The Book of Mike

"This is no junior college. This is the notorious University of Miami.” -- Marlins starter Dontrelle Willis, after getting knocked around for six runs in 2 1/3 innings by the Canes.

Wednesday, June 02, 2004

College Baseball Predictions

While you were out at the beach, or grilling, or at a baseball game, or attending a wedding this weekend, the NCAA announced the host sites for the sixteen division one baseball regionals (on Sunday), which will take place this weekend, and the sixty-four team field that will compete for the National Championship (on Monday). Details of who is hosting and what the bracket looks like can be found by following these links (hosts and bracket - you'll need Adobe Acrobat for the bracket).

The college baseball post-season seedings are more of a mystery than the basketball tournament’s seedings and the complicated formula used in football’s bowl championship series. Inevitably, this creates what look like difficult draws for some teams and relatively easy draws for other teams.

From the perspective of the top seed in each regional, lets look at who has the toughest draws in this weekend’s games.

Difficult Draws
Without even looking at the matchups, it’s easy to think that Arizona State and Florida have the toughest roads to the Super Regionals because they are the only two top seeds who are not hosting this weekend. Fortunately for Arizona State, they get to stay relatively close to home (they’ll be playing in Fullerton, California); the same good luck did not befall Florida, which will travel to Oklahoma.

Taking opponents into account, Arizona State most definitely has a difficult draw in the regionals. While they did receive the number seven seed nationally, Cal State Fullerton, the second seed in their region, is ranked 7th in the country by Boyd’s World’s Iterative Strength Rating system (Boyd’s ISR will be used extensively throughout this article to identify good and bad matchups). Arizona State is ranked higher – at 3rd – but a matchup such as this is usually more geared for the Super Regionals or College World Series and less-so for the regional round. Pepperdine and Minnesota will be worthy foes for ASU and CSUF, but I fully expect it to come down to these two clubs on Sunday.

As expected, Florida too received a difficult draw. On paper, UF and Oklahoma are nearly evenly matched. Considering that this series will be played on the Sooners’ home turf, this matchup is too close to call.

Notre Dame also received a difficult draw, although it is mainly because they are the weakest of the number one seeds. To compound the difficulty for Notre Dame, Cal-Irvine and Arizona were sent to their region. Both of these clubs could have made stronger arguments than ND to host regionals this weekend (if you believe ISR), if only they had the name recognition of the Golden Domers. With three top twenty-five programs in the fray (plus Kent State for good measure), the South Bend regional is too close to call. The Wildcats (Arizona) and Anteaters (Cal-Irvine) are likely the best teams, but they will have to overcome jet lag and Notre Dame’s home field advantage (and possibly weather) in order to win. In addition, one of them will definitely suffer a loss on Friday, putting them into the loser’s bracket early, which taxes the pitching staff.

Virginia also has a relatively difficult draw, although expectations for the Cavaliers are probably lower than those for the Gators and Fighting Irish. UVA started out the season very hot, but cooled off later in the year. They are hosting their regional, but they will face off against a Princeton team with two likely first round picks in next week’s draft and a Vanderbilt team that nearly won the SEC tournament last weekend. Vanderbilt, with an ISR of 14, is also the only team in the tournament to have a lower ISR than the top seed in their regional (UVA is 31). (George Mason is also a part of this regional).

Although they are set to host their regional this weekend, Mississippi likely received one of the toughest draws in the tournament. Washington is the second seed in this regional, and the Huskies enter ranked number five by ISR. West Coast fans will argue that the West Coast bias played a large role in this pairing, as many believe the West Coast bias to be more pronounced in baseball than in football, particularly because Division I teams are relatively spread out on the West Coast and budgets are limited. Overall, the effect is for West Coast baseball – outside of southern California and Arizona – to be relatively dismissed. Washington will do their best to dismiss that stereotype this weekend, hopefully, for the Huskies, the travel and time change won’t be too much to overcome (remember that does play more of a role in the college game, where the student-athletes are less accustomed to travel, and are usually not staying in the first class resorts of their football and professional counterparts).

On paper, putting Rice and Texas A&M in the same bracket isn’t very fair. TAMU likely deserved a better draw against a lesser opponent, but still as the two seed. Rice is a quality team and a solid pick to repeat this year. The Owls have three pitchers who will likely be drafted in the first round this month – and all three of them will likely go in the top ten. Think of the hype that would surround a basketball or football team with three likely top ten picks in the upcoming draft. That is and has been Rice for more than a year now, and for the most part, they’ve lived up to expectations. Unfortunately for the Aggies, that will likely spell a quick end to their post-season dreams.

Easy Draws – from the top
Again this is written from the perspective of the top seed in the regional – so essentially, you’re looking at good teams that were fortunate enough to be matched up against weaker opponents. You could also argue that the “difficult draws” listed above are really “easy draws” for the second or third seeds.

Texas, as the top seed in the tournament, expectedly received a relatively easy draw. The only other team in their regional that is ranked in the nation’s top 40 is Oral Roberts, which comes in at number twenty-nine. I think it’s a safe bet to assume that the Longhorns will advance to the Super Regionals.

While Florida State was arguably done a favor by being given a number one seed and in being able to host their regional (with an ISR of 19), they were possibly even more fortunate in terms of the opponents who will be sent to their regional. At twenty-eighth, Oklahoma State is the only other team ranked in the top fifty. Given that, and that the Seminoles have warmed up as the season has wore on, Florida State is a solid pick to reach the Super Regionals.

South Carolina, winners of the SEC tournament and the nation’s number two seed, will find North Carolina to be their toughest opponent this weekend. Although ISR does not think as much of South Carolina as the selection committee, as ISR ranks the Gamecocks 9th, their highest ranked opponent is UNC at number 45. The Tar Heels’ ranking is amongst the lowest of all second seeds, but they did play well in the ACC tournament and earned some quality late-season wins, which help to justify their lofty seeding. Still, it won’t be enough to pose much of a challenge to South Carolina, which will likely host a Super Regional next weekend.

And at the risk of looking like a homer and calling this one anything else, Miami received a relatively easy, if not fair, draw for the regional round of the tournament. Granted, St. Bonaventure isn’t much of a challenge on paper, but North Carolina State and Florida Atlantic are worthy foes. FAU claims they’re not happy to be in Coral Gables again and felt they should have been given a second seed elsewhere, and maybe they are right. North Carolina State is a solid club though, one with a recent history against the Hurricanes, as these two clubs squared off in the Super Regionals last year. Truth be told though, FAU and NC State are both solid two-and-a-half seeds, and Miami wasn’t put up against the likes of Texas A&M, Washington, or Cal State Fullerton as regional opponents. For that the Hurricanes should be thankful.

Believe it or not, after that massive quantity of words, I didn’t even comment on each of the regionals. I left out a total of six, and those are what I believe are the best matchups in terms of four teams who will give each other the most competition this weekend. They’re also the toughest to call. Given that, here are my projected winners of the sixteen regionals, the corresponding super regional matchups (which will take place next weekend). Teams that are most likely to host/be given the home team advantage are listed second, and bolded teams are my picks to advance to the College World Series:

Vanderbilt – Texas
Florida State – Arkansas
UC Irvine – Stanford
Georgia – Georgia Tech
East Carolina – South Carolina
Washington – Arizona State
LSU – Rice
Florida – Miami

There’s not a lot of drama in those picks. I suppose that’s not much fun, and it’s also probably not exactly how it’s going to happen. Of the eight national seeds, I have seven advancing to the College World Series in Omaha. The lone exception is Arkansas, which finished with a record of 39 wins and 21 losses, but did not reach the finals of the SEC tournament. As much as pitching and timely hitting are important in the post-season, so is momentum, and I don’t think that the Razorbacks have enough of it to carry them.

It’s a shame that Louisiana State and Rice will meet up in the Super Regionals (assuming, of course, that both take care of business this weekend). LSU and Rice are two of college baseball’s super-powers and pairing them up in the Super Regional, while leaving the likes of East and South Carolina to square off, seems to do little to bring the best possible teams to Omaha, although it does help with minimizing travel expenses and diversifying the teams that reach the Final Eight in Omaha. While the LSU – Rice matchup is a definite match of powerhouses (causing one to wonder if this pairing was favored by the folks at ESPN who are hyping their cable/satellite based subscription package for the Super Regionals - yes, I know I'll be the first to pay for it, especially if Miami isn't in it and hosting one of their own), it’s hard to pitch against Rice with their super-pitching prospects.

I think I’ve already forecasted more than enough, so I’ll leave the College World Series predictions until we have the actual eight participants. I will however re-visit these picks and the actual sixteen remaining teams next week to see how my fearless forecasting stood up.


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