulldogs made it there after winning both games at Virginia. It’ll be the first trip back since 2007 for one of the nation’s more storied programs. MSU isn’t a team that will “wow” you on first glance, but coach John Cohen has a veteran team that’s excellent in all three facets of the game, and center fielder Hunter Renfroe might be the best hitter in Omaha.

People underestimated MSU because it lost a bunch of tough games this year, but the Bulldogs are good enough to win the whole thing if they can catch the breaks they didn’t get in the regular season.

Its SEC Western Division rival, LSU, is probably the best team already in Omaha. The Tigers hammered Oklahoma on Sunday by an 11-1 count to get there. LSU’s got an elite rotation and a special closer in Chris Cotton at the end, and a murderous top of the order now that JaCoby Jones is healthy.

North Carolina State beat Rice to get to Omaha for the first time since its lone appearance in Omaha. Carlos Rodon will hands-down be the most talented pitcher in Omaha, and the Wolfpack have a great bullpen, but the ‘Pack don’t have another starter who’s proven to consistently go late into games, and it’s going to be tough to last long that way.

Who’ll join them? South Carolina and North Carolina won’t answer that question until Tuesday due to a rain-out, and Kansas State and Oregon State have also yet to finish. The battle of the Carolina’s is intriguing, as South Carolina has had an incredible postseason run the last two years and North Carolina was the nation’s top seed. K-State, if it can win, would be a first-time Omaha club.