Thrill of Victory

What to watch in the NCAA Baseball Tournament (plus, predictions)

One of my favorite sporting events of the year, the NCAA Baseball Tournament, starts today. Here are the basics of what you need to know, and what you’ll want to watch, as play begins.

How it works
Because baseball doesn’t share the popularity of some of the NCAA’s other tournaments, a lot of people don’t understand how it works. If you’re a veteran NCAA Tournament watcher, you can skip this part, but if you’re not, here’s a quick look at what you need to know.

The NCAA selects 64 teams to the tournament. Thirty of those teams get automatic bids for winning their conference tournament, and the NCAA picks the best 34 teams remaining after that.

Once the field is picked, teams are divided into 16 four-team regionals, with (more or less) the 16-best teams hosting each regional.

Eight of those 16 teams are given national seeds, meaning they get home-field advantage through both of the tournament’s first two weekends.

Each regional is a double-elimination event, with teams seeded 1 to 4. The 2 and the 3 generally play Friday afternoon, and the 1 and 4, that night. The losers of those games play Saturday’s first game, with the loser going home, followed by the winners playing that night. The loser of the second game plays the winner of Saturday’s first game on Sunday afternoon, with the loser going home and the winner facing the lone undefeated team that night. If the undefeated team wins, it wins the regional. If not, the two teams play again on a Monday, and the winner of that game is the regional champ.

At this point, there are 16 teams standing. Before the tournament starts, regionals are paired against each other; to use an example close to home, the winner of the Nashville Regional, where Vanderbilt plays, will face the winner of the Louisville Regional. Vanderbilt, being a national seed, will host, assuming it advances. Should the Commodores stumble and Louisville advances, the Nashville winner will go to Louisville. Should both favorites not advance, the NCAA will pick one of the two advancing teams to host.

The next series is the super regional. It’s a best two-of-three series played the next week, with the eight teams still standing advancing to Omaha, Neb., for the College World Series.

The CWS begins with two four-team tournaments structured like the regionals. The two winners then face off in a best two-of-three series to determine a champion.

What to watch on Friday
Not surprisingly, the 1-seed usually wins its opener; the last three tournaments, it has won all but five of the 48 opening games. But in baseball, pitching is the ultimate equalizer, and a 4 with an ace gives the underdog a better-than-usual chance to beat the odds.

I looked at all 16 of the 1-4 match-ups to see how many teams drew a potentially tough Friday night pitcher. It’s hard to tell who’s legit and who’s not because many of these 4-seeds didn’t play much of anybody, but statistically-speaking, here’s a list of 10 guys who could potentially provide a challenge. I have listed the team’s strength of schedule in parenthesis; there are 298 Division I teams and so as you can see, many of these pitchers didn’t face much of a challenge.

Anyway, here’s my wild guess as to which 1-seeds drew the toughest opening-game pitchers:

1. Florida State: Kyle McGowin, Savannah State (283): 12-1, 115.1 IP, 1.33 ERA, 129 Ks /24 BBs (He’s projected as a third-to-sixth-round pick in this week’s MLB Draft)

2. Mississippi State: Caleb McClanahan, Central Arkansas (171): 10-5, 116.2, 2.17, 80/10

3. UCLA: Ryan Doran, San Diego State (60): 8-3, 106, 2.6, 84/26

4. Vanderbilt: Kerry Doane, East Tennessee State (149): 13-1, 140, 1.99, 74/20, 12 (!) complete games; ETSU has ridden Doane hard of late and so fatigue could factor in.

5. Virginia Tech: Carson Cross, Connecticut (187): 8-4, 104.1, 2.50, 83/21

6. Cal State Fullerton: David Speer, Columbia (187): 6-2, 61.1, 2.17, 63/15, five complete games

7. Kansas State: Cale Elam, Wichita State (133): 7-4, 93.1, 2.60, 74/29

8. Oregon: Layne Somsen, South Dakota State (270), 4-5, 84.1, 1.92, 85/27

9. North Carolina: Garrett Cortright, Canisius (271), 11-3, 2.24, 108.2, 75/25 (incidentally, Cortright grew up as a UNC fan)

10. Virginia: Chris Rowley, Army (280): 9-3, 90.2, 2.68, 72/18

Potential second-round showdowns
Here are some potential Saturday night matchups that should go to the top of the must-watch list:

1. South Carolina vs. Clemson: These two in-state rivals hate each other, so of course the NCAA put them in the same regional for the second-straight year. Both have great baseball traditions, and Carolina has been to the College World Series final the last three years, winning the first two. Clemson has a case as the best 2-seed in the tournament.

2. Virginia Tech vs. Oklahoma: OU is the popular upset pick, as the Sooners looked set to host a regional until a late-season slump. The Sooners are NCAA Tournament regulars, while Virginia Tech is hosting for the first time and missed the event the last two years.

3. Kansas State vs. Arkansas: K-State is also hosting for the first time with a 2-seed that’s an NCAA regular. The Razorbacks were a preseason No. 1 pick in some circles, and have just a so-so offense, but the pitching staff posted a 1.87 ERA and had its top three starters all finish under 2. The Razorbacks’ RPI was just 31, but brought a slew of players back from last year’s CWS team. I’m guessing that’s the 2-seed that most of the 1s least wanted to draw.

4. Mississippi State vs. South Alabama: Not only did MSU draw the toughest 4-seed, it also got what was probably the toughest 2 in the Jaguars, who can really hit but aren’t so hot on the mound. MSU has a good pitching staff, but it’s not really loaded with aces. If you like offense, there’s potential to see a lot of it on Saturday night should this game happen.

5. North Carolina State vs. Ole Miss: Host N.C. State has a fantastic starter in Carlos Rodon, who could be the nation’s most talented arm, but the Wolfpack have no proven starters after him and have had to piece together many of their other games. State should get by Binghamton anyway, so, coach Elliot Avent is saving Rodon for Saturday. Ole Miss struggled to score runs against good teams, but it had a good No. 2 in Mike Mayers to counter Rodon. Some people like the Rebels to be the upset winner of this regional.

Who’s moving on
I like the following teams to win their respective regionals: North Carolina, South Carolina, Rice, North Carolina State, LSU, Oklahoma, Fullerton, UCLA, Vanderbilt, Louisville, Florida State, Florida, Oregon State, Arkansas, Virginia and Mississippi State to advance.

From there, I’ll take North Carolina, Rice, LSU, Fullerton, Florida State, Vanderbilt, Arkansas and Virginia to move on to Omaha.

In the final, I’ll take Vanderbilt to beat LSU in three games.