Notre Dame is back in the NCAA Regionals for the first time since 2006 after a 36-21 regular season. After a rough welcome to a step up in competition in the ACC in 2014, when the Irish went 9-21, Mik Aoki's team took a big leap forward in his fifth year, finishing second in the Atlantic Division with a 17-13 conference record.
The success for the Irish mostly stemmed from excellent pitching and defense - Notre Dame led the nation in double plays per game, and finished 21st in the country giving up 3.05 runs per game. The staff is led by sophomore Ryan Smoyer, who leads the rotation with a 2.13 ERA.
The key for the Irish will be plating runs against some elite pitchers this weekend - Notre Dame finished last in the ACC in batting average (.249) and 11th in runs per game (5.3).
Wait, how does this thing work again?
The NCAA Baseball Tournament is about as complex as it gets. For this weekend though, it's pretty simple - double-elimination Regionals that will narrow each group of four teams to one winner that advances to a Super Regional.
The Super Regionals then cut the 16 teams remaining in half via best-of-three series. If you make it that far, you're finally going to Omaha!
But you still have lots of baseball left to play -this is how the College World Series is still going on long into summer. It's then another double-elimination tournament in the CWS until only two teams remain - then they need to play a three-game series to finish it off, because why not?
Who does Notre Dame have to beat?
Illinois enters as the favorite, gaining the No. 6 overall seed in the tournament after winning the Big Ten regular season and putting up an absurd 47-7-1 record. The Fighting Illini rolled through the conference regular season with a 21-1 record, putting together a 27-game winning streak that finally came to an end with a loss to Maryland in the Big Ten tournament last weekend.
The biggest challenge for the Irish will be breaking through against the Illini rotation, which featured three starters with ERAs below 2.20. Falling behind late against Illinois has also been a death sentence - closer Tyler Jay was named Big Ten Pitcher of the Year after allowing just four earned runs in 56 innings, and should be a first round pick in the upcoming MLB Draft.
Labeling a weakness for Illinois is really nitpicking, but it's worth noting that the team has benefited from some nice scheduling karma- while the Big Ten is sending a record five teams in the NCAA Tournament this year, Illinois did not have a regular season series with four of those teams. After dropping two games in the Big Ten Tournament there may signs that a big bump up in the level of competition could be a problem for the Illini.
For another team to advance to the Super Regional Illinois will need to lose as many games this weekend (2) as they did the entire year at Illinois Stadium, where they were 22-2.
Notre Dame's first opponent is Wright State, the Horizon League tournament champs. The Raiders finished second in the league in the regular season on their way to a 41-15 record, with impressive non-conference wins over Miami (the #5 national seed) and Missouri State (the #8 national seed).
Wright State's pitching staff dominated the Horizon League, leading the conference in ERA (3.38), WHIP (1.32), K:BB ratio (2.12), and H/9IP (8.69). The Raiders can also put runs on the scoreboard in a hurry, ranking 21st nationally averaging 6.8 runs per game.
In short: in football terms this is much closer to Notre Dame-Boise State than Notre Dame-UMass. Wright State finished 49th in NCAA RPI, the Irish 35th. If the Irish drop Game 1 against the Raiders it's a long uphill climb of four wins in a row to advance to the Super Regional.
The No. 4 team in the regional is Ohio, the MAC Tournament winners. The Bobcats enter the postseason with a 36-19 record and are making their first NCAA Regional appearance since 1997. The program has forged a remarkable turnaround in coach Rob Smith's third year after winning just 25 games in his first two seasons.
The Bobcats will be significant underdogs against Illinois today, but are dangerous with an early lead. MAC Pitcher of the Year Logan Cozart plays the role of an old-school closer, and shut the door in the MAC Tournament Championship game by pitching 3.2 innings and allowing just one unearned run with five strikeouts.
Can you tell me any other interesting facts?
Well since you asked...
- Somehow the ACC hasn't won the College World Series since 1955. I'm not familiar with any kind of Billy Goat or Babe Ruth curse associated with this, but statistically it's almost more remarkable, especially considering the number of strong programs in the conference. Notre Dame, Miami, Louisville, FSU, NC State, and Virginia will all have a shot to break through this year.
- Few college programs have a former player that measures up to Carl Yazstremski (ND Class of '66), but Ohio has a strong case with Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt, who led the Bobcats to the College World Series in 1970.
- Fun fact courtesy of the ND Athletic Department and John Heisler: Only four colleges had teams make a football bowl game, March Madness (Men's and Women's), NCAA Baseball and Softball Tournaments - Notre Dame, Texas, LSU, and Louisville.
When and where can I watch? Why should I watch?
Notre Dame faces Wright State today at 1 pm EST - all games from the regional will be available on ESPN3. If the Irish win, they'll face the winner of Illinois/Ohio at 8 pm on Saturday; with a loss, they'll face the loser of the same matchup at 1 pm. From there check your schedules - the Irish could be playing Sunday at 1 or 8 pm and there could be a final game Monday night if necessary.
College baseball is pretty cool - if you already watch baseball regularly (MLB or LLWS) you should tune in. Tons of these players will be early-round draft picks and in your favorite team's farm system in a few months. Like scoring? Illinois scored 28 runs in a game (against Rutgers, who is bad but still, 28 runs!).
Like March Madness because of upsets? There will be plenty of those, with small schools like College of Charleston and Dallas Baptist that actually will have a good shot at making noise. Add in regional rivalries like LSU-Tulane and Houston-Rice and it should be a great weekend to relax with some quality baseball - don't be afraid to jump on a bandwagon.