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2018 NCAA Tournament: Gainesville Regional Preview

1. Florida (42-17, 20-10 Southeastern Conference)

34th appearance (11th straight); at-large bid; first in the SEC East

BA 500 Prospects: RHP Brady Singer (4), 3B Jonathan India (6), RHP Jackson Kowar (17), C J.J. Schwarz (198), OF Nelson Maldonado (252), RHP Michael Byrne (263), SS Deacon Liput (307)

Season In A Sentence: Florida, the defending national champion, was the top-ranked team coming into the year and has played like it all season long before slipping up the last two weeks after it clinched its second straight SEC title.

Player To Watch: Brady Singer, RHP: Florida’s ace became the first pitcher to be named College Player of the Year since Trevor Bauer won the award in 2011. This season, Singer went 10-1, 2.25 with 92 strikeouts and 18 walks in 88 innings. He’s missed his last two starts due to a strained hamstring but is slated to start Saturday for Florida. The Gators have missed his presence on the mound, as they have gone 1-5 over the last two weeks. Singer’s return should be a big boost for the Gators.

Best Weekend: vs. Georgia, May 11-13. Florida won its first 13 series of the year, knocking off rivals such as Miami and top-five opponents such as Arkansas. All of that culminated on the penultimate weekend of the regular season, when the Gators used a series win against the Bulldogs to clinch the SEC title with four conference games to play. Florida won the first two games of the series, walking off Georgia in Game 1 and then rolling to a Game 2 win that wrapped up the title.

Outlook: Florida has been the best team all year long and is the top-seeded team in the tournament. Even after two disappointing weeks, Florida remains the most formidable team in the field. Any concerns should be wiped away Saturday when Singer takes the mound in McKethan Stadium on the big stage he has always embraced.

2. Jacksonville (39-19, 14-6 Atlantic Sun Conference)

15th appearance (first since 2011); at-large bid; second in the Atlantic Sun Conference

BA 500 prospects: None.

Season In A Sentence: Under second-year coach Chris Hayes, Jacksonville put together a strong 39-win season that saw it enter the Top 25 for the first time in 21 years and ultimately earned a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament, the highest seed in program history.

Player To Watch: Chris Gau, RHP: The junior this season has been the Dolphins’ most reliable pitcher and enters the NCAA Tournament at 8-3, 2.65 with 91 strikeouts and 19 walks in 105.1 innings. Getting a good start out of Gau will be critical to setting Jacksonville’s pitching up for the rest of the weekend.

Best Weekend: at Saint Louis, April 20-22. A strong 10-day stretch in mid-April propelled Jacksonville into the Top 25. The Dolphins won a series against Florida Gulf Coast, then knocked off Florida in a midweek matchup and then swept a series at Saint Louis, the Atlantic 10 Conference champion. Jacksonville relied on its pitching all weekend at SLU, holding the Billikens to seven runs over three games.

Outlook: Jacksonville is having one of its best seasons in recent years, but this weekend will be a stern test. The Dolphins are 5-8 this season against regional teams and have the unenviable task of trying to knock off the Gators in McKethan Stadium. If Jacksonville is to upset Florida, it will need some of its hitters to step up against the elite pitching they will face.

3. Florida Atlantic (40-17-1, 19-8-1 Conference USA)

11th appearance (first since 2016); at-large bid; third in Conference USA

BA 500 Prospects: SS Tyler Frank (67)

Season In A Sentence: FAU produced a 40-win season, a top-40 RPI and proved to be one of the best teams in Conference USA, all of which propelled it back to regionals.

Player To Watch: Tyler Frank, SS: The junior broke out last year and enhanced his standing in the draft with a solid summer for USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team. He this spring continued his strong play and hit .315/.459/.586 with 13 home runs. He’s the Owls’ anchor both in the lineup and on defense, where he is solid up the middle.

Best Weekend: vs. Charlotte, April 6-8. FAU was able to separate from the CUSA pack in part thanks to a sweep of Charlotte, which finished in fourth place in the conference. The Owls won the opener, 5-2, before edging the 49ers with a pair of one-run wins in the next two games. The sweep was a part of an eight-game winning streak in conference play for FAU.

Outlook: FAU has been hit by the injury bug this year and while it has done well to overcome it thus far, its thinner roster now faces a significant test. The Owls will need some players to step up both on the mound and at the plate in a tough environment.

Mike Bianco Austinmcafeegetty

Ole Miss, Mississippi State Must Buck History After 0-6 SEC Starts

After getting swept in each of their first two SEC series, Ole Miss and Mississippi State must dig out of a deep hole with little historical precedent to reach the NCAA Tournament.

4. Columbia (20-28, 13-9 Ivy League)

Sixth appearance (first since 2015); automatic bid; second in the Ivy League, Ivy League Championship Series champions

BA 500 Prospects: None.

Season In A Sentence: Columbia started the year 3-15 against a tough non-conference slate that was all played away from New York, but the Lions got back on track in Ivy League play and claimed the league’s automatic bid with a sweep of Yale in the championship series.

Player To Watch: Harrisen Egly, RHP: The senior this season moved into the rotation after spending the first three years of his career as a reliever. He’s handled his new role well, going 3-3, 3.86 in 12 starts for the Lions. He’ll on Friday face his toughest test yet when he takes on top-ranked Florida.

Best Weekend: Ivy League Championship Series, May 22-23. Columbia edged Dartmouth for second place in the Ivy League, finishing just a half game head of the Big Green. The Lions traveled to Yale for the Ivy League Championship Series, a best-of-three series with a spot in the NCAA Tournament on the line. Columbia claimed the first game, 4-0, and then beat the Bulldogs, 2-1, in a 15-inning marathon to return to regionals for the fourth time in six years.

Outlook: Columbia won three straight Ivy League series to advance to the NCAA Tournament, but now must take on the top-ranked team in the tournament on the road. Columbia has won just one game against an SEC opponent in program history and that victory was back in 1989. The Lions are facing long odds this weekend.

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