NCAA baseball tournament set to begin

Published 1:38 am Thursday, May 28, 2015

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — The NCAA baseball tournament starts Friday with regionals. The 16 winners advance to super regionals next week, and the final eight go to the College World Series in Omaha beginning June 13.

Here are some of the top story lines:

BRUINS ARE BACK: UCLA won its first national championship in 2013, only to stumble to a losing record last season as the injury bug bit the Bruins hard. They bounced back to set a program record with 22 Pac-12 victories and won all but one weekend series to earn the No. 1 national seed. Starters James Kaprielian and Grant Watson and closer David Berg head the nation’s best pitching staff, and Ty Moore leads a greatly improved offense.

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NO. 1 CURSE: The No. 1 overall seed has won the national championship only once since the tournament was expanded to 64 teams in 1999. That was Miami, in 1999. In the 15 years since, the No. 1 seed has reached the CWS 10 times, been knocked out in super regionals three times or been knocked out of regionals twice, including Oregon State last year.

WHO’S HOT: Missouri State earned the No. 8 national seed on the strength of a 16-game win streak that’s longest in the nation. The Bears have allowed two or fewer runs in 10 of those victories. Radford and St. John’s are on 15-game streaks, and VCU has won 11 straight.

WHO’S NOT: Virginia, the national runner-up in 2014, was outscored 27-9 in losing its last three. Auburn has lost seven of its last 10, including three straight to rival Alabama, and three of four to No. 4 national seed Florida. Bradley, Florida Atlantic and USF each have dropped six of 10.

WELL, THAT WAS FAST: Cal State Bakersfield makes its tournament debut in the seventh season of the program’s existence. Other first-timers are Houston Baptist, in its eighth Division I season; Florida A&M, which is .500 for a second year in a row but hasn’t had a winning season since 2003; and Radford, which has won 34 of its last 38.

IT’S BEEN A WHILE: Four teams are making their first NCAA appearances of the 21st century. Bradley hasn’t been in since 1968 and is looking to end a nine-game tournament losing streak that started in the 1956 CWS. Morehead State last appeared in 1983, Iowa in 1990 and Ohio in 1997.

MAJOR-LEAGUE ARMS?: Top pitching prospects abound. Among the best are Illinois’ Tyler Jay, UC Santa Barbara’s Dillon Tate, Vanderbilt’s Carson Fulmer and Walker Buehler, Missouri State’s Jon Harris, Cal State Fullerton’s Thomas Eshelman, Virginia’s Nathan Kirby and UCLA’s Kaprielian. All could go early in the June draft.

OTHER BIG-LEAGUERS?: Vanderbilt shortstop Dansby Swanson, the CWS Most Outstanding Player in 2014, is batting .350 with 13 homers. LSU shortstop Alex Bregman has anchored the Tigers’ infield for three years and one of the stars of the top offensive team in the tournament. Arkansas center fielder and SEC player of the year Andrew Benintendi is batting .391 with 18 homers and 22 steals.

HE DOES IT ALL: ACC freshman of the year Brendan McKay of Louisville is the best two-way player in the nation. The lefty, who became a starting pitcher in March, is 8-3 with a 1.76 ERA and a league-leading 103 strikeouts. McKay doubles as one of the ACC’s top first basemen, and he’s batting .319 with a team-best .434 on-base percentage.

MORE LONG BALLS: There will be a bump in offense if the tournament follows the season trend. Thanks to the implementation of the flat-seam ball, Division I teams have averaged 0.55 home runs a game, a notable increase from the record-low 0.39 last season. Per-team scoring has gone from 5.08 runs a game to 5.44.