For the second time in three years, the Kentucky Wildcats are a #2 seed in the College World Series. Two years ago they were placed in a regional that featured three very similar and evenly matched teams. That's not the case this year, as Louisville, Kentucky, Kansas, and Kent State each have distinct strengths and weaknesses to differentiate them.
*includes conference tournament games
Louisville is the only team to surpass the 40-win mark while Kentucky is the only team not to finish with a winning record in conference play. Of course, Kentucky played in the toughest conference in America this year so there's no shame in that. The top 3 seeds all enter Friday with the same record in their last 10 games and each is coming off a loss in their respective conference tournaments. Louisville reached the AAC tournament finals, losing to Houston and Kansas was quickly eliminated 0-2 in the Big 12 tournament, losing to West Virginia and Baylor. Kent State on the other hand is the only one of the four to win their conference tournament and those 4 MAC tournament games are their only wins in their last 10.
There is a consensus, by and large, amongst the computer ratings for each team. Warren Nolan is higher on Kent State and lower on Kansas than the others, but everyone else is in the same general area for each system. The ratings suggest a pretty clear gap between Kentucky and Kansas, and between Kansas and Kent State. This is baseball and you can never definitely overlook any team, but the regional is almost certainly going to come down to Louisville and Kentucky.
|Baseball America||13||22||dropped out|
|Collegiate Baseball||12||26||dropped out|
The picture painted by the computer ratings is matched by the human voters, although they see Louisville as a much stronger team than do their digital analogs. Oddly, the National Collegiate Baseball Writers still do not think Kentucky is one of the top 30 teams in the country and are (slightly) the most bullish on the Cardinals. Kansas was ranked in two of the polls last week, but fell out after their lackluster tournament performance.
Performance Against the Field
|vs CWS teams||6-6||16-12||7-8||3-5|
|vs Regional Hosts||1-3||9-9||1-5||0-0|
|vs National Seeds||0-3||4-3||1-2||0-0|
The strength of Kentucky's schedule really comes through when looking at how they fared against other schools that made the CWS. Not only did the Cats face more opponents who made the field, but they are the only team of the four with a winning record against such teams. If you look closely, you'll see that UK has more games played against regional hosts than the other schools have against CWS participants. While much of that success is a result of playing in the SEC, it's worth noting that Kentucky's non-conference schedule included 7 games against CWS teams and 5 against regional hosts: Virginia, Louisville, and Indiana. Virginia (3) and Indiana (4) are also National Seeds and the Cats went 1-1 against them.
Worth noting is that among the First 4 Teams Out of the field were Central Florida and West Virginia. Louisville went 2-2 against those squads and Kansas went 3-1 against WVU. Given how close those two teams were to inclusion, they can be considered tournament-caliber. Also note that included in Kent State's record versus CWS teams is their 2-2 mark against Youngstown State. The Penguins went 16-36 overall but won the Horizon League tournament to make the field. Kent State also went 1-3 against Ball State this year, the same Ball State that Kentucky won a series against and outscored 58-14 over 3 games.
I think this is a two-horse race between Louisville and Kentucky to win the regional. There is a big enough gap between those two schools and Kansas and Kent State that it is unlikely either of the latter two will be able to move on to Tallahassee. Louisville has, overall, played better throughout the year than Kentucky has, but the Wildcats are getting healthy at the right time and have forged their team with one of the toughest schedules in America this year.
A.J. Reed is a semi-finalist for the Golden Spikes Award this year. You can help him win by voting for him at usabaseball.com. Vote as many times as you like!