A Dilettante’s Guide to the NCAA Tournament, Part 1

Vasha Hunt-USA TODAY Sports

I’ll start by conceding that one of the greatest strengths of college baseball, as an entertainment product, can sometimes be a weakness: There’s just so much of it. On the one hand, the first week of the NCAA Tournament is a baseball sicko’s paradise, with uninterrupted wall-to-wall action from noon to midnight all weekend, and stretching into Monday.

If one game is out of hand early, fear not — you can switch to any one of about six different streams on ESPN+, or you can camp out watching Squeeze Play and chant “Quad Box! Quad Box!” at your TV until Mike Rooney morphs into a kaiju and lays waste to downtown Omaha.

It’s the best weekend of TV in the baseball season, and one of the best sports-watching weekends out there full stop. But coming in completely cold can be a little difficult. A couple years ago, a friend of mine found himself at an MLB playoff game despite knowing barely anything about baseball. So in order to help him fit in, I texted him talking points throughout the game, Cyrano de Bergerac-style, making it look like he was following the action.

That’s my goal here, to go through all 16 regionals — eight today, eight on Friday — and deliver at least one useful bit of information about the teams at each site. And in order to combat my natural impulse for verbosity, I’m going to try to adhere to a 150-word limit for each capsule. (I can sense Meg and/or Matt’s skepticism already, but I’m going to do my best.)

Knoxville Regional
1. Tennessee
2. Southern Mississippi
3. Indiana
4. Northern Kentucky

You’re going to hear a lot about how deep the SEC was this year, with the It Just Means More conference placing 11 of 14 teams in the field. Bear that in mind when you hear that the Vols — the no. 1 overall seed — went 22-8 in conference play and 50-11 overall. The top five hitters on the Vols’ roster by at-bats all had an OPS over 1.000; as a team, Tennessee hit .311/.414/.600, led by second baseman Christian Moore, who hit 28 home runs this year.

And as veteran college baseball observers might remember, this club plays with a bit of an edge.

I’d be surprised if anyone put a scare into Tennessee, but Southern Miss, under first-year head coach Christian Ostrander, comes into regionals on a 14-1 run. Indiana is a perpetual Big Ten power but limped to a 32-24-1 record this year. NKU is an NCAA Tournament debutant, having won the Horizon League tournament in fascinating fashion. The Norse put up 23 runs on Youngstown State in the final without hitting a home run, and — like Tennessee — can bang. NKU hit .320/.436/.546 this year, with 125 steals on only 142 attempts. Outfielder Treyvin Moss hit .388/.450/.675 with 29 steals this season, and won Horizon League Tournament MVP honors by driving in 12 runs in three tournament games.

Greenville Regional
1. East Carolina
2. Wake Forest
3. VCU
4. Evansville

For the draft-concerned reader, this is probably your regional. These four teams feature at least four players who figure to go in the top 20 picks: Wake Forest’s Chase Burns, Nick Kurtz, and Seaver King, along with ECU ace Trey Yesavage. Cards on the table: Burns is my favorite player in all of college baseball this year. He’s an explosive, excitable right-hander with upper-90s velo and a plus slider. He’s struck out nearly two batters per inning this season, and despite maxing out at 109 pitches in any start, he’s punched out at least 13 batters in nine of his 15 appearances. In his past four starts, Burns has allowed a single earned run in 26 innings and recorded 57 of 78 outs by strikeout. Oh, and if Wake wins this regional, Burns will face his former team, Tennessee, in the super. College baseball media has been practically foaming at the mouth over that possibility.

Yesavage missed the AAC Tournament with a partially collapsed lung — yikes — but will be back to full strength for this weekend. For those of you who like multi-inning relievers, VCU’s innings leader is sophomore Brian Curley, who has a 2.51 ERA in 75 1/3 innings spanning 17 bullpen outings. Evansville has a great mascot name — the Purple Aces — and a surprisingly rich baseball heritage, counting Kyle Freeland, Sal Fasano, and former no. 1 overall pick Andy Benes among its alumni. Evansville is also the hometown of Don Mattingly, though he went pro out of high school.

Norman Regional
1. Oklahoma
2. Duke
3. UConn
4. Oral Roberts

One for the basketball fans. Duke capped off an ACC Tournament championship run with a 16-4 win over no. 8 national seed Florida State, and might feel slightly aggrieved at being denied a hosting bid. As it is, the Blue Devils will face Oklahoma. The Sooners overcame a midseason hamate injury to star outfielder John Spikerman to go 23-7 in the Big 12 despite merely average pitching. Of the top 16 national seeds, eight were in the top 14 in staff ERA; Oklahoma was 73rd, at 5.22. Duke outscored and outhomered Oklahoma this season, and should a 1-2 game get close, expect All-ACC closer Charlie Beilenson to come in to tamp down Oklahoma’s offense.

UConn is in a regional for a sixth straight year off the back of the Huskies’ fourth consecutive Big East regular season title. And if you’re licking your chops at Oral Roberts making another surprise run to Omaha as a no. 4 seed, this team is not that team. This year’s ORU club needed a Cinderella run through the Summit League tournament to make a regional, and has the worst record (27-30-1) and RPI (266) of any team in the field.

Tallahassee Regional
1. Florida State
2. Alabama
3. UCF
4. Stetson

This should be one of the more competitive regionals. Florida State has a good bullpen but a bit of a chaotic rotation behind ace Jamie Arnold. Bama is headed in the right direction as a program; the Tide are thriving under first-year head coach Rob Vaughn, who was hired after the dumbest betting scandal in baseball history claimed the previous coach. Alabama has won series against Tennessee and Arkansas, but the team sort of backed onto the bubble after losing its final regular season series against Auburn, then going out in the first round of the SEC Tournament. Stetson won the conference tournament to earn its bid, but its 20-10 conference record was matched by a 20-10 record against some pretty tough nonconference opponents. That includes season series splits against West Virginia, Florida, and — relevant to this regional — Florida State and UCF.

The big question for Florida State is whether head coach Link Jarrett burns Arnold against Stetson or tries to steal a game with another pitcher and save his Friday night guy for the winner of Bama-UCF. On the one hand, why take unnecessary risks against a good no. 4 seed? On the other hand, maybe a lineup anchored by future first-rounder James Tibbs III can carry the Seminoles to the winners’ bracket where Arnold would be much more valuable against either Alabama or UCF.

Fayetteville Regional
1. Arkansas
2. Louisiana Tech
3. Kansas State
4. Southeast Missouri State

The Razorbacks enter regionals on their longest losing streak since April of last year — three games. Arkansas is a machine built to swallow up baseball teams and spit smoke and debris out the back. No. 1 starter Hagen Smith is a surefire top-10 pick; he’s the Beach Boys to Burns’ Rolling Stones, and is nearly as prolific a strikeout artist (154 in 79 innings, 1.48 ERA, .139 opponent batting average). And it’s a great pitching staff in general; Arkansas leads the country with a 3.66 ERA and held opponents to a .216 average. That makes up for a bit of a lackluster offense by top-end SEC standards, but the Razorbacks still managed to score 6.6 runs per game, thanks to two .300 hitters named Peyton (Stovall and Holt).

LA Tech’s matchup against Kansas State will be interesting, because the Bulldogs are relatively untested against power conference opposition; they went 0-4 against such teams this season. Kansas State returns to the tournament for the first time since 2013, having fought its way off the bubble. SEMO took two of three from home run-happy Morehead State to win the Ohio Valley Conference tournament, but like LA Tech, the Redhawks faced a weak schedule: 0-5 against tournament teams (Evansville and Dallas Baptist), with only one game against power conference opposition.

Charlottesville Regional
1. Virginia
2. Mississippi State
3. St. John’s
4. Penn

Scheduling for the NCAA Tournament can get a little wonky, because after the seeds are doled out, the selection committee likes to keep teams close to home. Unfortunately, the teams that are good enough to host are mostly in the Southeast, so most of the lower-seeded teams will have to get on a plane. Virginia is the closest thing this field has to a Mid-Atlantic host, so two perennial mid-major powers from that region (St. John’s and Penn) end up here. Penn was surprisingly frisky in the Auburn regional last spring, starting 2-0 before ultimately bowing out in the regional final.

Ultimately, I don’t think that’s going to matter much, because UVA is to hitting what Arkansas is to pitching. The Cavaliers are second among power conference teams in home runs and runs scored this year. Eleven Virginia batters came to the plate at least 100 times this year; the lowest batting average among them is .294; they hit .341 as a team. The one college series I was able to catch in person this year was UVA-Wake in Charlottesville in March; Burns shut Virginia down in his start, but UVA scored a combined 27 runs in the other two games.

Mississippi State does have an unusual option for stopping the Virginia onslaught: potential first-rounder Jurrangelo Cijntje. Even though he’s only 5-foot-11, Cijntje can hit the upper 90s with his fastball, but he’s unique among college pitchers in that he can also turn around and pitch left-handed.

Tucson Regional
1. Arizona
2. Dallas Baptist
3. West Virginia
4. Grand Canyon

Come to this regional for the flashy pitching, stay for the bureaucratic infighting.

This is a tough draw for host Arizona, who’ll face DBU’s customary assembly line of enormous hard-throwing Texans. Dallas Baptist is not your average no. 2 seed; the Patriots finished eighth in the country in ERA and are 17th in the RPI. They also feasted on high-level competition, with a 9-2 record in matchups designated by the NCAA as Quad 1 — the best record in the country (minimum 10 games). Their 5-0 record against the nationally seeded teams in this tournament includes a win over Arizona at the Frisco Classic back in March.

With that said, look out for West Virginia’s JJ Wetherholt, who was a potential no. 1 overall pick before a hamstring injury cost him about 20 games. He hit .349/.490/.642 this season when healthy, which he is now. Grand Canyon’s in an odd spot; GCU dominated a weak WAC (say that three times fast) in the regular season, but went 0-2 in the conference tournament. Nevertheless, the controversial institution’s baseball team won an automatic bid because WAC Tournament champion Tarleton State was ruled ineligible while transitioning to Division I. With that said, GCU did mercy rule Arizona earlier this year, so don’t read too much into recent form, I guess.

Chapel Hill Regional
1. North Carolina
2. LSU
3. Wofford
4. Long Island

This regional excites me because the UNC-Long Island first-round matchup is going to be the Super Bowl for guys who wore backwards hats and tank tops to the beach in the 90s. But on a more serious note, drawing LSU as a no. 2 seed is a nightmare for potential first-round pick Vance Honeycutt and the Tar Heels. UNC had occasional trouble with top-end competition in the regular season, going 8-9 in Quad 1 games, and LSU is white hot right now.

The Tigers were on the bubble about two weeks ago, but they ripped off a seven-game winning streak that only ended in a close loss to Tennessee in the SEC Tournament final. There might not be a hotter team in the country right now. There’s no more Paul Skenes and Dylan Crews, but the Tigers did return slugging third baseman Tommy White, who’s one of five LSU players to receive All-SEC honors. Two of those — outfielder Ashton Larson and second baseman Steven Milam — were among my favorite high school prospects in last year’s draft.

Milam in particular is fun to watch; he’s listed at 5-foot-8, thanks to an extremely generous measuring tape. Nevertheless, he hit .328/.424/.500 in 58 games. If you fined people in SEC territory a dollar every time they saw Milam — a short LSU infielder from New Mexico — and brought up Alex Bregman, you could fund an NIL collective.

Most of the attention in this regional will be on UNC and LSU — and rightly so, in my opinion — but Wofford could sneak up on the top two seeds. A normal season for the Terriers involves trying to break into the top five baseball programs in the state of South Carolina; this year, Wofford went 41-18, finished 46th in RPI — one spot ahead of Texas — and hit .340 as a team. That’s the third-best batting average in the country. They also finished in the top 10 in stolen bases, as junior outfielder Marshall Toole went 42-for-45.

So yeah, if North Carolina wants to make it to the Super Regional, the Tar Heels have to avoid getting mauled by the Tigers or nibbled to death by the Terriers.

Which, in conclusion, illustrates something I think casual fans and newcomers would love about college baseball: There’s a genuine diversity in style of play. I’m an analytics guy — in case you couldn’t tell by where I work — but information and efficiency often breeds sameness. There’s just not enough talent in Division I for 64 good teams to maximize their chances by all doing the same thing.

I didn’t make the word count limit for a single one of these capsules, by the way. Maybe I’ll do better in Part 2, which runs on Friday.

Michael is a writer at FanGraphs. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Ringer and D1Baseball, and his work has appeared at Grantland, Baseball Prospectus, The Atlantic, ESPN.com, and various ill-remembered Phillies blogs. Follow him on Twitter, if you must, @MichaelBaumann.

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14 days ago

This is great stuff that will be very helpful to reference throughout the tournament. Thanks Michael!

14 days ago
Reply to  kevo8

Oh, and go Hoos!

14 days ago
Reply to  kevo8

Wah hoo wah!