The first half of the bracket is loaded with contenders, as North Carolina, LSU and Cal State Fullerton are serious threats to win it all. Eighth-seeded Oregon will be out to prove it deserves its national seed, and NC State will be looking to avenge its snub. Towson's bounce-back from cancelled program to automatic qualifier is one of the tourney's most intriguing story lines, as is the matchup between South Carolina and Clemson, who are paired in the Columbia regional for a second straight year.
(1) North Carolina
(5) Cal State Fullerton
We'll take a look at the bracket then dive into what to watch for this weekend.
(Bracket from NCAA.com)
Five Teams to Watch
(1) North Carolina
After finishing with the best record in college baseball (52-8) and the top-rated RPI, the Tar Heels were rewarded with the overall number one seed. North Carolina is fresh off an ACC title and enters the tournament alongside Vanderbilt and LSU as one of the odds-on favorites to win the whole thing. The trio of Trent Thornton, Kent Emanuel and Hobbs Johnson anchor them on the mound, where UNC boasts the nation's fourth-best ERA at 2.52. Offensively, they hit .305 and led the nation in runs scored. Watch for one of the most balanced teams in the field to make a deep run in Omaha.
Just three months ago, Towson head coach Mike Gottlieb was informed that his baseball program was being cut due to budget shortcomings. An intervention by Maryland's governor and $300,000 in state funds, however, saved the program and allowed the Tigers to claw their way back from the dead and into the NCAA Tournament. This team is more than just a feel-good story, though -- they just finished winning the Colonial Athletic Association championship on the back of gritty 6-strikeout outing from senior right-hander Mike Volpe.
It's been an up-and-down season for the Rebels, who jumped out to the best start in program history before going 15-15 in the SEC and missing out on a chance to host. Hitting and bullpen consistency have been issues down the stretch, but starters Bobby Wahl and Mike Mayers provide one of the better one-two punches in the tournament. A key here will be the play of leadoff man Tanner Mathis, who has come on recently after a disappointing senior season at the plate. If he and the rest of the Ole Miss bats can get hot at the right time, the Rebels could make some noise, but they'll have to get past ace pitcher Carlos Rodon and NC State first.
Many have Vanderbilt as the favorite to win this year's national championship, but LSU isn't far behind and took down the Commodores last Sunday in the SEC title game. This is the most talented team the Tigers have fielded since winning it all in 2009, and have a legitimate chance to bring the trophy back to Baton Rouge again in 2013. Defensively they throw out one of the best starting rotations in the nation, highlighted by the aptly named Aaron Nola, who went a perfect 10-0 and allowed opponents to hit a mere .194 against him. At the plate they rank fifth in the country in hits and have hammered 42 homers in the nation's top pitching conference. The high-octane offense of Louisiana-Lafayette could make for an interesting matchup this weekend, but look for LSU to move to the second round with relative ease.
The Sooners are a sexy pick among college baseball experts to emerge as a dark horse in this tournament. The Big 12 champs have the nation's top pitcher in Jonathan Gray and a reliable rotation behind him. At .283, they're not exactly crushing it at the dish, though, and will have a test against red-hot Virginia Tech, who have won 16 of their last 19 games and advanced to ACC championship. It will be up to Matt Oberste and his 11 home runs to power Oklahoma into the supers.
Five Players to Watch
Colin Moran, 3B, North Carolina
It's been a huge junior year for the power-hitting third baseman, who will likely go as one of the top picks in 2013 MLB Draft. His 84 RBI lead the country and he's slugging .579 to pace the Tar Heels offense. Look for him to improve his draft stock with a big performance in the tournament.
Jimmie Sherfy, RP, Oregon
The Golden Spikes semifinalist has anchored Oregon's bullpen all season and helped guide the Ducks to a 22-8 conference record and a (somewhat controversial) national seed. His 20 saves as a closer rank second in the nation and he holds a 1.67 ERA. He's sat down opposing batters at a strong rate, fanning an average of 13 per every nine innings. If Oregon heads into the ninth with a lead this weekend, you might as well change the channel.
Thomas Eshelman, SP, Cal State Fullerton
Eshelman has been phenomenal as a freshman, going 11-2 with a 1.63 ERA. Through just under 100 innings pitched this year, he's recorded 71 strikeouts compared to a mind-boggling two walks. That's a 35.5 strikeout-to-walk ratio. The young right-hander gives the Titans the chance to win any game he starts and could carry them deep into this year's tourney. The scariest part about this team? Eshelman's fellow freshman starter Justin Garza is just as good and finished the season with an even better record.
Jonathan Gray, SP, Oklahoma
Many think the Astros could make Gray the first overall selection in this year's MLB draft, and for good reason. The junior has struck out 127 batters this season and is only allowing around five hits per game. He dominates batters with three pitches that includes an incendiary fastball that scouts have clocked at over 100 mph. A strong performance in Blacksburg could cement his draft standing, so Gray will come out pumping smoke this weekend.
Mason Katz, 1B, LSU
SEC Freshman of the Year Alex Bregman is getting a lot of headlines in Baton Rouge, but it's the veteran Katz who is the foundation of this offense. He led the Tigers in RBI, home runs and slugging percentage this season and provides invaluable senior leadership. He's rocking an OBP of .465, so expect to see a good bit of him on the base paths during the regional round. At some point in the next two weeks he'll play his final game in Alex Box Stadium, so you can bet he'll come ready to play.