Top teams face lots of obstacles on road to Omaha

Associated Press + More

By DAVID BRANDT and ERIC OLSON, Associated Press

South Carolina is the two-time defending champion and 2011 College World Series runner-up Florida is the No. 1 national seed. Those aren't the only teams poised to make deep runs at the title as NCAA regionals begin Friday.

Southeastern Conference regular-season champion LSU (43-16) earned the No. 7 national seed and features one of the great stories in college baseball in conference player of the year Raph Rhymes. The junior left fielder voluntarily gave up his scholarship after last season so coach Paul Mainieri could use the money to go after recruits to improve the program. Must be good karma. Rhymes is batting a nation-leading .459.

Pac-12 co-champion UCLA (42-14) is the No. 2 national seed and playing a home regional for the third year in a row. Don't let the Bruins' lack of power numbers fool you. They know how to get on base and move around runners, and their pitching staff is deep.

Big 12 regular-season champion Baylor won its first 18 conference games and come into regionals as the No. 4 national seed and on a 22-game home win streak. No. 6 North Carolina (44-14) has the best record in the Atlantic Coast Conference and is a national seed for the fifth time in six years. Coach Mike Fox knows how to get his team to Omaha, Neb. The Tar Heels have reached the College World Series five of the last six years.

Here are some other keys to the tournament:

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CAN SOUTH CAROLINA WIN A THIRD STRAIGHT TITLE? The No. 8 national seed Gamecocks have rebuilt their roster after losing several players that helped the program win back-to-back NCAA titles in 2010 and '11. It wasn't always easy — South Carolina lost five of six to start Southeastern Conference play — but coach Ray Tanner has built another formidable group. Ace pitcher Michael Roth leads the rotation while veteran slugger Christian Walker has been helped by newcomers like LB Dantzler, Tanner English and Joey Pankake. There should be plenty of intrigue in the Columbia Regional, especially considering archrival Clemson is the No. 2 seed.

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SEC'S USUAL SUSPECTS. Even though Florida, LSU and South Carolina received the national seeds, it's Mississippi State and Vanderbilt that are the hottest teams in the SEC heading into the NCAA tournament. The Bulldogs won the SEC tourney last week thanks to their pitching staff, which has a league-best 2.58 ERA. Ace right-hander Chris Stratton (11-1, 2.21 ERA) is one of the best pitchers in the country. Vanderbilt was in danger of finishing the season below .500 a month ago but won 12 of its final 14 games against SEC competition.

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DUCKS AND BEAVERS ARE ALL IN. Both Oregon and Oregon State are in the field for the second time in three years. The light-hitting Ducks have a dominant pitching staff led by Alex Keudell. They lost out on the Pac-12 title by getting swept at Oregon State last weekend, but they're still the No. 5 national seed in only the fourth year since the program was reinstated after a 28-year hiatus. The Beavers feature one of the nation's top freshmen in Michael Conforto (13 HRs, 71 RBIs) and have won seven of their last eight games. But they face a difficult task having to travel to LSU's rowdy Alex Box Stadium.

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CAN FLORIDA STATE FINALLY WIN IT ALL? Florida State is almost always one of the nation's best teams, but has never been able to break through to win the championship under veteran coach Mike Martin, who's taken the program to Omaha 14 times in 33 seasons. The Seminoles are the No. 3 national seed this time around but have lost four of seven games heading into the Tallahassee Regional, which includes a difficult No. 2 seed in Mississippi State. Florida State's hopes revolve around the team's two terrific freshman starting pitchers, Mike Compton and Brandon Leibrandt.

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IS PURDUE FOR REAL? The Boilermakers followed up their first Big Ten regular-season championship since 1909 with their first conference tournament title. They were the Big Ten's best hitting and pitching team, and have the conference's player of the year in catcher Kevin Plawecki. But they play in the improved but always lightly regarded Big Ten, so what does it all mean? They are No. 8 in the RPI and have 14 wins over top-60 RPI opponents. But with Kentucky adding SEC flavor to the Purdue-hosted regional in Gary, Ind., the Boilers will be hard-pressed to get to a super regional.

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MISSOURI STATE THE DARK HORSE? Missouri State is just 5-6 in its last 11 games, but it landed in as favorable a regional as it could have hoped for with first-round opponent Central Florida, host Miami and Stony Brook. The Bears' 2.51 ERA ranks second in the nation, and Missouri Valley freshman of the year Nick Petree is 10-3 with a 0.92 ERA. Central Florida is a balanced but not intimidating club and though Miami is long on tradition, this isn't a vintage Hurricanes team. It's a regional ripe for the taking.

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