And So It Begins...
It's always easiest to pick on the team chosen last. In college sports the postseason is simply an unjust finale to a year, in all the NCAA sports across the board. Every playoff system leaves room for argument, and as we build up our disdain, we let it out on team #64, or the selection committee that backed them.
In baseball, those are one in the same. In the largest travesty of the 2006 College World Series tournament, Mississippi State University received a bid to play postseason ball. Their strongest argument, a red-hot start to the season, was topped by Old Dominion's better start. The argument that the SEC deserves more teams than most conference is negated by the exclusion of LSU, their first since 1989.
In the end, the only piece of evidence left that makes sense is that the chair of the selection committee doubles as the MSU athletic director. No joke.
Of course, this wasn't the selection committee's only mistake. There are plenty more - the pac-10 champion Oregon State University didn't receive a top 8 national seed, meaning they play Texas in the second round. But harping on injustices, however, is to ignore the fun tournament that starts this weekend and carries us to late June.
If anything, we can just use the committee's mistakes as reasons to cheer. Root for Oregon State, boo Mississippi State, but in the end, allow yourself to be enraptured. If you are heading into the weekend without a lot of background on the CWS, here's a quick and dirty look at the nation's 16 regionals, to be played this weekend.
Clemson RegionalParticipants (in order of seed): Clemson, Elon, Mississippi State, UNC Asheville
There was no question among the selection committee who the top teams were -- Clemson, Rice -- the only problem was finding a ranking. Clemson received the nod, and as a result, the definitively less experienced two seed in Elon. However, the Elon offense is nothing to take lightly - six regular spots have an average over .300, and the team is hitting .305/.410/.477 overall. While I like SoCon Freshman of the Year Steven Hensley, who might pitch the Phoenix past MSU, Clemson has an insane amount of depth. Look for the likes of Tyler Colvin, Andy D'Alessio and Josh Cribb to cruise the Tigers into round 2.
Arkansas RegionalParticipants: Oklahoma st, Arkansas, Oral Roberts, Princeton
This regional represents another postseason injustice: non-hosting one seeds. While the Cowboys deservedly received the top seed in this regional, the committee opted to play it in Fayetteville. This obviously works in Arkansas' favor, who will already have the dangerous Nick Schmidt (a surefire 2007 first rounder) ready to shut down the dangerous Oklahoma State bats. Oral Roberts walked through the Mid-Continent Conference, but don't depend on them for your upset. If you watch any of this regional, try the Schmidt-Corey Brown match-up, we'll be talking about both a lot in a year.
Kentucky RegionalParticipants: Kentucky, College of Charleston, Notre Dame, Ball State
Kentucky very well might be the Cinderella story of the season; the most unlikely of 40-win SEC teams. However, Coach of the Year John Cohen has an offensive bunch, led by Ryan Strieby and John Shelby the team slugged .530 on the year. However, the Fighting Irish just might have the arms to quiet the Wildcats. Jeff Manship is one of the draft's most underrated prospects, but if he gets the nod in an opening round clash against College of Charleston, we might be forced to see Jeff Samardzija get more airtime. I don't like the guy's pro prospects, but in college, his mid-90s fastball is a good bet to get the job done.
Pick: Notre Dame.
Georgia Tech RegionalParticipants: Georgia Tech, Vanderbilt, Michigan, Stetson
OK, we have already found a better sophomore potential pitcher-batter match up: David Price vs. Matt Wieters. Price is the odds-on favorite to be the first collegiate player drafted in a year, and if scouts continue to prefer Wieters at catcher (he doubles as a closer), then Matt could be the first hitter taken. But, these players are just faces on a pair of star-studded teams. Price is backed by an offense that includes a fantastic pair of Freshman: Pedro Alvarez and Ryan Flaherty. Tech is a veteran-led team, expect Wes Hodges, Whit Robbins and Jeff Kindel to attack Price. The Commodores are truly a team built for 2007, and given Price's late season slide, the Yellow Jackets should cruise.
Pick: Georgia Tech.
Fullerton RegionalParticipants: Cal State Fullerton, Fresno State, San Diego, St. Louis
Fullerton is simply a powerhouse, a well-built George Horton factory. This year's team is no exception, led by sophomore ace Wes Roemer - who walked just four batters all year...in 125.2 innings. CSUF does not make mistakes and has depth, a team built for the Super Regionals. I like San Diego to upset Fresno State for rights to lose to the Titans, as Fresno suspended their only significant offensive threat - Beau Mills - for the remainder of the season. San Diego has a good group of arms including Josh Butler and Brian Matusz, they might scare Fullerton, but they won't have the offense to beat them.
Pick: Cal State Fullerton.
Pepperdine RegionalParticipants: Pepperdine, UCLA, UC Irvine, Missouri
Underline it, circle it and star it; this is the best regional, hands down. Pepperdine was a surprise regional host, but as a result, drew the most difficult four seed. Missouri struggled all season with junior ace Max Scherzer hurt and outfielder Hunter Mense struggling. With Max back, this is a dangerous team. If the Waves could make it past the Tigers, they would face the winner of the John Savage match-up: his new club (UCLA) or his old one (UC Irvine). UCLA is a good team and should make it past Irvine, and I like Scherzer to pitch his way past the host; he's been too good the last two weeks. The deciding game should be UCLA's David Huff against Missouri's Nathan Culp, two of the 2006 draft's best southpaws. Huff is a favorite of mine, and the better pitcher, but I'll take the Tigers as my shocker.
North Carolina RegionalParticipants: North Carolina, Winthrop, UNC Wilmington, Maine
The Tar Heels were surely one of the last picks to host a regional, especially after not winning a game in the ACC Tournament. But for the first time in more than 20 years, Chapel Hill will be host, and it couldn't be a better group of arms to showcase. UNC will be so tough to beat with Daniel Bard, Andrew Miller, and Robert Woodard all rested and waiting. The team is prone to making mistakes, but I'm not convinced Winthrop is strong enough for the effort. If they pitch their stud freshman, Alex Wilson, against Wilmington, there will just not be enough in the tank to face UNC. If they try to wait with Wilson, they might not even make it past the Seahawks. Lots of pressure on North Carolina to come through, and I think they'll do it.
Pick: North Carolina.
Alabama RegionalParticipants: Alabama, Troy, Southern Miss, Jacksonville St.
Argue with me if you'd like, but this should not be a difficult weekend for Alabama. At all. I say this knowing full well about Mike Felix, the Troy junior two-way player that might be the most underrated player in the country. I also am well aware of Alabama's offensive problems, with a team OPS just north of .800. But this team can pitch, and they should pitch their way to the super regionals. Freshman Tommy Hunter should get the opener against Southern Miss, as 'Bama saves ace Wade Leblanc, and his 10-0 perfect record, to face Felix, who struck out 12 more batters in 20 less innings on the year.
Rice RegionalParticipants: Rice, Arizona St, Baylor, Prairie View
I tend to disagree with the committee; Rice is the best team in the country. After starting a bit slow, to use relatively, Rice has been on a tear for the last two months. They destroy anything they come across. That being true, this shouldn't be a hard weekend for the Owls. Arizona State has been in the postseason many times, and should come well coached, but this is another team so dependent upon young hitters. Freshman Brent Wallace, Ike Davis, and Preston Paramore are all key parts to that offense. When these players face senior right-hander Eddie Degerman, who despite a lackluster pro profile does deserve to be in the discussion for pitcher of the year, expect Degerman to come out on top.
Oklahoma RegionalParticipants: Oklahoma, Houston, Wichita State, TCU
Another very deep regional, and like my pick in the Pepperdine regional, I'm choosing the best arm: Brad Lincoln. The Cougars had quite the argument for hosting a regional themselves, and Lincoln is the reason why - no player in the country carries his team like Brad. But don't take that as a knock on Houston, they have the depth to compete with anyone thanks to a solid group of arms. Wichita State and TCU both seem to be a year away. Oklahoma is an intriguing pick, a veteran team led by senior Daniel McCutchen, but when he faces Lincoln, the Player of the Year will rise to the top.
Virginia RegionalParticipants: Virginia, South Carolina, Evansville, Lehigh
Pass. This is not the best of regionals, as Virginia doesn't strike me as a legit top seed. However, thanks to South Carolina's youth, there is no real direct threat to the Cavaliers. South Carolina is so talented; both Justin Smoak and Reese Havens turned down serious money to become Gamecocks, but neither should be leaned on against Sean Doolittle. The Virginia star beat out the likes of Andrew Miller, Matt Antonelli and Shane Robinson for ACC Player of the Year honors - the result of double-digit win and double totals. Look for Virginia to ride him to the second round.
Georgia RegionalParticipants: Georgia, Florida St, Jacksonville, Sacred Heart
Georgia struggled in the first half of the season on weekends, losing numerous weekend series before capturing their last 4, and five of their last 6. Their late season success can be credited to Brooks Brown, as well as hitters Joey Side and Josh Morris. All three are juniors on the way out, and are dying to show freshman like Gordon Beckham the way to get it done. Standing in their way is Florida State, who counter Beckham with a freshman shortstop of their own - Buster Posey. The series will likely come down to Bryan Henry against Brown, and with stud sophomore closer Josh Fields waiting in the wings, it's hard to pick against the Bulldogs.
Nebraska RegionalParticipants: Nebraska, Miami (FL), San Francisco, Manhattan
This should be a cakewalk for Nebraska, as this is really a down season for the Hurricanes. In fact, a first round loss to San Francisco would not be too surprising. The Cornhuskers have such a deep pitching staff that even Manhattan - who does have a 2007 top five rounder - will be getting a top-3 round caliber talent in Tony Watson. Once Joba Chamberlain takes the mound in Lincoln to advance Nebraska, it's over. Chamberlain's profile was built upon last year's CWs, expect more of the same in 2006.
Mississippi RegionalParticipants: Mississippi, Tulane, South Alabama, Bethune-Cookman
To me, the Tulane-South Alabama stands as one of the most intriguing first round match-ups. Tulane, in hopes of making a Super Regional, will likely hold off on ace sophomore Sean Morgan, hoping to throw him against Old Miss. South Alabama, on the other hand, will have all hands on deck in hopes of beating Tulane, including the nation's most prolific pitcher: P.J. Walters. Walters pitched well in the Cape last summer and has been successful for South Alabama all season - certainly an interesting mid rounds selection. If Walters really wants to make a name for himself, it would be by beating Tulane. I don't think he will, however, as I believe the Green Wave's bats will carry them past not only South Alabama, but Ole Miss as well.
Oregon State RegionalParticipants: Oregon State, Kansas, Hawaii, Wright State
For two years now the Beavers have been a really fun team to root for - college baseball's Mystery, Alaska. The team added even more in terms of likability after getting screwed by the selection committee. Put an adoring fan base together with Dallas Buck, Jonah Nickerson and Kevin Gunderson, all juniors, and you have a regional winner. Kansas is the Kentucky of the Big 12, even more apt after their recent Big 12 tournament win. But if Hawaii ace Steven Wright shuts them down this weekend and upsets the Jayhawks, don't be surprised. In the end, Oregon State, and it won't be particularly close.
Pick: Oregon State.
Texas RegionalParticipants: Texas, NC State, Stanford, Texas-Arlington
There isn't a bad team in this regional - there isn't a consistent one either. Texas was so beatable earlier in the year, coming out of the gates losing to San Diego handily. But the Longhorns have turned it around and enter the tournament ready for another big run, Drew Stubbs and Kyle McCulloch's last hurrah. Without Andrew Brackman, who wasn't even good this year, NC State doesn't have that shutdown pitcher, so the second round match could have a football final score - Texas, 14; NC State, 6.
First of all, let me again attempt to urge you all to watch college baseball when at all possible in the next three weeks. The game of aluminum is a fun one to watch, even if you have to wince through multi-error games. Real emotion will be on display every night, and some of this year and next year's best talents will be passing through television screens and ballparks across the country.
Finally, I know you guys want some "win-it-all" picks. I'll predict the specific Super Regional games next weekend, but let's cross our fingers that we get some dandies like Rice v. Houston, Oregon State v. Texas, UNC v. Alabama and Clemson v. Arkansas. Talk about dramatic baseball. Until then, here's my first guess at the CWS: Clemson, Georgia Tech, Fullerton, Alabama, Houston, Georgia, Nebraska, Texas.
At that point, the hottest team wins, so I'm going to make a surprise choice and pick Alabama to win it all, riding on the veteran arm of Wade Leblanc and Tommy Hunter's new arm. But in the final I think 'Bama plays Nebraska, and the Cornhuskers deserve as good of odds as anyone to win it this year.
Now go, my readers, and fill out those brackets!