The final NCAA Tournament of the year for the Florida Gators is finally here, with the Gators' No. 1 overall seed baseball team entering non-SEC postseason play looking to make good on sky-high expectations and win the first national championship in school history.
Armed with a fearsome pitching staff led by SEC Pitcher of the Year Logan Shore and A.J. Puk, a potential No. 1 pick in the 2016 MLB Draft, a lineup packed with young, talented hitters like Buddy Reed and JJ Schwarz that should get a boost from the returning Peter Alonso, and a defense among the best in the sport, the Gators ran off a school-record 44 wins in the regular season before rallying from a loss to make the SEC Tournament final while getting nothing from the injured Alonso and just one mediocre inning from Shore.
Florida boasts the nation's best RPI, and has more wins away from home than any other top-10 RPI team; it also took series from No. 3 overall seed Miami and regional host Vanderbilt, and swept one against No. 4 seed Texas A&M. At home, where the Gators went 29-4, their only losses came to powerful Mississippi State, Georgia, and Vanderbilt, and two of those came by a single run.
The Gators won't have to leave Gainesville to make the College World Series if they advance from the Gainesville Regional, where they will see Bethune-Cookman in a Friday evening opener, then some combination of UConn, Georgia Tech, and the Wildcats on the weekend. Florida did fail to advance from the Gainesville Regional in 2014, as the light-hitting Gators scored just four runs in two games, but that is their only imperfect regional at home under Kevin O'Sullivan, who has overseen five three-game sweeps to Super Regional play since arriving in Gainesville prior to the 2008 season.
With the cloud of potential interest in the now-vacant Texas job hanging over O'Sullivan for now, and the distraction of next week's MLB Draft in the middle distance, the Gators may have things other than making a second consecutive trip to Omaha on their minds.
But their Regional foes seem like poor bets to upset the Gators. Bethune-Cookman isn't the lowest-RPI team in the field, but has never beaten Florida, and is 0-6 against the Gators in Regional play. Georgia Tech was swept by the Florida State team that Florida swept in midweek contests this year. UConn has been hot of late, winning 13 of its last 14 games — including a Friday afternoon victory over the Yellow Jackets — but also lost series to Liberty and Texas-San Antonio teams that finished outside the RPI top 100 this year, and simply hasn't faced a team with Florida's talent.
Even a distracted Gators team should be able to grind out wins this weekend, and it may not even need one good start out of Shore or Puk, considering the wealth of options behind Florida's pocket rockets, who should start in some combination on Friday and Saturday. And if Alonso's return leads to a resurgence of the Gators' offense, which showed signs of returning to form in the SEC Tournament, the No. 1 team in the land could start looking like the prohibitive title favorite it appeared to be early in its campaign.
Here's the Gainesville Regional schedule, including TV times. All games will be available for online streaming via WatchESPN.
Friday, June 3
Game 1: No. 3 UConn 7, No. 2 Georgia Tech 6
Game 2: No. 1 Florida 9, No. 4 Bethune-Cookman 3
Saturday, June 4
Game 3: No. 2 Georgia Tech 12, No. 4 Bethune-Cookman 3
Game 4: No. 1 Florida 6, No. 3 UConn 5
Sunday, June 5
Game 5: No. 2 Georgia Tech 7, No. 3 UConn 5
Game 6: No. 1 Florida 10, No. 3 Georgia Tech 1