NCAA baseball tournament: Tiering the field, CWS picks

Finally, the NCAA baseball tournament field is set and the road to Omaha has officially become a superhighway — paved and ready to travel.

But who among those 64 road-trippers are in the express lane to TD Ameritrade Park? And who might not have the nicest ride but might still sputter their way into the College World Series three weeks from now? (Writer’s note: I was at Indy 500 all weekend, thus all the car metaphors. But my room did overlook NCAA headquarters, and I tried to peek through the windows at the bracket before it was released Monday, but the blinds were kept closed.)

Here’s a quick guide to get you up to speed before the 16 regionals start later this week.

THE FAVORITES

UCLA

Dude you need to know: Garrett Mitchell, OF

The Bruins have topped most college baseball polls throughout the spring … and they won the Pac-12 title by sweeping every regular-season weekend series for the first time in the history of the program … and are riding a 10-game winning streak … and have the nation’s lowest team ERA … and … well, what we’re saying here is that they are really good.

VANDERBILT

Dude you need to know: JJ Bleday, OF

ESPN college baseball guru Kyle Peterson has long touted the Commodores as the nation’s most balanced team, and he probably has seen them more than anyone who doesn’t attend or work for the school. They are crazy good in every aspect of the game. They score runs in bunches (see: 13-4 SEC semifinal stomping of LSU Saturday night) and never say quit (see: walk-off single to knock off Ole Miss in the SEC title game). And in a sport in which having two good pitchers is considered a competitive advantage, they run nearly 10(!) deep on the mound.

MISSISSIPPI STATE

Dude you need to know: Ethan Small, LHP

How loaded is the SEC? The Bulldogs lost two out of three in the SEC tourney and still grabbed the No. 6 national seed. How? Because everyone knows that the nation’s ninth best offense and fifth best team batting average resides in Starkville, as does Small, the SEC Pitcher of the Year. They also roll out the nation’s most entertaining dugout antics, so there’s that.

GEORGIA TECH

Dude you need to know: Kyle McCann, C

The Yellow Jackets lost to North Carolina in the ACC title game, but they still emerged as the No. 3 national seed. Head coach Danny Hall rightfully earned conference coach of the year honors for getting his kinda lost and forgotten program back on the path to return to its Nomar Garciaparra/Jason Varitek/ Mark Teixeira glory days, eras that he also coached through. Thankfully, school administrators gave him the time to find his way back to national prominence after not having hosted a regional in nearly a decade or visited Omaha since 2006.

LEGIT TITLE THREATS

ARKANSAS

Dude you need to know: Isaiah Campbell, RHP

Dave Van Horn has built a dynasty in Fayetteville, an era of Razorbacks baseball that in 17 seasons has won a handful of SEC divisional titles and made 15 NCAA tourney appearances, five of which ended with trips to Omaha. The only jewel missing during this amazing run is a national title. One year ago, they had that in their grasp before falling to Oregon State. “Only one place left to go from there,” Van Horn said. “I wish it was as easy to do as it is to say.”

GEORGIA

Dude you need to know: Aaron Schunk, INF

The Diamond Dawgs haven’t been back to Omaha since their finals collapse against Fresno State in 2008. They have the nation’s third-lowest team ERA, this while playing in an SEC full of big bats. The one-two punch of Tony Locey and Emerson Hancock make them a monster at any time of year, but especially in the double-elimination jungle of June. Whether or not you understand FPI (I do not), the fact that Georgia has ranked in super-low single digits all season is a testament to its mettle in the nation’s toughest conference.

TEXAS TECH

Dude you need to know: Josh Jung, 3B

The Red Raiders have been playing baseball every year since 1954, but they didn’t make an NCAA tourney field until 1995. Now they’ve been 15 times. They had never been to a College World Series until 2014. Now they’ve been three times in five years. They’re hoping to make it four out of six.

LOUISVILLE

Dude you need to know: Reid Detmers, LHP

The Cardinals won the ACC regular season but then made a shockingly quick exit from the conference tourney, the last stumble of a shaky 4-6 regular-season finish. But this is a team that has made it to Omaha in three of the past six seasons and in five of those years made it to at least the super regionals. With Detmers on the mound, a run-machine offense (albeit a streaky one, as evidenced by their awful trip to Durham) and all of that postseason cred, ruling them out would be ill-advised.

THE DARK HORSES

EAST CAROLINA

Dude you need to know: Jake Agnos, RHP

The Pirates haven’t played in a College World Series since 1962, and that was the NAIA College World Series. They have the history (30 NCAA appearances) and always have had plenty of talent, but they’ve also always managed to find a way to get in their own way (see: last week’s AAC tourney upset at the hands of Wichita State). But now ECU has experience hosting a regional. The Pirates did it for the first time one year ago, and they will do it again this weekend. After spending a chunk of this season ranked in the top 10, perhaps it’s time Cliff Godwin’s team finally will make it stick through late June.

UC SANTA BARBARA

Dude you need to know: Thomas Rowan, DH

The Gauchos ended a 33-year conference championship drought by taking the Big West title, and they did so by breaking an 11-game winless streak against Cal Poly. The College World Series history books are filled with stories of West Coast schools crashing the big party in Omaha, the latest being UCSB’s appearance three years ago. Can the Gauchos do it again? If so, they’d have to beat …

FRESNO STATE

Dude you need to know: Ryan Jensen, RHP

The last time the Bulldogs made the NCAAs was in 2012, with some guy named Aaron Judge on the roster. But has it really been 11 years since the Wonderdogs pulled off their legendary College World Series upset? Yes, it has. Back then, they had to win their conference tournament to even make the 64-team field. That was so long ago, they were still in the Western Athletic Conference. This weekend, they slugged their way to another conference tourney title — this time the Mountain West — and another NCAA invite. Can they really seize that momentum and finally get back to Omaha? Hey, head coach Mike Batesole has done it before.

LSU

Dude you need to know: Antoine Duplantis, OF

OK, listing LSU as a dark horse does seem a bit silly, but the Tigers quite literally limped through much of the season. As the postseason has arrived, many of those nagging injuries have healed. And it showed in Hoover, Alabama, where Paul Mainieri’s 12th team won three games, including a revenge contest over Mississippi State two days after a 17-inning heartbreaker. (Heads-up: Ole Miss, also in the SEC and also a regional host, also has a ton of momentum.)

THE DEFINITE MAYBES

OKLAHOMA STATE

Dude you need to know: Trevor Boone, OF

The Cowboys tripped through the latter stages of the Big 12 regular season, but they rallied big in the conference tournament, reaching the finals against West Virginia and taking the Big 12 title. They also played one of the nation’s most aggressive nonconference schedules, which included sweeping Oregon State on the road to start May. “I like these guys because they do their work, but they don’t spend a lot of time reading projections or calculating RPI,” said head coach Josh Holliday. “‘Worry about the stuff you can control’ might be a coaching cliché, but that’s what these guys do.”

STANFORD

Dude you need to know: Will Matthiesen, DH/RP

David Esquer’s first season after succeeding legendary head coach Mark Marquess ended with an NCAA regional appearance. Now the Cardinal will be hosting a regional after stunning Arizona State on the road. You’d be hard-pressed to find a team that has worked harder to reach 41 wins, as they developed a habit of dropping the opening games of weekend series. With UCSB and Fresno State both coming to Sunken Diamond, the Cardinal would be ill-advised to continue that trend this weekend.

NORTH CAROLINA

Dude you need to know: Aaron Sabato, DH

Not so long ago, there were quiet grumblings in Chapel Hill that Tar Heels head coach Mike Fox might be losing the handle on a program that had gone from Omaha regular to four-year absentee. They made it back one year ago, and they could make it back-to-back, thanks to a big push from late-season momentum. It started with an embarrassment of rival NC State to end the regular season and continued with a postseason hot streak in the ACC tourney. The Heels won the title by routing Georgia Tech.

WEST VIRGINIA

Dude you need to know: Alek Manoah, RHP

The Mountaineers have been a bit Jekyll and Hyde this season, but whichever of those is the good guy (I can never keep that straight) is what they turned into once they hit late May, finishing the season on a 10-3 run that took them into the Big 12 title game and solidified their status as a regional host.

OREGON STATE

Dude you need to know: Adley Rutschman, C

We’ve been operating in groups of four for this preview, but we’re adding a fifth team here because there’s no way to do this list without including the Beavers. While no one is ready to compare this year’s team to the 2018 CWS champs, all you need to know about the regard this brand carries within the sport is to have listened to all of the debates prior to the NCAA bracket reveal. Whenever there was a question about one team over the other for bids, hosting or national seeds, the question that inevitably arose was, “Did they go to Corvallis, and if so, how did they do?”

WHO WILL ADVANCE TO THE CWS?

UCLA
Vanderbilt
Mississippi State
East Carolina
Oklahoma State
Arkansas
Georgia Tech
LSU

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