Game of Southern Thrones and the return of Jactani: What we're watching in the supers

And then there were 16 … and soon to be eight!

Welcome to the NCAA men’s baseball tournament super regionals, aka that final, steepest, best-of-three climb on the season-long road to Omaha. You can practically smell the steaks and taste the Zesto’s soft serve from here. But first, there is much work to do for the baseballers and much baseballing for the rest of us to watch.

Exactly what should you be watching for? We’ve been ruminating on that thought since the final regionals were scribbled into the scorebooks late Monday night. So grab your lucky dugout plush toy, smear on some eye black and read ahead as we present our NCAA Hardball What2Watch4 Super Regionals Edition.

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Game of Southern Thrones | Defenders of …
Omaha? | Top draft picks everywhere | It is so super

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1. Game of Southern Thrones, y’all

This super regional round has a thicker Southern accent than Marty Smith. There are four SEC teams hosting — Tennessee, Kentucky, Georgia and Texas A&M — with a fifth team, Florida, on the road at Clemson. Speaking of the Tigers, they are one of four ACC teams that are also hosting — along with Florida State, Virginia and North Carolina — with a fifth team in NC State on the road at Georgia. So, doing our best Doctor Strange impersonation, we can most definitely see a scenario where only two conferences are represented in Omaha, and with an even four-four split. The record for most teams from one conference is four, accomplished by the SEC on four occasions and by the ACC once. Should we end up with four from each, someone please be sure to pack some extra barbecue sauce on the way to Nebraska.

2. Defenders of the West Coast

Back in the day, it wasn’t unusual for one region to pack the Omaha bracket, but it was way west of the Mississippi, led by the one-two Grand Canyon State punch of Arizona and Arizona State, joined by entirely too many California schools to list. But in recent years, the rise of the South has jammed the entrance door for Pacific programs. There’s a huge map of the United States in the MCWS Baseball Village next to the ballpark that shows every school in the MCWS and how far it is from Omaha. In the past three seasons, that very lopsided map showed only one team out west, Stanford.

This year, defending the honor of the West Coast time zone is left to archrivals Oregon and Oregon State, who will have to get through No. 4 Texas A&M and No. 2 Kentucky on the road. They are also the last chance for the Pac-12 to win its record-extending 30th MCWS title before the conference goes the way of collegiate wooden bats.

3. Defenders of everywhere else

College baseball has always been ruled by the sunbelt, from Florida to California, where the weather is warm and baseball is played year round. That’s why the Big Ten hasn’t taken home the MCWS title since 1966. And that’s why what UConn has done in recent years is so amazing. The Huskies, who like most Northeastern teams play the entire first month of their season on the road to escape the snow, are in their 10th NCAA tourney since 2010 and their third super regional since 2011 and second in three years. They haven’t been to Omaha since their fifth trip back in 1979. If they can upset Florida State in Tallahassee, they will be the first Big East team in the MCWS since Louisville in 2013, days before they bolted for the American.

4. Omaha? Where’s that?

Since the MCWS debuted in 1947, a whopping 116 schools have made it to college baseball’s big show, so seeing a program make its Omaha debut is becoming as likely as seeing Bigfoot play piano. But this year’s super regional field has a full foursome of squads seeking to become the first from their schools to make the final eight. West Virginia is making its 15th NCAA tourney appearance and fourth in the past seven postseasons played, but this is the Mountaineers’ first supers. The Evansville Purple Aces are making their first postseason run in nearly two decades and had never advanced out the first weekend until shocking No. 16 overall seed East Carolina in the Greenville Regional. Their reward? A trip to top-ranked Tennessee. The team ranked right behind the Vols, Kentucky, is the last SEC school never to experience Omaha. Meanwhile, Kansas State is also seeking its first MCWS berth as a program that didn’t even make its first NCAA tournament appearance until 2009 but has been five times since.

5. Omaha? We’ve been there before, but it’s been a while

The Oregon Ducks have been to Omaha before. Once. And it was in 1954. And they went 0-2. Clemson has been a dozen times, but not since 2010. Georgia’s last trip was in 2008, when it had a 4-0 lead in the Game 2 of the title series with a one-game lead but wound up losing the title to the Fresno State Wonderdogs.

6. Omaha? We have unfinished business in Omaha!

The teams to watch this weekend who are jonesing for a return to Omaha in order to pull a Ray Kinsella and ease their pain are led by Florida State, seeking its first trip to the MCWS without the legendary Mike Martin, who either played or coached in every single one of FSU’s previous 23 appearances. Unfortunately, it is also 0-for-23 in trying to win the title.

There’s plenty of that pain to go around in these supers. Clemson is 0-12 in Omaha, Tennessee is 0-6 and North Carolina is 0-11, having lost both of its finals appearances in 2007 to Oregon State. It’s an easy bet that a lot of folks in Carolina Blue have already figured out that there is a road that could lead to a revenge match against the Beavers in this year’s finals.

7. The return of Jactani

One year ago, the college baseball world became smitten with Florida’s Jac Caglianone, aka Jactani, as in Shohei Ohtani, because like the Los Angeles Dodger, this Gator is a two-way player. As a first baseman, he’s hitting .410 with 31 home runs and 63 RBIs. As a left-handed hurler, he has recorded a 5-2 record with 76 strikeouts, tied for his team’s best win-loss record and second in K’s. But don’t take our collegiate word for it. Our pals over on the ESPN MLB page have the 6-foot-5, 250-pounder projected to go as high as fourth in next month’s MLB draft.

8. Wait … Caglianone is just fourth?

Yes. And two of the three players above him will also be in action this weekend. Beavers second bagger Travis Bazzana is on ESPN’s prospect list (third), as are Texas A&M right fielder Braden Montgomery (sixth), West Virginia shortstop JJ Wetherholt (seventh) and Florida State outfielder James “They Call Me Mister” Tibbs (ninth). Also keep an eye on fellow Seminole Cameron Smith (18th), Tennessee’s Christian Moore (16th) and Billy Amick (26th), Kentucky outfielder Ryan Waldschmidt (24th) and Kansas State infielder Kaelen Culpepper.

9. Hang on … so who is ranked No. 1?

That would be Georgia third baseman Charlie Condon, who has spent the 2024 season putting up numbers like a video gamer with all the difficulty settings turned off. He’s hitting .445 with 36 homers and 98 hits (all tops in the nation). He also has 77 RBIs, despite having been walked 55 times, and has recorded only 39 strikeouts in 220 at-bats. The 6-6, 215-pound righty has yet to miss a game this season and reaches base 56.6% of the time he steps to the plate. I’m not great at math, but that all sounds pretty good to me. It also sounds pretty good to MLB scouts, who are very good at math.

10. A good time? No, the best time

Omaha is the goal. It’s the castle. The tops. No one argues against that. But supers weekend is also the last chance for college baseball to do a little showing off for the national sports audience in the friendly confines of some of the most colorful venues and crowds to be found anywhere in the sports world, not just the college sports world. So make sure to ride that remote control and the ESPN App like Renegade galloping onto the field in Tallahassee. Marvel at Kentucky’s amazing multimillion ballpark commitment, even for a team that has never been to Omaha. Be wowed by the Rome-like atmosphere of intimidation that is Texas A&M’s Olsen Field at Blue Bell Park, draped in perpetual tailgating BBQ smoke. Tap into the magic that is the Bosh in Chapel Hill, where the Heels have long specialized in dramatic postseason finishes, both wins and losses. And allow your ears to ring to the tink of those composite bats, mixed with fight songs and howling wolves and “Rocky Top,” all having been marinated in outfield beers for three days. This is June. This is the Round of 16. And y’all, it is so super.

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