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Wednesday, May 15, 2013
5 questions on the NCAA tournament

By Graham Hays

1. Can Oklahoma be stopped?

Arkansas, Fordham and Marist, you're up first. Good luck. If the past three months are any indication, you're going to need it.

We never know which team will win a championship, but there are years when we know who should win it. This is one of those years. Oklahoma enters the NCAA tournament with a chance to become the first team since Arizona in 2001 to win a national championship with four or fewer losses. It enters the tournament as the nation's top scoring team and the team with the best ERA. No team in the super-regional era ever led the nation in both for an entire season.

In first baseman Lauren Chamberlain and pitchers Keilani Ricketts and Michelle Gascoigne, Oklahoma has three of 10 finalists for national player of year. (It even has a gripe that it didn't have a fourth, Shelby Pendley, on that list.)

The reigning national player of the year and favorite to repeat, Ricketts opened the regular season by throwing a no-hitter against Stanford. She closed it Sunday by throwing a no-hitter against Oklahoma State.

You get the picture. Dating back to the implementation of super regionals in 2005, only three of the past eight No. 1 overall seeds went on to win the national championship. Florida entered the 2008 tournament as the No. 1 seed with just two losses. It didn't win. Cal entered last season's tournament as the favorite with four losses. It didn't win. But this Oklahoma team isn't just the best this season has to offer. It performed like one of the best of any season.

So can an overwhelming favorite with one of the best two-way players a sport has ever seen, a figure who towers over her peers literally and figuratively, possibly come up short in Oklahoma City?

Well, stranger things have happened in this city. Just ask Brittney Griner.

2. So which teams have blueprints to beat Oklahoma?

Beat Oklahoma with power: Arizona State

Outscoring the nation's most prolific scoring team is a tall order, but Arizona State is equipped to try. The Sun Devils entered the final week of the regular season ranked second in the nation in slugging percentage and then took two of three games from Pac-12 champion Oregon. Catcher Amber Freeman, shortstop Cheyenne Coyle and outfielder Alix Johnson are the biggest run producers, but there is power up and down the lineup. And as usual, the Sun Devils are one of the most patient teams at the plate, meaning there are usually people on base when the ball leaves the park; they hit at least one home run in 44 games this season and drew an average of 4.3 walks in those games.

Beat Oklahoma with balance: Oregon

The Sooners needed just five innings to beat the Ducks 12-0 on the second day of the season behind a no-hitter and 10 strikeouts from Ricketts. But there is reason to think a rematch would be more competitive, beginning with the fact that Oregon didn't start senior ace Jessica Moore in that game. The Ducks rank in the top 10 nationally in slugging percentage, but they also have speed (led Pac-12 with 75 stolen bases), pitching and, for the first time in a long time, defense that is at least as likely to help them as betray them. After three consecutive super regionals and a trip to the Women's College World Series a season ago, most of the Ducks also have plenty of postseason experience.

Beat Oklahoma with youth: Florida

Florida has shown a distinct unwillingness all season to live down to expectations, so taking out the team expected to win it all would be a logical next step. The Gators were one of the NCAA tournament's top five seeds in each of the past five seasons, including the No. 1 overall seed on two occasions, but this team wasn't supposed to follow in those footsteps. Not with four freshmen and a junior mid-major transfer regularly in the starting lineup. They and the few veterans don't make errors, walk a ton and generally follow the steady-as-she-goes lead of ace Hannah Rogers.

Beat Oklahoma with familiarity: Texas

The Longhorns famously don't have a lot of World Series experience -- they haven't been since Cat Osterman was in the circle. But recent postseason disappointments aside for a team that has struggled to play up to its seed, they do have a considerable amount of experience playing Oklahoma. In each of the past two seasons, Texas took one of three games against its rival. That's notable, given the scarcity of Sooners losses in general, but the overall run total in those six games -- 32-24 in favor of Oklahoma -- further points to an ability to generate offense.

3. Which teams could make Cinderella runs to Oklahoma City?

The surprise will be if there are no surprises. Only once since the format changed to include super regionals have the top eight national seeds advanced to the Women's College World Series. And we're not just talking about some No. 10 seeds stretching the definition of an upset. Oklahoma City really is open to all challengers. In the past eight seasons, nine double-digit seeds and seven unseeded teams reached the World Series, including two unseeded teams (South Florida and LSU) and a No. 11 seed (Oregon) last season.

So which teams from each category could erase the chalk?

Double-digit seed: No. 13 South Alabama

Put aside the Pac-12 and SEC, and the Sun Belt held its own with any conference this season, so it's good to see South Alabama rewarded for its work with a national seed and a chance to host in Mobile. But this team is capable of more than that. Only Oklahoma and South Florida have better ERAs among tournament teams, and that's the product of a true one-two punch in the circle. Hannah Campbell is the ace and the nation's ERA leader, but Farish Beard is 21-0 with an impressive strikeout rate as her understudy. The Jaguars also ranked in the top 20 nationally in slugging percentage and runs, and once again balance is an asset. Shortstop Brittany Fowler and third baseman Haley Fagan are special talents, but six regulars slug at least .500 and no regular has an on-base percentage worse than .373. They beat LSU, Mississippi State and UAB out of conference and lost 2-1 to UCLA in California. A regional including Florida State and Mississippi State won't be easy. A super regional at Texas would be even harder. But they're ready.

Unseeded: Hawaii

The Rainbow Wahine have done the upset thing before, although they were the No. 16 seed when they stunned Alabama with a walk-off home run and advanced to the World Series in 2010. In a new conference this season (they won the Big West) and seemingly always out of sight of the mainland, they are again flying under the radar. Overlook them at your own peril, particularly if you are No. 11 Washington, Minnesota or Portland State in the Seattle regional. Some of the key names from the World Series team are still here. The NCAA active leader in home runs (72), senior outfielder Kelly Majam is the offensive cornerstone for a team slugging .520, good for the top 20 nationally. Senior ace Kaia Parnaby had an injury scare late in the season with a broken nose, but she is tied for the lead nationally with 37 wins.

4. What are the regionals to watch?

Lincoln: No. 14 Nebraska, Tulsa, Stanford, Northern Iowa. Stanford and Tulsa ranked in the top 27 of the final RPI release before selections, so which team here is supposed to be third in the pecking order? It should be a softball showcase in a great venue. Tulsa's Aimee Creger is the best pitcher in the quartet and one of the best kept secrets in the sport, a hard-thrower who is healthy after a back injury slowed her as a sophomore. The Golden Hurricane aren't a powerhouse offense, but they are balanced. Runs aren't the issue for Stanford, which even after losing All-American Ashley Hansen to graduation posted a winning Pac-12 record behind the bats of Jenna Rich, Kayla Bonstrom and others. And lest host Nebraska get short shrifted, there is a reason it is hosting these games. Led by twin sisters Tatum and Taylor Edwards, the Huskers bring the best mix of offense, defense and pitching -- balance that helped them beat Oklahoma once and nearly a second time.

College Station: No. 16 Texas A&M, Baylor, Arizona, Penn. Texas A&M caught a break with the opportunity to host despite a ninth-place finish in the SEC and quick exit from the conference tournament, but that marked the extent of its good fortune. Granted, part of the attraction here is Arizona's name, which is not equal to its level of play this season, but that name still helps to make for good drama. And as Arizona showed in winning its final two Pac-12 series against Arizona State and Stanford, it still has the bats to be competitive. All of which is only the opening act for the potential headliner, with Baylor's Whitney Canion trying to pitch her team past its old Big 12 rival, a team that ranks among national leaders in slugging percentage and scoring. The only regional featuring teams from the SEC, Pac-12 and Big 12 is one to watch.

Tempe: No. 5 Arizona State, Georgia, San Diego State, San Jose State. Strong seeds don't always provide the most compelling regionals, and Arizona State may be too good to do anything but plow through this quartet. But there are ingredients that could set off fireworks. As mentioned, the Sun Devils have a lot of power, but not much more than Georgia, which was the only team in the nation with a better slugging percentage when last week began. Arizona State ace Dallas Escobedo's Achilles' heel remains a propensity for the long ball. You do the math. Of course, Georgia first has to deal with San Diego State, and that perennial postseason participant has two quality arms in the circle and some power of its own with Lorena Bauer and Patrice Jackson.

5. Who are five pitchers who could shake up the tournament?

Cassandra Darrah, Wisconsin: Fresh off winning the Big Ten tournament, Wisconsin has a short turnaround and a long trip to Oregon for a regional that begins on Thursday (to avoid BYU potentially playing on Sunday). Maybe that should be a negative, but the way Darrah is pitching and the Badgers are playing, momentum could be their best friend. Darrah isn't a strikeout pitcher, but she's 26-5, keeps the ball in the park and rolled through Northwestern, Michigan and Minnesota on successive days in the conference tournament.

Olivia Galati, Hofstra: The best pitching duel of the first weekend? It may be in Columbia, where Missouri's Chelsea Thomas could square off against Galati. The ace who helped Hofstra eliminate UCLA in Los Angeles a season ago in a regional, Galati is tied with Hawaii's Parnaby for the national lead with 37 wins this season. She simply doesn't beat herself -- her strikeout-to-walk ratio of 374 strikeouts and 29 walks is one of the season's more mind-boggling statistics.

Jolene Henderson, California: Until its ace went down with a knee injury in April, Cal was in position to claim a national seed and host at least a regional. Things fell apart without Henderson, which leaves the Golden Bears heading to Ann Arbor and a potential meeting with No. 8 Michigan. But Henderson was back in the circle for the final weekend of the regular season and went the distance for her 30th win in the final game. The specifics of the injury were never disclosed, and it's not clear how close to 100 percent she will be. But even some of Henderson is a lot to deal with.

Sara Nevins, South Florida: Folks in Gainesville don't need a reminder of what Nevins can do as South Florida and its ace return for the second postseason in a row. The No. 2 seed this season, Florida had a lot of other things going on when it exited the tournament in disarray in its own regional last year, but South Florida's ace certainly contributed to the Gators' undoing. She's 25-7 this season with a 0.94 ERA and 255 strikeouts in 201 innings.

Chelsea Thomas, Missouri: At her best, Thomas is as good as any pitcher in the tournament. Just look at the Big 12 duels she had with Ricketts last season for evidence (including one in which they combined for 27 strikeouts in a 10-inning thriller). The problem for No. 6 Missouri is keeping her at her best. The Tigers missed the World Series last season after Thomas wore down trying to pitch two games in one day against LSU, and a lack of pitching depth this season left them forced to almost concede one game per series in SEC play rather than overwork her.