K-State, Wichita State to meet in NCAA tournament
Top-seeded Kansas State has never before hosted an NCAA tournament regional, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be a little bit of familiarity for the Wildcats this weekend.
They’ll open up against in-state rival Wichita State.
“Being at home can be a big advantage, and we hope we can realize that,” said Kansas State coach Brad Hill, who guided the Wildcats (41-17) to their first regular-season Big 12 title this season, and their first league title at all since 1933, when the school was still part of the Missouri Valley.
“Hopefully there will be a bunch of purple in the stands,” Hill said. “I expect there will be.”
Second-seeded Arkansas takes on No. 3 seed Bryant in the other matchup on Friday night to kick off the double-elimination regional. The winners play each other on Saturday, as do the losers.
All-session tickets are already sold out, so Hill is probably safe in his assumption that there will be plenty of purple packing the stands of Tointon Family Stadium this weekend.
There will probably be plenty of yellow and gold, too.
The Shockers (39-26) have a proud baseball tradition that includes 28 appearances in the NCAA tournament, nearly two dozen conference titles and seven trips to the College World Series, including the school’s only national championship following the 1989 season.
The Wildcats and Shockers have played a home-and-home series for years, and while Kansas State won both meetings earlier this season — 7-6 at home and 4-1 in the return game a week later — it’s Wichita State that has a commanding lead in the overall series. The Shockers are 51-33 against the Wildcats, including 19-18 in Manhattan, Kan.
“It’s a team we know we can compete with and we know we can beat,” Shockers outfielder Garrett Bayliff said. “We have a lot of confidence going into it. They beat us twice this year and, like I’ve said, it’s tough to beat a team three times.”
This will be just the fourth time Kansas State has appeared in the NCAA tournament, and its offense is a big reason why it’s back after a one-year hiatus.
The Wildcats were second in the nation with a .323 batting average this season, and led the Big 12 in eight offensive categories, including hits (644) and runs (368). Second baseman Ross Kivett, the conference player of the year, hit .356 with 34 RBIs and a team-best 26 stolen bases.
“I’ve seen them a couple times on TV and they can really hit,” Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said. “They’ve got a couple good pitchers, but they score runs, and no lead is safe.”
Before Van Horn can think too much about the Wildcats, and a tantalizing matchup between the Big 12 and the Southeastern Conference, he’s focused on a plucky underdog from Rhode Island.
Bryant (44-16-1) has been transitioning from Division II to Division I over the past four years, and will be appearing in its first NCAA regional after setting a school record for wins and capturing the Northeast Conference regular-season and conference championships.
“We’ve all been waiting for this moment for a long time, especially the seniors who waited four years for it,” said Bulldog infielder Dan Muscatello. “We’re ready for the opportunity.”
They’ll be getting it against an ornery team from Arkansas.
The Razorbacks finished 37-20 but 18-11 in the loaded SEC, and Van Horn thought that might be good enough for them to host a regional. But sites were instead doled out to Tennessee, LSU, South Carolina and Mississippi State, even though the Bulldogs were 16-14 in the league.
“We were in the mix and they did what they did,” Van Horn said of the selection process earlier this week. “I can’t figure it out.”
So instead, Van Horn has turned his attention to things he can figure out: Bryant, for starters, and what could be a tricky playing surface at Kansas State. The school installed a new artificial turf over the entire field a couple of years ago, following a trend of schools around the country.
The result has been a lightning-quick surface that can produce big innings, rewards fast reflexes and stingy fielding — and that the Razorbacks are unaccustomed to playing on.
“I think the only part of the baseball field that has dirt on it is the mound, so it’s a different feel, big-time,” Van Horn said. “We need to get comfortable on that field and that may play a big part in it.”