NCAA Regional returns to Fayetteville

The Arkansas Razorbacks move from one very important week in Hoover, Ala., at the SEC Tournament to an even more important week in the friendly confines of Charlie Baum Stadium in Fayetteville for a first-round NCAA Regional.

Dave Van Horn’s No. 11 Razorbacks (42-17) play host to a trio of backyard rivals in second-seeded Missouri State (40-17), third-seeded Oklahoma State (30-25), and fourth-seeded Oral Roberts (40-17) on Friday.

Missouri State and OSU tangle at 2 p.m. in the opener, while the Razorbacks face Oral Roberts in the 7 p.m. nightcap. None of the Fayetteville Regional games will be televised, but ESPN3 is streaming the entire slate of games. There will be two games on Saturday and Sunday, and a possibly a game on Monday if necessary to decide the double elimination title.

It’s the first time the Razorbacks have earned a host spot in the NCAA Tournament since 2010.

Arkansas took the No. 3 LSU Tigers (43-17) down to the very last at-bat Sunday before finally succumbing, 4-2, to finish second in the tournament.

The Razorbacks’ SEC Tournament road began a bit bumpy with a rainout on Wednesday and then a 4-3 loss to Mississippi State before the Hogs stormed their way into the championship game with a 12-0, no-hit shutout of Auburn late Thursday, a 9-2 payback victory over Mississippi State Friday, and then a 16-0 rout of No. 3 Florida on Saturday.

The Hogs were a couple of timely hits away from upending LSU and winning their first SEC Tournament title, but the Razorbacks couldn’t find the holes in the Tigers extremely fast outfield to pull off a baseball coup.

The Tigers may just be ranked No. 3 in the nation, behind Oregon State (49-4) and North Carolina (47-12), but LSU is an extremely talented, and battle-tested squad. The Hogs, no doubt, turned some heads with their play at Hoover last week, especially Chad Spanberger, who was named tournament MVP despite.

That is quite an accomplishment for a player whose team didn’t win the title, but Spanberger had a career week for the Hogs. He finished the tournament as the leader in RBIs (10), doubles (3), home runs (5), and total bases (26).

The home run total was one away from tying the record set by Mike Templeton in 1977, but his three home run and seven RBI game in the 12-0 win over Auburn set new single-game records for the SEC Tournament.

Spanberger has 19 home runs on the year, which ties him for sixth-most in school history, and puts him one away from becoming just the sixth player in program history to hit 20 or more home runs in a season.

After a rough patch by the Razorbacks bullpen in the opening game, the Razorbacks’ pitching staff performed admirably throughout the tournament, showing that the Hogs might have the type of staying power on the mound to make a run toward Omaha, Neb., and another trip to the College World Series.

That was debatable going into the tournament as Arkansas’ pitchers had their ups and downs throughout the season.

While the SEC Tournament was exciting, it was a battle of attrition that taxed every team that played other than LSU and Florida, which have uncommon quality and depth in their bullpens.

Some have questioned the value of the tournament compared to the stress it puts on teams just a week before the NCAA Tournament. Some of the West Coast conferences play another three-game series instead.

While the opening, semifinal, and final rounds have done away with the double-elimination format, that grueling aspect still creates a daunting challenge for squads in the middle rounds.

Some have suggested going to a single-elimination format for the entire tournament could reduce stress and possibly give middle-tier squads a better chance at winning the tournament and earning an automatic bid into an NCAA Regional. With the double-elimination portion still in play, it makes it more likely for the cream to rise to the top. LSU didn’t need the league’s automatic bid, but South Carolina could have used it.

It’s hard to say if the tournament helped, hurt, or did nothing for the SEC, concerning the NCAA Tournament field. Eight SEC teams are playing in NCAA Regionals with four hosting, but most felt those eight teams — LSU, Florida, Kentucky, Arkansas, Mississippi State, Vanderbilt, Auburn and Texas A&M — would make the field before the SEC Tournament was held.

Neither South Carolina nor Ole Miss played their way into the tournament, and the Gamecocks made it all the way to the semifinals before falling to LSU.

The NCAA Baseball Selection Committee announces seeing for the top eight teams in the tournament, the National Seeds. Eight other teams are selected to host Regionals, but with the seeding of the rest of the field unannounced, it’s hard to really know exactly how the committee viewed SEC teams beyond Florida and LSU.

Despite the loss to LSU in the championship game, the Razorbacks should carry a great deal of confidence into the Regional. For that alone, the Razorbacks run at Hoover was worth the trip.

NCAA Fayetteville Regional Schedule

Friday, June 2
Game 1 – No. 3 Oklahoma State vs. No. 2 Missouri State, 2 p.m. CT (ESPN3)
Game 2 – No. 1 Arkansas vs. No. 4 Oral Roberts, 7 p.m. CT (ESPN3)

Saturday, June 3
Game 3 – Loser Game 1 vs. Loser Game 2, 2 p.m. (ESPN3)
Game 4 – Winner Game 1 vs. Winner Game 2, 7 p.m. (ESPN3)

Sunday, June 4
Game 5 – Winner Game 3 vs. Loser Game 4, 3 p.m. (ESPN3)
Game 6 – Winner Game 5 vs. Winner Game 4, 8 p.m. (ESPN3)

Monday, June 5
Game 7 – Winner Game 6 vs. Loser Game 6 (if necessary), 6 p.m. (ESPN3)

The Passing of Frank Deford

Longtime “Sports Illustrated” writer Frank Deford, 78, died Sunday. Simply put he was one of the best sports journalists to ever practice the trade.

That’s my opinion, but many, if not most, who doted on his long-form storytelling for the venerable magazine or his deft commentary for National Public Radio would agree.

I’m positive that I had read Deford before the March 7, 1988, issue of “Sports Illustrated.” From the second through the 12th grade, I looked forward to Thursdays because that’s when the mailman delivered the magazine.

I would always flip to the college sports section near the back quarter of the magazine to check to see if my beloved Razorbacks were mentioned.

After checking for anything Razorback related, I’d make way through the magazine, reading every article, usually before the weekend was done.

I still remember the thrill of seeing my childhood hero Sidney Moncrief on the cover in 1978, and then later that year marveling at Lou Holtz, Ben Cowins, and Ron Calcagni on the cover of SI’s College Football Preview issue.

While I still cherish those magazines, my favorite piece that SI ever published is Deford’s four-act play about former Arkansas basketball coach Nolan Richardson and his struggle with the loss of his daughter Yvonne to leukemia, entitled “Got To Do Some Coachin’.”

I don’t write well enough to do justice in describing Deford’s play to you. Thanks to the internet, the play is as at your fingertips. Here’s a link:

Take some time to read it. You’ll be glad you did, and you’ll also see why Deford and his wonderful way with words will be sorely missed by so many.