The first pitch in the Volunteer’s NCAA Tournament run is approaching. The Tennessee Baseball team will meet the Liberty Flames Friday at 7:00 ET, following the conclusion of Game 1, North Carolina vs UNC-Wilmington. The winner here will advance to play the winner of the Atlanta Regional, where Georgia Tech is a heavy favorite. As the clock ticks down before the Vols start dancing, here is my preview and prediction of the Chapel Hill Regional.
#1 North Carolina
UNC was inconsistent this season as they started off 12-1, similar to the Vols 17-1 start. UNC did not do as well in conference play, finishing with a 17-13 ACC record. Then the ACC Tournament happened. The Tar Heels fought back the competition and won the ACC Tournament, securing a hosted regional. UNC’s dynamic offense is always a threat to put runs on the board and I’m really excited for a hypothetical match-up with UT’s solid defense and pitching.
When you talk about North Carolina’s impact players, you have to start with Michael Busch and Aaron Sabato. Busch and Sabato have terrified opposing pitchers all season and there is no reason to expect that trend to stop headed into the post-season. Busch has a .294 Batting Average and hit 15 Home Runs this season, leading his team. As for Aaron Sabato he leads his team with a .338 Batting Average, and is 2nd in home runs with 14, only 1 behind Busch.
In short, the dynamic offense and hosting the regional will obviously serve as a large advantage for the Tar Heels. However, they are far from a lock to survive the Regional.
The Flames finished 42-19 overall in the regular season, 15-9 in the Atlantic Sun Conference. Liberty also played one game against Tennessee this season, in which the Volunteers easily handled them 7-1 in Knoxville. Liberty will be the first team Tennessee plays in the Tournament. It is worth noting that they went 1-1 against UNC this season, so don’t expect this game to be easy.
Liberty’s star impact player is Jonathan Embry, who has a .311 batting average and leads his team in home runs with 10. If there was a player that would have a huge game in a hypothetical upset, you’d think it would be him.
The Flames are a pesky team that you should not underestimate, but one the Volunteers should handle to advance into the winners bracket.
UNC Wilmington finished 32-29 overall and 12-12 in the Colonial Conference. Their first opponent will be the top seeded Tar Heels, whom they’ve already played twice during the regular season. Surprisingly, UNC-Wilmington kept the game close, losing by only a run in a 4-3 game. However, in the next match-up UNC did not underwhelm beating Wilmington 11-4. Being the lowest seed in the Regional, they are viewed as the largest long shot of the 4 teams, and a surprise from them seems improbable.
Greg Jones is a player to watch for Wilmington, he has a .343 Batting Average, and 40 stolen bases on the season. Kep Brown is also a power hitter to keep an eye on as he leads his team in Home Runs with 8.
A underdog story does not seem to be in order here, but nonetheless you should never say never.
In the end, the Volunteers have a real opportunity to do something special here, but in order to do it they’ll have to get over some solid teams in the Chapel Hill Regional.