5 Burning Questions on baseball bracket
One month to crown a national champion and just 64 teams left contending for the title. With Monday's announcement of the 2009 NCAA baseball tournament field, eight national seeds were named as regional hosts (1-Texas, 2-Cal State Fullerton, 3-LSU, 4-North Carolina, 5-Arizona State, 6-UC Irvine, 7-Oklahoma, 8-Florida). Everyone wants to know who will make it to Omaha, so here are five burning questions to start down that path.
1. Which trend will come to an end?
The past seven champions have all come from west of the Mississippi River, while a national seed hasn't dog-piled since 2003.
The West is loaded again this year, with five of the eight national seeds located west of the Mississippi (and a sixth hugging the eastern bank). Only six teams made the field from the Big West and Pac-10, but three of those are among the eight national seeds. The Big 12 features two national seeds as well, including top overall seed Texas. Since all five hosts from these three conferences are national seeds, they can't meet until Omaha, which increases the odds of one of them winning it all.
Meanwhile, there are plenty of contenders from the Southeast this season. Florida State and Ole Miss just missed out on national seeds, and both have a shot to reach the College World Series at the expense of a western contender. Four-seed North Carolina looks to make it to Omaha for the fourth straight season, so the experienced Tar Heels could end both streaks. And the always-strong SEC boasts two national seeds (No. 3 LSU and No. 8 Florida) with the talent to lift the trophy next month.
Who could keep both of these streaks alive? Rice is rounding into form with the return of its top two pitchers (Ryan Berry and Mike Ojala) and has eliminated LSU from the postseason three times in the past 15 years (twice in Baton Rouge). The past two national champions have been lower seeds (No. 3 Oregon State in 2007, No. 4 Fresno State last year). Cal Poly, Oregon State and San Diego State are all long shots, but they have the components to play in Omaha if they get hot over the next month.
2. What was the committee thinking?
This is the question that's always on the minds of fans around the country at this time of year. The race for national seeds and hosting duties were competitive this year, but those picks were largely free of controversy. Florida State, Ole Miss and Rice were all contenders for national seeds, but none of their résumés were prohibitively better than Florida or Oklahoma. Similarly, the last few sent packing for regionals (Kansas State, South Carolina, Virginia) were all similar in stature to those selected to host. But the most interesting debates surround the bubble teams, and it's the typical clash between the power conferences and the smaller ones.
The strangest two inclusions were both from the Big 12 -- Oklahoma State and Baylor. The Cowboys posted a gaudy RPI but won just two of nine conference series and failed to qualify for the Big 12 tournament. This is the sixth time that a team made the Big Dance while finishing outside the top eight in its conference; the other instances all involved the SEC, and none of these teams advanced to the super regionals.
Before bouncing back with two wins in the conference tournament, Baylor lost its past 10 conference games. The Bears won just five games on the road all season, but have a talented team that could make some noise in Baton Rouge.
Those bids came at the expense of smaller schools that won their regular-season conference crowns but faltered during their conference tournaments. Rhode Island, Eastern Illinois and Missouri State were all top seeds heading into this week's tournaments. Xavier stunned URI twice Saturday to claim the Atlantic 10 crown, but regular-season wins against Miami and Oklahoma State and a top 60 RPI weren't enough to get the Rams into the NCAA tournament. Eastern Illinois beat three straight tournament teams (Bethune-Cookman, Oklahoma, Indiana) during a trip to Florida but was swept out of the OVC tournament. Missouri State also had success against tournament teams (Missouri, Oklahoma State, three-game sweep of Wichita State) but fell one win short in the MVC tournament.
3. What is the toughest regional?
UC Irvine had the lowest RPI of the national seeds but wrapped up the No. 6 national seed by running away with the Big West title with a 22-2 record. But the Anteaters have a tough road to reach Omaha for the second time in three seasons.
Virginia has a top-10 RPI and swept through the ACC tournament on its way to a 43-12-1 record. The Cavaliers could very easily have been a No. 1 seed and host, but the NCAA committee penalized them for a poor nonconference schedule (28 wins against teams outside the RPI top 100) and finishing sixth in the ACC during the regular season.
San Diego State might have the best college pitcher of all time in Stephen Strasburg, who enters the tournament with a 13-0 record, 1.24 ERA and 180 strikeouts in just 102 innings this spring. The Aztecs are 16-6 on the road in 2009, so the short trip to Orange County shouldn't faze them.
Fresno State has been here before, and several key players are back from last year's national championship team. Tom Mendonca has the power to clear the fences (even at Irvine), and the Bulldogs beat four different national seeds on the way to last year's crown.
Friday's Irvine Regional games air on ESPNU (7 p.m. and 11 p.m. ET).
Honorable mention: Fort Worth Regional. TCU faced a difficult nonconference schedule, and that will benefit the Horned Frogs as they host a regional for the first time. Texas A&M has enough talent to make a run to Omaha, while Pat Casey's Oregon State squad is always tough to beat at this time of year.
4. Who can start planning their trip to Zesto's right now?
In stark contrast to their Orange County conference mates, Cal State Fullerton has an easy path to the CWS (and, inevitably, Omaha's staple ice cream and burger joint). Georgia Southern can rake, but winning 2,500 miles from home is difficult. Gonzaga returns to the tournament for the first time since 1991, so it's likely the Zags are just happy to be there. Utah got hot at the right time to win the MWC tournament, but the Utes are just 26-29 on the season.
The Titans have made it to the super regionals each of the past six seasons. They are paired with the Louisville Regional, which boasts four solid but unspectacular clubs, all of which would need to fly across the country to knock off the No. 2 national seed. The Titan House on 13th Street should be rocking again this year.
Arizona State also has Omaha clearly in its sights. The Sun Devils have one of the best pitching staffs in the country, even while playing in a stadium that usually favors hitters. Oral Roberts is the weakest regional 2-seed in the field (18 of 31 wins against the worst 100 teams in the country). Cal Poly has some high-profile victories, including a series win against Rice, but the Mustangs will be making their first tournament appearance. Kent State has just two wins against top 100 RPI teams, but the Golden Flashes have won 18 games on the road.
5. Who is this year's Fresno State?
The Bulldogs' title in 2008 was the equivalent of March Madness being dominated by a No. 13 or 14 seed. On the heels of Oregon State's title run in 2007 as one of the last teams to make the field, it seems that David rules Goliath at Rosenblatt Stadium.
It's quite possible that this year's Cinderella could be Fresno again -- the Bulldogs survived six elimination games in their 2008 run, and needed to win four straight games in the WAC tournament over the weekend to make the field this time around. Many of the key contributors from the title-winning team are back, led by Tom Mendonca's 27 homers and stellar defense. But with less pitching depth and a tough regional draw, it's difficult envisioning a successful title defense for the Bulldogs.
Indiana has a similar résumé as last year's champions. Like the Bulldogs last season, the Hoosiers got lots of preseason love but struggled during the first half of the season. Their rotation is topped by two studs, as Eric Arnett went 12-1 with a 2.58 ERA while Matt Bashore added seven wins and a 3.57 ERA. The staff is handled by top catching project Josh Phegley, who hit 17 homers while posting a .352 average.
Indiana won 10 of its past 11 games and swept through the Big Ten tournament. The Hoosiers will be a team to watch in the Louisville Regional, and while the path is difficult, a run like this has happened before!
Jeremy Mills is a researcher for ESPN and is a contributor to ESPN.com's college baseball coverage.
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