The road to Omaha begins on Friday. What should we expect to see along the way? Will Kimmey answers six burning bracket questions.
Is this the year the ACC breaks through in Omaha?
With three of the top four national seeds, the ACC has its best chance to claim a College World Series title since Wake Forest won it all in 1955. Yes, it really hasn't happened in more than 50 years, not even with the league sending four teams to Omaha in 2006 and North Carolina playing in the championship series the past two seasons.
Recent league addition Miami has four titles to its credit, but all came as an independent before the Hurricanes joined the ACC as part of the football arms race. As the No. 1 overall seed and ACC regular-season and tournament champ, Miami enters the tournament as the favorite to end up jumping for joy in Omaha in four weeks. And with good reason(s). The Hurricanes feature seven position players who eventually will be drafted (including likely 2008 first-rounders Yonder Alonso and Jemile Weeks), and that lineup has posted double-figure scoring totals 24 times in 55 games. Left-handers Chris Hernandez and Eric Erickson front a rotation that's buttressed by a pair of standout relievers in Kyle Bellamy and Carlos Gutierrez. Plus, Miami offers two key X factors: a great tournament coach in Jim Morris, who has taken Miami to Omaha in 10 of his 14 NCAA appearances (two titles), and the seventh-ranked fielding defense in college baseball -- important as every CWS champ since 2002 has ranked among the nation's top 20 in fielding percentage.
North Carolina has advanced to the CWS championship series each of the past two seasons only to fall to Oregon State in the finals. Well, the Beavers aren't in the field this year, so the Tar Heels ought to be smiling. They already are about the fact that their pitching staff led the nation in ERA and strikeouts this year thanks to excellent depth and balance. Sophomores Dustin Ackley, Tim Fedroff and Kyle Seager key a gritty lineup for an experienced team that has played 13 games in Omaha the past two years and leads the nation in wins over the past four seasons. UNC also is the only team to win a series against Miami this year.
Florida State has played in 46 NCAA tournaments in its great history but never has won the final game. The Seminoles led the nation with a .350 team average and ranked third in slugging and fourth in runs scored. Junior catcher Buster Posey played a large role in that success, leading the nation in average, slugging and on-base percentage while falling just two homers shy of the ACC triple crown. Posey also earned six saves to help out a pitching staff that falls somewhere between solid and spectacular. The one wart that might keep FSU from reaching its first CWS since 2000 is defense; the Seminoles ranked 183rd in fielding percentage.
Where is two-time defending champ Oregon State?
Oregon State made it into the field as a No. 3 seed a year ago and ended up repeating as champion. That won't happen this year as a 28-24 record (11-13 and tied for sixth place in the Pac-10) and a late swoon that saw the Beavers finish 6-6 burst their bubble. It's understandable that Oregon State's overall résumé wasn't strong enough to merit a bid but is hard to reconcile OSU's omission with Oklahoma's inclusion in the field as a No. 3 seed. The Beavers won series against No. 1 seeds Georgia, Arizona State and Arizona and against No. 2 seeds UCLA and Pepperdine.
Meanwhile, Oklahoma went 34-24 overall but just 9-17 in the Big 12. It failed to win a three-game series against a team that made the tournament field and won just three conference series in all. The Sooners also lost three of four at home to Washington State, which finished last in Oregon State's Pac-10. Oklahoma played well late in the year, grabbing league tournament wins against Texas A&M and Missouri before losing a late-inning heartbreaker to Texas, but one strong weekend can't overtake the résumé Oregon State posted.
Can LSU keep its 20-game winning streak going all the way to Omaha?
LSU's 20-game win streak put it in position to earn a national seed and home-field advantage all the way to the College World Series, but it's hard to imagine the Tigers showing up in Omaha with a 25-game win streak in tow. It's not as difficult to see the Tigers arriving there after a super-regional victory that would send 70-year-old Alex Box Stadium into retirement in grand fashion. After missing the tournament in consecutive years, LSU is back under second-year coach Paul Mainieri, a man who took cold-weather Notre Dame to Omaha in 2002.
LSU has a good regional draw, but things could get interesting in a super-regional matchup against either Nebraska or UC Irvine, two teams that boast great pitching staffs and gritty players with Omaha experience. LSU's pitching has proved more efficient than dominant, issuing few walks while allowing an offense that features sluggers Blake Dean (16 homers) and Matt Clark (20 homers) to bring back memories of gorilla ball. The contrasting styles should make for a good super-regional matchup.
Which regional looks the most difficult?
Miami might be the nation's top seed, but the selection committee didn't seem to do the Hurricanes any favors in the Coral Gables Regional. The Hurricanes first face Bethune-Cookman, a team that led Miami late in each of the schools' two regular-season matchups before Miami pulled off seventh- and eighth-inning rallies to escape. Bethune-Cookman ace Hiram Burgos also leads the nation with a 1.20 ERA. If Miami makes it through that trap, its next opponent comes from a pair of teams that started the season ranked in the top 10 nationally and feature some of the best pitching staffs in the field, in terms of elite-level talent and overall depth.
No. 2 seed Missouri boasts a pair of aces in junior Aaron Crow, who should be a top-10 draft pick this June, and sophomore Kyle Gibson, who's likely to follow Crow and former Mizzou ace Max Scherzer as the school's third first-round right-hander since 2006. Crow (12-0, 2.56) put together a 42 2/3-inning scoreless streak this year while leading the nation in wins and ranking third with 117 strikeouts. Gibson (9-2, 3.40) wasn't far behind, ranking third in the Big 12 in strikeouts per nine innings (94 strikeouts, 20 walks in 84.2 innings). Both work with low- to mid-90s fastballs and knockout sliders.
Mississippi lost four of its final five conference series, but rallied to reach the final of the Southeastern Conference tournament over the weekend to end up as a potentially hot No. 3 seed. The Rebels aren't an offensive bully but do feature a three-man rotation as talented as any in the country and a closer in right-hander Scott Bittle (6-1, 1.63, 8 saves) whose cut fastball is so difficult to hit that he led the nation in strikeouts per nine innings and hits allowed per nine innings (32 in 66.1 innings) while ranking third in ERA and total strikeouts (118). Right-handers Lance Lynn (7-3, 4.21) and Cody Satterwhite (3-5, 5.40) both should be drafted in the top three rounds based on their stuff despite having had somewhat inconsistent junior years. And freshman left-hander Drew Pomeranz (4-3, 4.30) gives Ole Miss a third starter with a low-90s fastball and a strong breaking ball. Nathan Baker and Brett Bukvich offer the Rebels even more arms in case they have to battle back from the loser's bracket.
How did Michigan earn the right to serve as a regional host site?
Michigan stands as the only regional host that's a No. 2 seed. The Wolverines won the Big Ten regular season for the third straight year, then rolled through the conference tournament. It's true Michigan hasn't played a regional-quality team since splitting a two-game series at Coastal Carolina on March 15 and 16, but also remember this is essentially the same club that eliminated No. 1 overall seed Vanderbilt a year ago. Michigan features one of the better slugging offenses in the tournament, led by senior first baseman Nate Recknagel's school-record 23 homers. Junior right-hander/DH Zach Putnam offers power at the plate and on the mound; he held Oregon State hitless for 8 2/3 innings last year in the Corvallis Super Regional before the Beavers escaped with a win in the bottom of the ninth.
Arizona, the only No. 1 seed that isn't a host, might have preferred to be at home, but with four regionals already on the West Coast, the NCAA selection committee liked the balance of having a Midwestern site. The Wildcats last played a regional in this part of the country in 2004, when they won as a No. 3 seed at Notre Dame before beating Jered Weaver and Long Beach State to advance to Omaha. The 38-17 Wildcats scored series wins against Georgia, Arizona State, Stanford and Cal State Fullerton -- all national seeds -- this season but too often lost to teams they should have beaten to finish with a 12-12 Pac-10 record. Maybe the committee discounted the series win against ASU, as the Sun Devils clinched the regular-season title with a Game 1 victory and might not have been giving it 100 percent effort over the last two games with everything wrapped up. Still, Arizona should prove a tough out in an event that favors pitching depth. Junior Preston Guilmet isn't as dominant as he was as a sophomore, but he remains an ace who can match up with anyone. Veterans Eric Berger and David Coulon follow Guilmet, but the real strength of this staff comes with flame-throwing relievers Jason Stoffel, Ryan Perry and lefty Daniel Schlereth -- all of whom work in the low- to mid-90s and averaged better than a strikeout per inning pitched.
No. 3 seed Kentucky also can swing the aluminum, with a lineup that ranked in the nation's top 20 in 11 offensive categories, including runs scored and slugging percentage. Defense differentiates this UK club from the one that flamed out in a home regional in 2006 as this bunch of Wildcats ranks 11th nationally in fielding percentage.
Which lower seeds will make things interesting?
(Consider this one a bonus question in honor of tournament time.) No. 2 seeds UC Irvine and San Diego offer two of the nation's better pitching staffs, and it wouldn't be a surprise if either one showed up in Omaha. Both clubs rank among the nation's top 10 in ERA and boast aces who rank among the nation's best in Anteaters right-hander Scott Gorgen (10-3, 1.90) and Toreros lefty Brian Matusz (11-2, 1.88).
Dallas Baptist became the first independent team not named Miami to make the tournament since Cal State Northridge in 1992. It beat Rice twice and Texas A&M once in the regular season and has the slugging offense needed to potentially surprise a Texas A&M team that has lost eight of its past nine games behind tiring freshman pitchers entering regionals.
Like Dallas Baptist, UC Davis makes the tournament for the first time in school history after making the jump to the Division I level. The Aggies got in off the bubble but might have the best chance to become the second No. 4 seed to win a regional if they can get past Stanford, which Davis beat twice in the regular season. In Eddie Gamboa, Brad McAtee and Bryan Evans, UC Davis boasts a strong, veteran rotation that matches up well with Stanford, Pepperdine and TCU.
South Carolina ranked among the nation's top five in home runs (103; with 16 or more apiece from Justin Smoak, James Darnell, Phil Disher and Reese Havens), slugging percentage and fielding. It didn't get great pitching, but still should have a shot to slug its way past a pitching-dominant North Carolina State club and a Charlotte team that also scores in bunches in the Raleigh Regional.
Louisville joined Oregon State as a No. 3 seed that made it to Omaha a year ago, and though this is something of a young team after losing several of those veteran leaders, twin aces Zack Pitts and Justin Marks return to a club that won 22 of its last 27 games en route to winning the Big East tournament title.
Will Kimmey has covered collegiate baseball for five years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.