NCAA Baseball Tournament 2014: Louisville Regional Preview

USA TODAY Sports

The last major event of U of L's 2013-14 athletics season gets underway later today when the Louisville baseball team begins play in the NCAA Tournament.

Even if baseball isn't your thing, the chance to achieve the ever-rare back-to-back trips to the CWS as well as end UK's year-long head-to-head reign of terror should be enough to demand your attention for the next three (or four) days.

Here's a quick look at the essential information you need to fully submerge yourself in this weekend's events.

THE SCHEDULE

Friday, May 30 | (ESPN3)
Game 1: No. 2 Kentucky vs. No. 3 Kansas - 2 p.m.
Game 2: No. 1 Louisville vs. No. 4 Kent State - 6 p.m.

Saturday, May 31 | (ESPN3)
Game 3: Game 1 Loser vs. Game 2 Loser - 1 p.m.
Game 4: Game 1 Winner vs. Game 2 Winner - 5 p.m.

Sunday, June 1 | (ESPN3)
Game 5: Game 3 Winner vs. Game 4 Loser - Noon
Game 6: Game 5 Winner vs. Game 4 Winner - 4 p.m.

Monday, June 2 | (ESPN3) - If necessary

TICKET INFORMATION

Single Session:
General Admission (berm), $10
Chair-back, $15
College Student, $5

All-Tournament Pass:
General Admission (berm), $55
Chair-back, $70
College Student, $45

THE TEAMS

1. Louisville (45-15, 19-5 AAC)

WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW:

--This is the team you're rooting for.

--This is the team you want to win the regional

TWO STRENGTHS:

--As seems to be the case every year when we get to this point, Louisville has the deepest and most accomplished pitching staff of the four teams in the regional. That depth takes a hit with No. 2 starter Jared Ruxer sidelined because of a forearm injury, but Kyle Funkhouser, Anthony Kidston and Josh Rogers still form a formidable rotation that has a combined record of 21-5 this season. And then there's closer Nick Burdi, one of the top MLB prospects in the country and also one of the few human beings in the world who can rarely hit triple digits with his fastball. U of L enters the big dance ranked seventh nationally in strikeouts per nine innings (8.4), and 22nd in ERA (2.85).

--Another signature of McDonnell's Louisville teams is aggressiveness at the plate and on the base paths, which is why it should come as little surprise that the Cardinals are once again among the nation's leaders in steals. U of L's 121 swipes are actually more than both Kentucky and Kansas (102) and Kent State and Kansas (114) combined.

TWO WEAKNESSES:

--While McDonnell's first handful of Louisville teams often won by putting up monster offensive numbers, he's had to flip the script a little bit since college baseball's infamous bat switch in 2011. Since then, U of L has been known far more pitching, defense and "crumb hunting" on offense than it has for being a lineup of big bats. This year's squad has its fair share of guys who can get it done at the plate, but it's still a bit odd to see a regional host that ranks next-to-last in team average, slugging percentage and runs per game.

--While Louisville has the best overall record of the four teams in this weekend's regional, there's a chance that wouldn't be the case if this U of L team had made the move to the ACC a year ahead of schedule. The Cards are 45-15 overall heading into the big dance, but just 6-8 versus teams ranked in the top 50 of the RPI rankings. Louisville is also the only squad at their own regional with a losing record against top 25 teams (4-5). Who knows if that relative lack of quality competition comes back to bite them now.

PLAYER TO WATCH:

Nick Burdi is the best pro prospect on the roster and Kyle Funkhouser is second in the nation in wins, but no player is more important to Louisville's success this weekend than Jeff Gardner. The AAC Player of the Year hit .340 with eight home runs and 19 doubles while leading the league with 61 RBI and a .575 slugging percentage. U of L can't afford to see its offense flounder this weekend, and the responsibility for keeping that from happening starts with its biggest bat.

2. Kentucky (35-23, 14-16 SEC)

WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW:

--You don't like them.

--They've already beaten Louisville twice and have arguably the best player in college baseball.


TWO STRENGTHS:

--There's no getting around it, this is the best offensive team in the regional. Kentucky walks into Jim Patterson with six starters hitting over .300, and ranking fourth in the nation in home runs and fifth in scoring. Their team average of .302 is easily the best in the regional, and their total of 59 home runs dwarfs the totals of Louisville (31), Kent State (25) and Kansas (22).

--Sure, UK had a losing record in SEC play, but playing in arguably the best conference in the history of college baseball can have that effect. The larger truth is that the Cats are beyond battle tested. They've played 19 games against top 25 teams and won 12 of those, and taken the field a whopping 27 times against teams with a top 50 RPI and won 15 of those. Nothing the Cats see this weekend or beyond this weekend is going to intimidate them.

TWO WEAKNESSES:

--Part of the reason for UK's up-and-down season has been its rugged schedule, but key injuries to key pitchers have also played a huge role. Righthanded pitchers Kyle Cody and Chandler Shepherd are both back, but have both been injury prone in the past and missed time this season. Part of that is why the Cats head to Louisville with a not-so-stellar team ERA of 3.98, easily the worst in the four-team field.

--This is where the road typically ends for the Bat Cats. Actually, this is where the road always ends for the Bat Cats. Not only is Kentucky the only team in the SEC that has never advanced to the College World Series, they've never made it out of regional play. UK is 0-4 in regional openers under coach John Cohen, and has advanced to a true regional final just once. I'm also struck by how much this team reminds me of the 2013 Miami Hurricanes who came to Louisville a year ago. That Miami team had one less overall win, but the same total number of losses and an identical conference record. The Canes were supposed to be the team to watch because of their big bats and next-level talent, and they promptly rolled over and did nothing.

PLAYER TO WATCH:

--A.J. Reed is the best player in college baseball, and he has the numbers and awards to back it up. He's hitting .351, leads the nation in home runs (23) and slugging percentage (.768), ranks second in total bases (162), fourth in RBI (70) and ninth in OBP (.491). Oh and he's also one of the best pitchers in the country, entering regional play with an 11-2 record and a 2.10 ERA. He'll take the hill for the Cats on Saturday.

3. Kansas (34-24, 15-9 Big 12)

WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW:

--KU lost its best pitcher midway through the season and wound up being one of the last teams to squeak into the field of 64 with an at-large bid.

--This is their fifth trip to the NCAA Tournament.

TWO STRENGTHS:

--The Jayhawks are the best defensive team in the regional, a necessary attribute given their lack of power numbers on the offensive side. Kansas enters play on Friday with a sparkling team fielding percentage of .971, the best of the four teams competing this weekend.

--KU's pitching statistics aren't going to floor anyone, especially with previously mentioned ace Wes Benjamin out of the equation, but they have some big arms. All four of the Jayhwak hurlers who get the most work have fastballs that consistently hover in the 90-94 mph range. That's good enough to beat just about any team who isn't bringing the right approach to the plate on that day.

TWO WEAKNESSES:

--Benjamin's injury was and still is an absolute killer. KU had to move former closer Jordan Piche' into the role of No. 1 starter, a role he will assume against Kentucky on Friday. Piche' has been good, but not great, with a 6-5 record and an ERA above 4. The same can be said for Kansas' other two starters, who have a combined record of 10-8.

--Kansas wins with small ball because they have to. The Jayhawks have the lowest team average (.284), slugging percentage (.382), home run total (22) and runs per game average (5.6) in the regional. That's not exactly an ideal resume to be carrying into a game against one of the top offensive teams in the country.

PLAYER TO WATCH:

Slick fielding shortstop Justin Protacio will likely get most of the media attention this weekend because he's 5'5 and has a knack for getting on base, but I'm going with Connor McKay. He's had a bit of a down year, but is still the one guy on the team capable of busting out and hitting three or four bombs this weekend, an event which might need to occur for KU to have a shot at advancing.

Kent State (36-21, 16-11 MAC)

WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW:

--The Flashes might be the most dangerous four seed in the entire tournament, if only because they're a program that's used to being in the big dance and winning once they get there. Kent State has won either the MAC's regular-season or tournament title in 14 of the last 15 seasons, and crashed the College World Series two years ago.

--They know how to party.

TWO STRENGTHS:

--Several key contributors on this team were also key members of the 2012 CWS team, including No. 1 starter Brian Clark, a classic power pitcher who can top out in the mid-90s. He pitched four innings against Louisville last year, allowing five hits and one run. Despite being the No. 4 seed, Kent State isn't going to be overwhelmed by the moment, especially when you consider that they beat Kentucky twice in the 2012 regional.

--Zarley Zalewski (.355/2/40) and Cody Koch, who's hitting .330 and has some solid pop (7 homers, 57 RBI), are two of the better hitters in the regional.

WEAKNESSES:

--No team is heading into the weekend more limited by injuries or illnesses than Kent State. Alex Miklos, the team's best hitter at .362, and infielder Sawyer Polen, have been sidelined by a knee injury and mono, respectively, and are not expected to play this weekend. That's an enormous blow for a team that already needed a lot of things to go their way in order to advance.

--Despite being the class of the MAC once again, the Golden Flashes didn't exactly dominate the league. They lost 11 conference games during the regular season, and finished with 21 total losses despite never playing a team ranked in the top 25.

PLAYER TO WATCH:

With Miklos out, Cody Koch (.330/.430/.500, 7 HR, 56 RBI) is going to have to be the guy who gets that middle of the order rolling.

SUMMARY

Like last year, this Louisville team is built more for success in a three-game super regional series than it is a four-team weekend tournament. That makes the issue getting to that second point.

This is far from an ideal draw, especially when you consider that the No. 2 seed resides just an hour away and figures to have a hoard of fans in the stadium whenever they take the field. I was far more confident 12 months ago about U of L making the final 16 than I am right now, but this is the time of the year when Dan McDonnell's guys tend to surprise you.

Here's hoping this is just the start of the fun. Let's get it done.

SB Nation Featured Video
X
Log In Sign Up

forgot?
Log In Sign Up

Forgot password?

We'll email you a reset link.

If you signed up using a 3rd party account like Facebook or Twitter, please login with it instead.

Forgot password?

Try another email?

Almost done,

By becoming a registered user, you are also agreeing to our Terms and confirming that you have read our Privacy Policy.

Join Card Chronicle

You must be a member of Card Chronicle to participate.

We have our own Community Guidelines at Card Chronicle. You should read them.

Join Card Chronicle

You must be a member of Card Chronicle to participate.

We have our own Community Guidelines at Card Chronicle. You should read them.

Spinner.vc97ec6e

Authenticating

Great!

Choose an available username to complete sign up.

In order to provide our users with a better overall experience, we ask for more information from Facebook when using it to login so that we can learn more about our audience and provide you with the best possible experience. We do not store specific user data and the sharing of it is not required to login with Facebook.

tracking_pixel_9347_tracker