Last year, the names of the opponents coming to Fayetteville, Arkansas for the opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament did little to strike fear in the hearts of Hog fans. Sure, if you were deep into the weeds of college baseball, you knew Dallas Baptist had had some stout pitching in years past (mostly with future Hog pitching coach, Wes Johnson). And you might recall Southern Miss's 2009 run to the College World Series (featuring former Razorback freshman All-American, James Ewing). In any case, however, turning them into skidmarks on the road to Omaha seemed like a foregone conclusion for the Razorbacks.
This year's regional will find some pretty solid, well-known teams backed by some pretty solid future big leaguers. Well...not you, Central Connecticut.
Central Connecticut Blue Devils - (30-21, 16-8 Northeast; RPI: 183)
Low Point: The Blue Devils never seemed to be able to get over the hump with presumptive Northeast champion, Bryant. The Bulldogs took six of the first seven contests from Central Connecticut, outscoring them 72-24.
High Point: Then the Blue Devils got over the hump. The team out of New Britain, CT came out of the loser's bracket of the Northeast Conference Tournament to take their final three games, including two to end Bryant's season and give the upstarts their NCAA Tourney berth.
Player to Watch: P Tom Curtin hasn't had the best season, but he's finishing it tremendously. After throwing a complete game shutout against Wagner in the opening game of the conference tournament, Curtin took the ball again on two days' rest to help complete the tournament victory, going 5.2 innings and giving his team a chance for their comeback in the eighth inning. For his efforts, Curtin was named the tournament's MVP.
TCU Horned Frogs - (32-26, 11-13 Big 12; RPI: 59)
Low Point: For two weeks beginning in mid-April, the Frogs couldn't get anything to go their way. The fortnight culminated in a three-game dismantling at home, courtesy of Baylor. TCU looked down and found themselves a game out of the conference cellar.
High Point: Before they were brought low by injuries and luck (and defense), big things were expected for the Horned Frogs. Ranked in the preseason Top 20, TCU nailed Vanderbilt to the wall in a preseason tournament in Arizona. Wouldn't the TCU of February be surprised to know they were probably the last team in the tournament...
Player to Watch: P Nick Lodolo is a top 10 draft prospect, and the 6'6 lefthander's numbers have borne that out this year. His ERA dropped from 4.32 in his sophomore season to 2.48 this year. He's a guy you'd love to see pitch against Cal on Friday.
California Golden Bears - (32-18, 17-11 Pac-12; RPI: 30)
Sorta Low Point: The Bears have been the definition of consistent all year, never too high or too low. Just as TCU started the year in a preseason tournament in Arizona, Cal found themselves doing the same. Cal, however, couldn't take advantage of the weekend, losing their first three games to mediocre-to-bad opponents, before salvaging the final game against BYU.
Sorta High Point: Yep, the consistency is admirable, even if it means finding a highlight is difficult. The Bears didn't get swept all year. That's something, considering they traveled to LSU, Oregon State, and top-seeded UCLA. Not that they won any of those series.
Player to Watch: 1B Andrew Vaughn is your reigning Golden Spikes winner. Batting .387 with 15 HRs may look impressive and terrifying, but just remember this is a let-down from last year. Yeesh. He's gonna be among the first five taken in this summer's draft.
Everyone is coming to Baum-Walker to watch the home team, but there's a lot of intrigue in who's sharing the field. Friday can't come soon enough!