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June 13, 2007

SCS.comFrom 64, down to 16, and now down to eight. Itís been an exciting postseason, and a lot of the top teams have been knocked out on the way to Omaha. The top two national seeds left in the field are on this side of the bracket, in Rice and North Carolina. Those two teams are experienced, having been in the final eight last year. Mississippi State and Louisville are the party-crashers, having made impressive postseason runs to get to Omaha. While MSU is no stranger to Omaha, this is the first time this group has been. Louisville is a real first-timer, with this year's surprising run being the deepest they've been in the postseason. The Owls and Tar Heels are two of the remaining favorites, but the Cinderella stories are looking to stay at the ball for a little while longer, and hopefully dance their way into the second weekend.


Rice Owls
Hitting: Riceís hitting hasnít exactly been on fire in the postseason, but they have a lineup capable of exploding at any time. Rice has offensive depth matched by few teams, with their entire expected starting lineup hitting at least .302 or better. The guys are there to produce, so they just need to do it.
Pitching: You would be hard-pressed to find a pitching staff with as much talented depth as the Owls have. With at least four all-star talents able to take the mound as starters, theyíve got the depth at the front that you need in Omaha. And in the bullpen, there are a couple of studs to shut it down at the end.
Coaching: In fifteen years, Wayne Graham has transformed Rice from a Southwest Conference afterthought to one of the nationís premier college baseball programs. This year marks Riceís sixth appearance in Omaha in eleven seasons
Game-Changers: The biggest name is two-way star Joe Savery, who was drafted #19 by the Phillies last week. Savery is Riceís leading hitter and is 10-1 with a 2.78 in 17 starts on the mound. Brian Friday is a star at the leadoff position, and is one of the nationís top shortstops. Out of the pen, Cole St. Clair is the shutdown closer, but Bobby Bramhall has been a bullpen stud all season long.
Louisville Cardinals
Hitting: If youíve watched the Cardinals in the past few weeks, you know they can tear the cover the ball. They put up 13 runs against Miami, 16 against Missouri, and 20 against Oklahoma State in their Omaha-clinching victory.
Pitching: As good as their hitting has been, their pitching staff ranks as one of the best in the country. Zack Pitts (10-3, 2.23 ERA) and Justin Marks (8-2, 2.54) are one of the best one-two duos in the nation. And the bullpen has three guys with at least 27 appearances and ERAís of 2.30 or lower.
Coaching: There arenít too many coaches who can compare to the success that Dan McDonnell has had in his first year, not only at Louisville, but as a head coach. McDonnell, a former Mississippi assistant, has led the Cardinals to their best season ever. Heís done it with the help of assistant coaches Chris Lemonis (a former teammate at The Citadel when they went to Omaha in 1990) and Roger Williams, whoíve developed an experienced and talented team into a group of winners.
Game-Changers: Isaiah Howes is their star at the plate, leading UL in average (.392), homers (18), and RBI (67). Leadoff hitter Boomer Whiting is the nationís leader in steals with 73, and he is hitting .358. Another X-factor might be third baseman Chris Dominguez, who has unlimited power potential but is still developing into a consistent threat at the plate.
Mississippi State Bulldogs
Hitting: MSU was one of the nationís top hitting teams for a good part of the season, but tailed off towards the end. But the Bulldogs have gotten their swing back, and were able to get to Clemsonís pitching staff, saddling high-round draft picks Daniel Moskos and David Kopp with early exits and losses. MSUís lineup is solid from leadoff hitter Jeffrey Rea on down to nine-hole hitter Jet Butler.
Pitching: Flashy? No. Getting the job done? Yes. MSUís pitching staff struggled while the hitting was on fire, but in the last several weeks, it has been very impressive. Chad Crosswhite and Justin Pigott lead their rotation, while thereís a quartet in the bullpen that is more and more becoming a force to be reckoned with.
Coaching: This might be considered one of Ron Polkís best coaching jobs ever. Heís taken a team picked to finish last in the SEC and brought them within reach of a national championship. And heís weathered injuries, a late-season struggle, and two ACC powers to do it. Of course, credit must be given to assistant coaches Tommy Raffo and Russ McNickle for helping to develop a winning ball club.
Game-Changers: Their back-to-back-to-back combo of Ed Easley, Mitch Moreland, and Brandon Turner (with Turner either batting second or fifth) is very dangerous. Easley is their most productive hitter (12 homers, 63 RBI), Moreland is a doubles machine (25 on the season), and Turner is an on-base machine (.397 average). Last Friday, those three helped turn a 5-2, fifth-inning deficit into a 6-5 lead that MSU wouldn't relinquish.
North Carolina Tar Heels
Hitting: North Carolinaís a pretty good hitting team, with eight guys hitting at least .300. Freshman Dustin Ackley is still the teamís leading hitter, though his average is down to .416. Reid Fronk leads the team in homers with 11. The team has 22 triples on the season, so thereís a little speed on the team, even though the stolen base numbers donít show it.
Pitching: The Tar Heels have an excellent rotation, with Robert Woodard, Alex White, and Luke Putkonen. The bullpen might be even better though, and it's what saved them against South Carolina, with Rob Wooten and Andrew Carignan pitching 10.1 scoreless innings.
Coaching: North Carolina has become one of the nationís elite programs under the direction of Mike Fox. Fox was a member of the CWS All-Tournament team in 1978, when the Tar Heels finished a program-best (at the time) third in Omaha. As a coach, Fox topped that finish last year, with the Tar Heels finishing a win short of the national championship.
Game-Changers: Josh Horton has been big for UNC in the postseason, delivering the game-winning single in the regional title game against Western Carolina, and hitting three doubles in the Tar Heelsí 9-6 comeback win against South Carolina on Friday. The bullpen duo of Rob Wooten and Andrew Carignan have been hard to hit in the postseason, giving up only three runs in 17.2 innings.


Rice vs Louisville
This one isnít as much of a sure thing as many might think. These two teams match up very well. Both have offenses capable of putting up big-time runs, have excellent pitching staffs, and can run. UL's Zack Pitts showed his ability to shut down a powerful lineup, throwing seven scoreless innings in a 9-0 victory over Oklahoma State last Friday. He wonít necessarily need to duplicate that performance to give Louisville a chance, but he at least needs to avoid getting into an early hole. Runs might be at a premium in the game with the arms both teams have, so cashing in opportunities when you get them will be key. It wasnít too long ago that Rice was in Louisvilleís position, so Wayne Graham will make sure his team wonít overlook the Cardinals. As far as Dan McDonnell goes, heíll have his team prepared to face their toughest challenge yet. Rice has the superior talent and should win, but something this postseason has taught us, itís not to count any team out, especially Louisville.
Mississippi State vs North Carolina
Well, well. Mississippi State faces off against their third ACC opponent in just as many weeks. The Bulldogs are 4-0 against ACC competition in the postseason, following two wins over FSU in the Tallahassee Regional and a 2-0 showing against Clemson in the super regional in Starkville. Itís going to be a hard task for them to get to 5-0, however. North Carolina has had MSU's number in the postseason the last couple of times they faced off, winning regionals in Starkville in 1989 and 2003. MSU won't need a no-hitter from their game one starter, but will at least need him to get into the sixth or seventh inning, without getting into too much trouble. The same can be said for North Carolina, whose starting pitching was off against South Carolina. Early starts will be important, as both have gotten impressive performances from their bullpen in the postseason. But UNC has been a comeback team in the postseason, and if MSU wants to pull the upset, the Bulldogs are going to have to weather the storm if and when it comes.


C: Ed Easley, Mississippi State
1B: Dustin Ackley, North Carolina
2B: Aaron Luna, Rice
SS: Brian Friday, Rice
3B: Chris Dominguez, Louisville
OF: Isaiah Howes, Louisville
OF: Reid Fronk, North Carolina
OF: Boomer Whiting, Louisville
UTIL: Joe Savery, Rice
SP: Robert Woodard, North Carolina
SP: Ryan Berry, Rice
SP: Zack Pitts, Louisville
RP: Andrew Carignan, North Carolina
RP: Cole St. Clair, Rice


1. Keep pitching well. Riceís offense will come through eventually, so itís up to the arms to keep doing what theyíve been doing in the postseason.
2. Get the bats going. Rice has scored only 22 runs in five postseason games thus far, and you'd expect a little more than that with the talent they have at the plate.
3. Donít let the favorite label trip them up again. Last year, the Owls were the favorite and started 2-0, but failed to score a run over 18 innings against Oregon State, and were eliminated a game short of the championship series.
1. Donít get overwhelmed. It might be easy to, considering the enormity of the occasion, but with the way the Cardinals have stepped up in the postseason, they shouldnít get to tense.
2. Utilize their speed. The Cardinals stole only four bases in six attempts in three games against Oklahoma State in the super, but have 153 on the season, which is second in the nation.
3. Keep those bats going. The Cards have five guys with at least 55 RBIs, and if Pete Rodriguez can continue his strong postseason, that gives them another threat.
Mississippi State
1. Solid pitching performances from the rotation. They donít want to have to exhaust their bullpen too early.
2. Production from the top of the order. Thatís where it all starts, and if the run-producers canít get it going, itíll be hard for them to succeed.
3. Consistent defense, especially on the left side of the infield. Starting two freshmen can translate into some mistakes sometimes, but in Omaha, those kinds of mistakes donít need to crop up too often.
North Carolina
1. Good starting pitching. The rotation struggled over the weekend against South Carolina.
2. Finally get a little something consistent from Chad Flack. Flack was one of UNC's best hitters last season and in the postseason, but has struggled most of this year (.251/7/44).
3. Get started early. In each game against South Carolina, the Tar Heels struggled early and then came on late. Too many slow starts get punished sooner or later, so they can't keep getting into early holes.


Rice and North Carolina are undoubtedly the best teams in the bracket, and it should come down to them for a berth in the championship series. North Carolina is looking to make up for last yearís heart-breaking championship series loss, while Rice is looking to make up for falling a win short of the series as the favorite last season. The Owls are once again in that favorite role as well. But donít underestimate MSU or Louisville. The Bulldogs have shown over the past two weeks that they can play with anyone in the country, and Louisville has given notice that they can as well. It should come down to Rice and North Carolina, but this is Omaha, which means anyone has a chance.
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