5 things you need to know about the NCAA softball tournament

The goal is to be the last team standing at the Women's College World Series in Oklahoma City. But the first step toward softball immortality is surviving the regional round that trims the field of 64 to 16.

With the bracket in hand, it's time to look ahead to NCAA tournament regionals. Here are five things you need to know.

1. Florida's run at history awaits

The story of the tournament begins where it left off a year ago -- where the last two tournaments left off, in fact. Ranked No. 1 for all but one week this season, two-time defending champion Florida will attempt to join UCLA as the only schools to win three consecutive titles.

Yet Florida's quest is as much about making its own history as matching the sport's standard.

There were 171 Division I softball programs when UCLA won the last of its three consecutive championships in 1990. Competing in what was a 20-team NCAA tournament, UCLA's two wins against Northern Iowa in a two-team regional punched its ticket to the World Series. It won that title with seven total postseason wins. Barring any losses along the way this year, seven wins would only earn Florida a place in the semifinals in Oklahoma City, three more wins needed for the title.

None of that diminishes the greatness of those UCLA teams (or the Arizona teams that won four of five titles between 1993-97, UCLA's title that interrupted the run later vacated) any more than it lessens the stature of the 1927 New York Yankees that Babe Ruth's bunch competed in a very different league with a shorter postseason than the present day.

It doesn't automatically make Florida a better team. It would make the accomplishment one without parallel if the Gators win.

About that. If Florida cements its place as the dominant program, it might be without the run production we've grown accustomed to seeing.

Since the NCAA tournament added the super regional and best-of-three championship rounds in 2005, eight of 11 champions ranked in the top 20 nationally in slugging percentage and runs per game. Seven ranked in the top 10 in those two measures of offensive potency.

At the time it exited the SEC tournament with a 2-1 loss to Auburn, a day after a narrow 1-0 win against Mississippi, Florida ranked 53rd nationally in slugging and 29th in runs per game. The only comparable champions are Arizona in 2007 and Washington in 2009, which you might remember most for two pitching aces: Arizona's Taryne Mowatt and Washington's Danielle Lawrie.

This is not to say Florida's lineup is a liability, not when it ranks eighth nationally in on-base percentage. But it, too, will let pitching lead the way, not with one ace but three with All-American numbers: Kelly Barnhill, Delanie Gourley and Aleshia Ocasio. A season ago, Florida used a rotation to get to May but turned things over to Lauren Haeger in the postseason. The Gators made only one in-game pitching change in the entire NCAA tournament. That isn't likely to be the case this season. Versatility of arms is one of their greatest strengths.

While Florida Atlantic, the tournament's only other 50-win team, awaits in a regional with ace Kylee Hanson, third in the nation behind Ocasio and Gourley in ERA, and Amanda Wilson, who nearly shut out the Gators at this stage a season ago, SEC teams are responsible for all of Florida's losses this season. That includes a 3-4 record against No. 4 Auburn and No. 6 Alabama.

No contender enters with more momentum than Auburn, which has the offensive assets in Emily Carosone, Kasey Cooper, Tiffany Howard and Jade Rhodes to test Florida's pitching. No less important, the Tigers rolled to an SEC tournament title on strong pitching and regained Haley Fagan from a season-long injury.

2. Pac-12 out to prove the sun isn't setting in the West

Take those iconic programs at Arizona and UCLA out of consideration and the Pac-12 still has more programs with national titles than any conference. In many ways, it is college softball.

But never did it have more opportunity to play with a chip on its shoulder.

Pardon some more math. In the first six seasons of the tournament's current format, Pac-12 teams were seeded 31 times.

The past six seasons, including the current edition, netted 26 seeds.

Essentially one less seed per tournament, so that might not feel precipitous. But narrow the focus still more. In those first six seasons, Pac-12 teams were seeded among the top eight teams on 20 occasions. That happened just 12 times the past six seasons.

If No. 5 Oregon and No. 12 UCLA meet in a super regional, the bracket ensures the World Series will not be without a Pac-12 team for the first time ever. But in a season in which Washington apparently missed a top-eight seed by a wider margin than its resume suggested was likely and the entire conference went without representation among the 10 finalists for USA Softball Player of the Year, the prospect of bracket cannibalism must seem one more frustration.

Is the conference slipping, or are people just not paying attention?

As it has been for several seasons, Oregon is the best hope to not only reach the World Series but stick around (and potentially become the Pac-12's sixth different champion). Even that isn't a given. Regional guest Baylor must wonder what happened to the seed it seemed in line to claim, which makes it and rested ace Heather Stearns a particularly daunting opponent for a single-digit seed. But the Ducks lead the nation in slugging percentage and watched senior pitcher Cheridan Hawkins return to dominant form during conference play.

They have everything needed to win it all. Which is still a given for a Pac-12 champion, right?

3. It might not be about the SEC or Pac-12 at all

The tournament includes as much diversity in its title aspirants as any in recent memory. If seeding holds, a record six conferences would see representatives host super regionals.

There are a lot of contenders from beyond the ranks of the top two conferences.

No. 2 Michigan: Both times Michigan reached the championship round of the Women's College World Series, it won the Big Ten tournament beforehand (2005 and 2015). So perhaps an extra-innings loss to Minnesota on Saturday is a bad omen. Of more tangible concern are ace Megan Betsa's 13 walks in her last two outings in that tournament. She is one of the few pitchers in the bracket who could carry a team when she's right.

No. 3 Oklahoma: The entire order boasts .300 batting averages and .400 on-base percentages. So if there aren't any bats as singularly imposing as those swung by Lauren Chamberlain and Shelby Pendley in the past, there also isn't any relief for opposing pitchers when they face experienced champions like Erin Miller or new stars like Shay Knighten. And while Paige Parker was slowed early by a knee injury, she was as consistent as almost any ace down the stretch.

No. 7 James Madison: Only Louisiana-Lafayette climbed higher in the seedings during the super regional era among mid-major programs than James Madison, which is positioned to host both a regional and super regional. And while the other teams in Harrisonburg, Virginia, will bristle at the suggestion, at least by RPI, the Dukes also landed one of the lightest regionals in recent memory. The road is there for a team led by the pitching-hitting duo of Jailyn Ford and Megan Good. Those two account for all but 12 innings pitched this season and still have nearly as many extra-base hits as they allowed.

No. 8 Florida State: The Seminoles have lived on the line between hosting and traveling for a super regional the past few seasons and fall on the right side of it this time. But if the territory is the same, the team is different. This Florida State team ranks in the top 20 nationally in slugging percentage, its lineup stacked with run producers like Jessica Warren and Alex Powers. Those two alone have more home runs than the entire team had as recently as 2012.

No. 14 Louisiana-Lafayette: The rash of illegal pitch calls that effectively sidelined ace Alex Stewart in the Sun Belt tournament final are a concern, especially with No. 2 pitcher Kylee Jo Trahan injured, but all Macey Smith did in relief of Stewart was throw a five-inning no-hitter. Of even greater importance, the Ragin' Cajuns welcomed All-American Lexie Elkins back to the lineup in the conference tournament, and her swing looked as ferocious as ever.

4. The best shows in town this weekend

Enough about the potential drama in Oklahoma City. The first weekend of the tournament offers some fascinating four-team tournaments within the tournament at 16 regional sites.

There will be upsets. While top-four seeds are almost automatic the first weekend, winning 43 of 44 regionals since 2005, 31 other seeded teams were eliminated at this stage in that span.

Whether it's upsets, close calls or just good softball, what tops the week's itinerary?

Lafayette: No. 14 Louisiana-Lafayette, Texas A&M, Texas, Boston University

Texas A&M has the fourth-best slugging percentage in the nation -- and just the second-best slugging percentage in this regional behind host Louisiana-Lafayette. That alone would make Lamson Park a place to be this weekend, but then the committee added Texas to the mix. Former Big 12 peers, the Aggies and Longhorns haven't played regularly since A&M left for the SEC, which doesn't dull an in-state rivalry as much cultural as athletic.

Columbia: No. 15 Missouri, Nebraska, Louisville, BYU

BYU has been in the tournament every year since 2005, which means there has been a lone regional that starts on a Thursday in each of those seasons (the school does not compete on Sundays). That regional won't be overshadowed this season, partly because all its games are on ESPN networks but mostly because it's a loaded field. It's the only regional in which all four teams were ranked in the top 50 of the most recent publicly-released RPI. Add the intrigue of a Missouri program in turmoil after players protested a university investigation of coach Ehren Earleywine that was made public just as the team hit its stride on the field, and drama abounds.

Seattle: No. 11 Washington, Minnesota, North Dakota State, Weber State

Everyone knew Minnesota wasn't going to be seeded, which made the Gophers perhaps the most unwanted guest in college softball. You just don't want to face a mentally tough, power-pitching Canadian who can help her own cause at the plate. And no one knows that better than the school that rose to such heights with Lawrie, who set that mold. Minnesota and Sara Groenewegen are riding high after winning the Big Ten tournament. The Gophers have a balanced lineup to support their ace. But this isn't a two-team regional. North Dakota State has seven NCAA tournament wins since 2009, and Weber State should be past the "happy to be here" phase after debuting a year ago.

5. Big or small, it is a regional round full of stories

Tennessee loses a standout: With minimal fanfare in Florida's shadow, No. 13 Tennessee deployed its own three-pitcher rotation this season and thrived in the SEC. But as a regional that includes unseeded but always competitive Arizona, the Lady Vols might be without one of those pitchers, who also happened to be one of their best run producers. Rainey Gaffin suffered a fracture in her left arm during the SEC tournament. Tennessee said in a statement that Gaffin would be evaluated further Monday. Without her, a trio would become the duo of freshman Matty Moss and senior Erin Gabriel.

Butler and Cal State Bakersfield debut: Around the time Bakersfield coach Crissy Buck-Ziegler wrapped up a playing career at UCLA, Butler coach Scott Hall was still coaching high school volleyball, as well as softball, in Indiana. Different roads to the same destination. Butler is in the midst of only its fourth winning season since 1992. Bakersfield didn't move to Division I until 2008. Both are in the NCAA tournament for the first time, a homecoming awaiting Buck-Ziegler at UCLA and a border battle looming for Butler at No. 9 Kentucky. As a player, Chris Steiner-Wilcoxson helped start the program at Auburn but wasn't around for its tournament debut. So like the Alabama State team she now coaches, she is about to get her first taste of the Division I tournament.

Taryne Mowatt returns: Mississippi is also here for the first time, its growth under coach Mike Smith impressive in a conference that offers few opportunities for stragglers to catch up. But it will have tournament experience in the dugout with pitching coach Mowatt. It's difficult to believe it has been almost a decade since Mowatt worked overtime for Arizona en route to a national title, but it has been almost as long since Mississippi posted a team ERA as strong as the one compiled by a staff led by Madi Osias and Elisha Jahnke. Mississippi almost took down Florida, which ought to give No. 3 Oklahoma pause when the SEC team comes to Norman this week.

Valparaiso's unlikely place in Ann Arbor regional: At least one person believed the weekend would end well enough to put Valparaiso's Taylor Weissenhofer in the right frame of mind to commit her future. Although one wonders if John Roeder had a Plan B. Valparaiso entered the Horizon League with a 14-32 record. It needed help late just to qualify for the six-team event. Then it went out and won it, despite trailing in the title game 4-0 entering the seventh inning. And after Weissenhofer collected hardware honoring her performance in throwing 477 pitches and almost every inning for the Crusaders in the conference tournament, Roeder, her boyfriend, added a ring to the haul.

Homecoming in Tuscaloosa: It's rare to go to an Alabama game and not see at least a few softball alumni, but some of them will be harder to miss this weekend. While California's presence in the Tuscaloosa regional makes it one of two that involves multiple former national champions (the other is Los Angeles, where Fresno State and Cal State Fullerton join UCLA), the bigger draw locally will be Texas State assistant coach Kelly Kretschman and Samford head coach Mandy Burford, in her program's NCAA tournament debut. Both are former Tide standouts, Kretschman arguably its all-time best player.