The NCAA released the 2007 baseball tournament bracket on Monday, and perhaps the biggest surprise was that there weren't many.
In years past, I've railed against the selection committee for putting too high a premium on which conference a team plays in and less importance on who it has played. That has clearly changed. The SEC, which has never received less than six bids in the history of the 64-team field received just five. Instead, the committee awarded at-large bids to mid-major teams like Western Carolina.
Unlike other fields, there aren't any glaring omissions or selections. There are few issues with the seeding or host sites. More than any other year, I feel this is the field that deserves to be out there. In all, the selection committee did a good job making the field fair for everyone.
Who's in: Troy's selection as an at-large is probably the tournament's biggest surprise. The Trojans played a good nonconference schedule, including a few games against SEC teams. However, their finish in the Sun Belt tournament (losing to Louisiana-Lafayette and South Alabama) and their overall record (34-25) may have dropped Troy down in many people's opinions.
Minnesota was another surprise, even though the Gophers boast 40 wins and a strong nonconference schedule. Minnesota had clearly done enough to warrant the selection, but in previous years, it might have been overlooked. The committee is sending a clear message: What happens in the middle of the week and before conference play begins is important. Mid-majors are now being awarded bids because of aggressive scheduling.
Who's out: Gonzaga is really the only omission that surprised me. I felt that if the committee let Pepperdine in, it had to invite the Zags. Gonzaga beat San Diego and Pepperdine in the regular season. Overall, Pepperdine's body of work was probably better, but the Bulldogs put together a compelling tournament résumé.
There are a few teams left out of the tournament that will surprise baseball traditionalists: Georgia Tech, Alabama and Tennessee were all on the bubble. In past years, their conference affiliation alone might have been enough to push them in. While these teams boasted RPIs as good as some of the mid-major teams that were at-large selections, none of the teams played a challenging nonconference schedule -- and when they did play tougher teams, they didn't perform well. Although RPI is an important part of the selection committee's equation, it isn't the only factor considered.
Hosts and seedings: Wichita State's selection as a No. 1 regional seed was curious. While it wasn't a shock that the Shockers would get to host (location helps), I thought their conference tournament loss to Creighton would have dropped them to a No. 2 seed.
Four teams will be hosting regional play for the first time. Vanderbilt, the No. 1 national seed, may be the most interesting to watch. The Commodores haven't had much postseason success but are clearly the most talented team in the field. How they handle that new territory, and whether it will be a benefit or detriment will be one of the weekend's biggest story lines. San Diego is a budding program -- its growth is very similar to Vanderbilt's. The Toreros have improved so dramatically, they've nearly outgrown their ballpark, and they will play host at the venue of crosstown rival San Diego State. Both schools show that when a school makes a commitment and finds the right coach, it's possible to turn around a program quickly.
Toughest region: Tallahassee. Florida State's loss in the ACC tournament enabled North Carolina to move up in the national seedings. No. 6 seed Florida State will host Mississippi State, Stetson and Bethune-Cookman. Stetson is an under-the-radar team that could surprise people in the tournament. Along the same lines, No. 7 seed Arkansas hosts Oklahoma State, a team that score a lot of runs, and Creighton, a team few are talking about that could do damage.
Easiest region: Nashville. Vanderbilt is clearly better than every other team in this field and should have no problem getting through a regional assignment that includes Michigan, Memphis and Austin Peay.
Most interesting regions: San Diego and Nashville. It's always interesting when a team hasn't been there before, and this is the first time that the Toreros and Commodores are No. 1 region seeds and top eight national seeds.
The Myrtle Beach Regional is also interesting, as Coastal Carolina will host at Coastal Federal Field, the local minor league ballpark. Playing at Coastal Federal doesn't necessarily give the Chanticleers home-field advantage, as the park plays to Clemson's strengths and is a short distance for the Tigers. College World Series participants in 2006, Clemson expects to win this time of year. It's all new for Coastal Carolina.
Sleeper: Oral Roberts. The Golden Eagles made it to the super regional round last year, and brought back a lot of talent offensively. They won't be overwhelmed playing in the Wichita Regional.
Top offense: Arizona State. The fifth-seeded Sun Devils hit home runs, are strong up the middle and stole 77 bases. Brett Wallace is hitting .426 with 15 home runs and 73 RBIs. No. 4 seed Texas is a close second.
Best pitcher: Vanderbilt's David Price. When it's all clicking, Price separates himself from the competition.
Best defense: Creighton. The Bluejays aren't a power team, but they're consistently successful because of their solid defense. They're right at the top of almost every defensive category.
Players to watch: Florida State's Tony Thomas Jr. and Miami's Jemile Weeks. Thomas benefited from college as much as anybody. When he came in, you could see he has the tools and has now grown into his game. His numbers are great (.442 avg.,.760 slugging, 30 stolen bases) and he can run.
Weeks was an under-the-radar freshman during Miami's 2006 CWS run. His performance in Omaha caught many people's attention, and now that he's a year older, he'll be even more fun to watch.
Favorites: There are a few clear favorites among the eight national seeds. Arizona State is great at swinging the bats, plays great defense and will be playing at home for two rounds. Texas is really, really good. There is a core group of Horns who have been part of a title team and know what they have to do to get there. The Horns also have a power bat in Kyle Russell. Rice is a team nobody has talked about, which is probably fine with coach Wayne Graham. They might fly under the radar in Omaha. You can also make a case for Arkansas, which gave Vanderbilt a race in the SEC.
Projected CWS field: Vanderbilt, Texas, Arizona State, South Carolina, Cal State Fullerton, Clemson, Rice, Arkansas
Who will win it all: Arizona State
Kyle Peterson was a three-time All American at Stanford, is the voice of "MVP 06 NCAA Baseball" and is a college baseball analyst for ESPN.