BY DUDLEY E. DAWSON
A team picked to finish fourth in its own division during the preseason was named as the third-best team in the nation when the 64-team NCAA Baseball Tournament bracket was revealed on Monday.
Top seed Arkansas (41-16) was tabbed the No. 3 overall national seed and will face fourth-seeded Santa Clara (35-18) on Friday at 2 p.m. on ESPN + at Baum-Walker Stadium.
Second-seeded TCU (37-22) and third-seeded Arizona (33-24) meet at 8 p.m. on ESPNU in the other Fayetteville Regional first-round matchup.
“Just super excited to be in a regional again,” Arkansas head coach Dave Van Horn said. “For some, it may seem like it is just what we do, but it’s really hard to get here and the players have heard that from my mouth and I think the other coaches chimed in as well.”
Being one of the top eight national seeds means Arkansas could plant all of its games at home in its quest to reach the College World Series.
The Fayetteville Regional is matched up the Terra Haute Regional one that features 14th-seeded and host Indiana State (42-14) – who has won 34 of its last 38 games – Wright State (39-21), Iowa (42-14) and North Carolina (35-22).
“It’s an honor to be in the top eight (national seeds),” Van Horn said. “We have had a lot of things happen to us this season as far as injuries and sickness. Other teams have as well, but it just seems like it kind of hit all at the same time and our players found a way to get through it.
“I extremely proud of them and it’s a new season. It is all about what we do from here on out. The previous games obviously got us where we are, but it doesn’t matter any more and that’s what I told them. It’s all about the future and I think they are excited to be here and be playing.”
Arkansas will spend Monday getting to know Santa Clara, which has won its last eight games and 17 of its last 20 and is making its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1997.
That includes a 4-0 run through the West Coast Conference Tournament with wins over Gonzaga (4-2), Portland (15-3), Saint Mary’s (17-3) and a second one over Portland (4-0) on the championship game.
“They’re from the Northern part of California,” Van Horn said. “I know that they’re a champion. They won. They won something. They’re a championship team. So all I know is probably just a little bit more than most people know about them, what popped up on the board. We’ll look into them right now.
“Santa Clara, they score runs. We’ve watched that. We’re prepared for what we’re getting into. It’s just a matter of how we handle it.”
Arkansas had been on for 11 straight days with a series in Nashville against Vanderbilt and then going to to Hoover, Ala., for the SEC Tournament.
“It’s always good to be at home really,” Van Horn said. “I mean, especially we’ve been on the road for 11 days straight and just driving back in, after we got in our cars at the airport the other day it was nice to be here and regroup a little bit and let these guys have some freedom yesterday and today.
“And then have team practice the next couple of days and then obviously a Thursday workout that is structured time wise. But it’s really good to play at Baum-Walker in front of our fans, who are extremely loyal. They show up and it ought to be an exciting weekend.”
Arkansas is familiar with TCU, which beat it 18-6 in the second game off the season at the College Baseball Showdown at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas.
The Horned Frogs have won six straight games and 12 of their last 13, including winning the Big 12 Tournament on Saturday with a 12-5 win over Oklahoma State.
“What a really talented team,” Van Horn said. “Older team. Veteran team. Good mix of speed and defense. Power. Just following scores, and I follow most of the teams in our region. We felt like we’d get somebody from the area. Wasn’t sure it would be TCU. But they’ve had a great year. I did watch them win the Big 12 championship game yesterday. I watched most of it.
“We all had a thought they might be heading this way. They’ve had a super year.”
Arizona had won three straight and 7 of 9 contests before falling to Oregon 5-4 Saturday night in the Pac 12 Championship game.
Arizona beat then-No. 2 Tennessee 3-1 in the Wildcats’ season opener on Feb. 17 at the MLB Desert Invitational in Scottsdale, Ariz.
“ You know, I’ve watched them I’d say parts of their games two or three times throughout the season, just because they were on, late game I’m at home,” Van Horn said. “I’m looking through scores and I see they’re still playing.
“They look very physical to me, a little older team. I know Tennessee played them, I think to open the season and I think Arizona beat them out there in Arizona somewhere in a tournament. I don’t know a whole lot about them.”
Van Horn was asked about where his team is mentally headed into the postseason.
“Well, I’ve only been around them 45 minutes, an hour so far,” Van Horn said. “I think that mentally we’re in a good place. We went 3-3 against some really really good teams on the road. We did what we needed to do to get where we are today.
“I hope they take a little time to sit back and realize what a good season we’ve had and that we’ve put ourselves in position to play here as long as we win. But I think the mood’s good, you know? I mean some of our goals at the beginning of the year were obviously to get to this point and have an opportunity and continue to play in a regional and here we are.”
The SEC got four of the top six national seeds with Florida (2), Arkansas (3), LSU (5) and Vanderbilt (6) while Wake Forrest (1), Clemson (4), Virginia (7) and Stanford (8) were the others.
“Well, it definitely prepares you for a regional,” Van Horn said. “We always talk about that. You hope you play your best ball. You think down the stretch, who we played and where we played them, it’s hard to play a tougher schedule. That’s why our strength of schedule ended up in the top 5 in the country and RPI, because we won enough of those.
“I think we’re prepared. We’re not going to be shocked by the talent level of anybody that’s coming into the regional. We know Arizona is going to be good just from them playing in the league. We’ve seen TCU. Our opponent is going to be the one we probably know the least about and that’s why we have to dig in. “
SEC teams were awarded 8 of the 16 four-team regional hosting sites with Kentucky (12), Auburn (13), South Carolina (15) and Alabama (16) also getting to play at home.
Tennessee is a No. 2 seed at Clemson while Texas A&M is a No. 2 at Stanford and gives the SEC 10 teams in the tournament a fourth time along with 2014, 2018 and 2019.
“I think it speaks volumes to the talent that’s in our league,” Van Horn said. “A lot of future big leaguers play in the SEC. Week in and week out, you’re always playing a good team. Whether they’re winning or not, they have ability, obviously.
“You have to play well. Our league did great against all outside opponents. If you look at the winning percentage there, it’s probably .800 or something like that.
“I don’t know, that’s what I thought I saw earlier. It’s well-deserved, I think. It might not happen, or people might think differently after the regionals are over, but I do believe what they’ve done throughout the season warrants them receiving a regional in their own ballpark.”
Photo by John D. James
NCAA Fayetteville Regional
Friday, June 2:
Game 1 – Arkansas vs. Santa Clara – 2 p.m. (ESPN+)
Game 2 – TCU vs. Arizona – 8 p.m. (ESPNU)
Saturday, June 3:
Game 3 – Game 1 Loser vs. Game 2 Loser – 2 p.m.
Game 4 – Game 1 Winner vs. Game 2 Winner – 8 p.m.
Sunday, June 4:
Game 5 – Game 3 Winner vs. Game 4 Loser – 2 p.m.
Game 6 – Game 4 Winner vs. Game 5 Winner – 8 p.m.
Monday, June 5 (If Necessary):
Game 7 – If the Game 5 Winner Wins Game 6 – TBD