- As the NCAA baseball tournament regionals get underway this weekend, here's what you need to know about the title favorites, can't-miss players and potential Cinderellas.
You can learn all you need to know about the NCAA baseball tournament from the play that swung last season's College World Series final, with Arkansas one out away from a sweep of eventual champion Oregon State. In short: College baseball will get weird, and it will break your heart.
But if you want the full experience, you need to start on the first weekend of the tournament, when 16 double-elimination regionals across the country produce roughly 14 continuous hours of action for three straight days, the busiest weekend of high-level baseball all year. We're here to equip you for that baseball blitz with everything you need to know about regionals weekend and the field of 64, including a look at which teams might find themselves in the middle of the next iconic Omaha moment.
First, a disclaimer: The heavy emphasis on SEC squads below is no accident. The league finished with seven top-25 teams, put a record-tying 10 schools into the tournament for the second consecutive year and earned hosting honors for six out of the 16 regionals (along with four out of the eight national seeds). From the fans who fill up Alex Box Stadium and everywhere else LSU plays to the fist-pumping patrons at Ole Miss's Swayze Field to the incessant whistles echoing off the artificial turf at Vanderbilt's Hawkins Field, it'll be nearly impossible to reach the College World Series without getting through one of the nation's toughest environments—or knocking off an SEC foe that has spent the last two months playing in them.
Final Four Watch List
These four national seeds look ready to meet their championship-or-bust expectations.
• Only once in the 20 years that the NCAA has awarded national seeds has the No. 1 overall seed won it all. Miami did it in 1999—the inaugural season of the national seeding system. UCLA may have what it takes to break that 19-year curse of the top dog, with a stable of arms that sport the nation's best team ERA by a healthy margin—just like 2018 champ Oregon State. The Bruins didn't lose a midweek game or a weekend series all year, and their one-two rotation punch of Ryan Garcia and Jack Ralston hasn't been credited with a loss.
• After winning the SEC regular season title, Vanderbilt was just showing off last week at the SEC tournament, run-ruling Auburn and LSU before spotting Ole Miss a 9–1 lead in the title game and rallying for a walk-off 11–10 win. The Commodores just keep coming on offense, with a .319 team batting average that's fourth-best in all of Division I. With a pitching staff predicated on power, the Commodores can bully teams that don't trot out blue-chip bats.
• Georgia only lost three home games all year, and as the No. 4 national seed the Bulldogs won't need to leave Athens until punching a ticket to Omaha. The main attraction is the top end of UGA's pitching staff, led by sophomore Emerson Hancock, the nation's WHIP leader at 0.78, and closer/infielder Aaron Schunk, who spends his time away from the mound as the team leader in all three Triple Crown categories.
• Don't forget about Mississippi State, lurking as the fourth-highest seeded SEC team behind Vandy, UGA and 2018 runner-up Arkansas, a downright disrespectful No. 6 overall. After cheating death countless times during their run to last year's semifinals, the Bulldogs got red-hot in the final month of the 2019 season to assert themselves as a top-five team. Lefthanded strikeout machine Ethan Small (he racked up 150 K's in 15 appearances this year) and offensive heart-and-soul Jake Mangum (the SEC's all-time leader in hits) won't let MSU fall short of another CWS trip.
They aren't hosting, but they could wreak some havoc.
• Texas A&M (No. 2 seed, Morgantown regional) got 15 1/3 combined innings of no-hit ball from starters Chris Weber and Jonathan Doxakis on consecutive days of the SEC tournament and somehow lost both games—which is to say the Aggies were still good enough to host a regional.
• NC State (No. 2 seed, Greenville regional) has been on the wrong end of some dramatic first-weekend finishes in recent years, and Wolfpack manager Elliott Avent is none too pleased his team has to head to East Carolina for what promises to be a testy, emotional regional. That being said, if State can win there, it can win anywhere.
• Out west, UC Santa Barbara (No. 2 seed, Stanford regional) joined UCLA as the nation's only two teams with single-digit losses this season, but after playing only one tournament team in the regular season, will the Gauchos' lights-out rotation hold up against a higher level of competition?
They probably won't survive the first weekend, but if they do...
• Jacksonville State (No. 4 seed, Oxford regional) beat Auburn and Georgia during the regular season and built the second-longest winning streak in the country (12 games) en route to the Ohio Valley title, and the Gamecocks have something of a history of pulling off stunners in Oxford.
• Omaha (No. 4 seed, Los Angeles regional) will open up its first-ever tournament against the top overall seed after knocking off Summit League powerhouse Oral Roberts—at least the Mavericks boast the nation's best fielding percentage.
• Florida State (No. 3 seed, Athens regional) was one of the final at-large entries into the field to extend its tournament appearance streak to 42 years, but if there were ever a time for the Seminoles to put it together, it should be in the final games of the 40th and final year at the helm for manager Mike Martin, college baseball's all-time wins leader.
Don't look away when these guys are at the plate.
• Oregon State catcher Adley Rutschman claimed 2018 College World Series Most Outstanding Player honors with 17 hits and 13 RBIs in Omaha, and then he somehow got better as a junior, coupling an OPS of 1.345 with 17 home runs that have made it increasingly likely he'll be the Baltimore Orioles' pick at No. 1 overall in a few days.
• The nation's home run leader, Vanderbilt outfielder JJ Bleday, won't be too far behind him. His 26 dingers mess with the minds of opposing pitching staffs.
Must-See Regional: Baton Rouge
Amid your channel-flipping, spend some quality time absorbing the action of one of the best environments in college baseball, where there figures to be intrigue in every pitch this weekend. LSU fans have not forgotten 2012's stunning Super Regional loss to Stony Brook, and so there will be a measure of catharsis at stake as the Tigers open up tournament play against the Seawolves on Friday night. But LSU's pitching has been suspect, which makes it all the more interesting that Arizona State, the nation's leader in home runs, was drawn into Baton Rouge as the No. 2 seed. And third-seeded Conference USA champ Southern Miss, from less than three hours away in Hattiesburg, should be well represented.
The Magic Nine
Using the power of magic (and an idea we stole from SI's college basketball section), we're predicting the 2018–19 national champion will come from this group of nine teams. This group must contain five or fewer national seeds and seven or fewer regional hosts—there are upsets lurking everywhere on the road to Omaha.
Mississippi State: The Bulldogs' magical 2018 run came under the direction of an interim coach, Gary Henderson. Chris Lemonis has gotten the program humming again.
Vanderbilt: The Commodores had a claim for the No. 1 overall seed; maybe they'll be happy they avoided the curse.
UCLA: Fair warning: An unexpected trip to the loser's bracket can throw pitching-first teams out of alignment.
Georgia: The winner of a potential LSU-UGA Super Regional clash in Athens will enter Omaha confident that it can beat anyone.
Arkansas: The Razorbacks should draw some inspiration from Virginia, which lost the CWS final in dramatic fashion in 2014 and came back to win it all in '15.
Texas Tech: The Red Raiders have reached Omaha in three of the past five years but are just 2–6 once they get there.
North Carolina: Get ready for some offensive fireworks if the ACC tournament champs have to avenge an early-April series loss to Georgia Tech in Atlanta during the Super Regional round.
NC State: Shortstop Will Wilson is healthy and red-hot, and the Wolfpack's April inconsistencies seem to be behind them.
UCSB: Cal State-Fullerton may have missed the tournament for the first time since 1992, but the Big West almost never goes quietly in June.