Tennessee cruises into tourney
Rare is the NCAA tournament in which all 16 national seeds advance to the super regional round. With more than 90 games awaiting in regional play this week, ESPN.com's Graham Hays breaks down the seeds, the sleepers and the players who could shake up the opening round.
Friday: Tennessee vs. Miami (Ohio); UAB vs. Virginia Tech
Seed: No. 7 Tennessee
It remains to be seen whether the strengths will add up to enough to contend for a championship, but there aren't easily discernible weaknesses for the Lady Vols. They have pitching from sisters Ellen and Ivy Renfroe; the latter's strong second half was a key to her team's long winning streak to close the regular season. They have power in the lineup, headlined by Team USA second baseman Lauren Gibson and emerging standout shortstop Madison Shipman. They have a game-changing presence at the top of the order in Raven Chavanne, healthy after a collision late in the campaign left with her with concussion-like symptoms. And they boast the best fielding percentage in Division I, having committed just 26 errors in 56 games.
Strongest challenger: UAB
It's another year and another regional at an SEC location for UAB, which played at Alabama in 2010 and at Georgia in 2011. The Blazers won a game in each of those appearances (beating Alcorn State in 2010 and Florida State in 2011), and several key parts of this team benefited from those experiences. The senior trio of Mandy Lowman, Kayla Orr and Catherine Crawford all enter the tournament slugging better than .500 with on-base percentages better than .400 for an offense that had its moments (most notably a 19-0 win against Massachusetts and a 20-7 win against Kentucky).
Player to watch: Courtney Liddle, Virginia Tech. Two players in Virginia Tech history have career slugging percentages of .500 or better: Liddle and former standout Megan Evans. Liddle won't be able to carry the team at the plate the way former ace Angela Tincher once did in the circle, but she will be vital in a regional with good pitching on all fronts. The Hokies still aren't an offensive juggernaut by any stretch of the imagination, but between freshman Lauren Gaskill (22 stolen bases, .421 on-base percentage) and Liddle, they are back in the NCAA tournament in part because of improved run production.
Friday: Georgia vs. Coastal Carolina; North Carolina vs. Georgia Southern
Seed: No. 10 Georgia
Few teams had as much to replace this season as Georgia, but here the Bulldogs sit with a 41-15 overall record and a 17-11 SEC record, almost step for step with last season's results. There are plenty of reasons for the sustained success, but no two deserve more credit than catcher Kristyn Sandberg and pitcher Erin Arevalo. Sandberg was a known power source before this season, but with an .837 slugging percentage and .548 on-base percentage, she's gone from complementary player to one of the best hitters in the nation. Arevalo was more of a question mark, but she has been a model of consistency in giving the Bulldogs their most productive starting pitcher in years.
Strongest challenger: North Carolina
An offense that started the season on a torrid pace slowed noticeably in ACC play, a potential warning sign given that league's modest relative strength, but the Tar Heels will be as strong a challenger as Lori Spingola allows. As runs grew harder to come by for her teammates, the sophomore pitching ace got that much better. She allowed just 13 earned runs in 84 1/3 innings in ACC play. On the season, she struck out better than nine batters per seven innings.
Player to watch: Sarah Purvis, Georgia Southern. The Southern Conference Pitcher of the Year, Purvis went 23-10 with a 1.54 ERA and struck out 249 batters in 208 2/3 innings. It's that last combination -- good enough to place her in the top 30 nationally in strikeouts per seven innings -- that catches the eye. Purvis didn't fare well in a start at Tennessee earlier this season, but she held her own against Georgia, Georgia Tech, Kentucky and South Florida (24 strikeouts in 25 1/3 innings in four starts against those teams). That suggests there's more there than just a pitcher feasting on a mid-major conference.
Friday: Louisville vs. Valparaiso; Michigan vs. Kentucky
Seed: No. 15 Louisville
After rolling through the regular season and Big East tournament with a 53-3 record, sweeping the conference regular-season and tournament titles, Louisville finds itself one of the final national seeds and facing a difficult regional that includes two teams that know the Cardinals well. So it's safe to say complacency shouldn't be an issue for the home team with something to prove. Motivation aside, Louisville's best asset is a pitching staff that allowed just two earned runs in 21 innings against Kentucky and Michigan (beating the Wildcats twice and the Wolverines once). Tori Collins is the ace, and Caralisa Connell is a viable No. 2, but the intriguing option is Chelsea Leonard. She finished all three of the aforementioned wins and has 11 saves in 23 relief appearances this season, a softball rarity.
Strongest challenger: Kentucky
No team in the SEC, and possibly any league, closed the regular season playing better softball than the Wildcats -- a necessity, given the hole they dug themselves just to get to .500 and qualify for the NCAA tournament. But was an early exit in the SEC tournament the sign of a spent team? Senior Chanda Bell allowed just one earned run in eight innings against Louisville this season but didn't get the ball when her team played Michigan in February. The Wolverines still have enough power to make her pay if her rise ball isn't at its peak. Third baseman Brittany Cervantes might just be the best player in the regional and hit 11 home runs with a 1.291 OPS in SEC play.
Player to watch: Amanda Chidester, Michigan. The Big Ten Player of the Year had a lot of pressure on her to lead a Michigan team depending on two freshman pitchers this season, and that award, alongside another conference title, suggests she held up all right. Starting primarily at first base, a new position for the fourth time in four seasons, she hit her stride offensively in Big Ten play, despite being pitched around by teams all too familiar with her abilities. She had 39 RBIs with runners in scoring position, very nearly more than any other two Wolverines combined.
Friday: Alabama vs. Tennessee-Martin; Georgia Tech vs. South Alabama
Seed: No. 2 Alabama
The Crimson Tide are the No. 2 seed for a reason after sweeping the SEC regular-season and tournament titles. Few teams have speed at the top of the order like Kayla Braud and Jen Fenton (75 stolen bases between them), but it's a team comfortable playing small or large on offense. No team in the country has more home runs than Alabama, paced by redshirt senior Amanda Locke and sophomore shortstop Kaila Hunt. The team's defensive numbers aren't great, and consistency is very much an issue, but from the outfield of Braud, Fenton and Jazlyn Lunceford to third baseman Courtney Conley, not many teams can make as many difficult plays as this one. And all of that just gets us to Jackie Traina, the sophomore ace who seems to live for pressure moments and big games.
Strongest challenger: Georgia Tech
Like every team in the regional -- the only one in which all four teams won conference tournaments -- Georgia Tech heads to Tuscaloosa with momentum. Kelsi Weseman is the offensive star (.779 slugging percentage, .580 on-base percentage), but Hope Rush adds power and Kate Kuzma was among the ACC's hottest bats in conference play. The Yellow Jackets ran less during conference play, but speed can be an asset for this team if Ashley Thomas, Chelsie Thomas and Haley Downs reach base consistently. Pulling double duty, Rush walks too many people, but she has a penchant for big performances, as in a 2-1 win against Arizona and a 1-0 win against Oklahoma this season.
Player to watch: Hannah Campbell, South Alabama. It's not clear which Campbell twin, Hannah or UAB's Lannah, has the best chance for a win in the NCAA tournament, but it's pretty clear that Hannah is South Alabama's best chance to earn a rematch against Alabama. The Crimson Tide didn't take it easy on Campbell when the teams met earlier this season, totaling 14 hits in her four innings, but that was the low point in a sophomore season that included strong performances against Florida State, LSU and Louisiana-Lafayette, with the last of her three starts against the Ragin' Cajuns a win in the Sun Belt title game.