The team’s best pitcher has been Michael Johnson, who is 7-1 this season in 71.2 innings pitched. He enters the Regional with a team-best 3.27 ERA and could give Tar Heel hitters some trouble just as other smaller schools have from the rubber in moments this season. If he pitches, he'll give his team the best chance.
From the offensive end, the Aggies have hit .274 as a team this season. Their best hitter has been Dawnoven Smith, who leads the team in batting average (.335), slugging percentage (.601), runs scored (46), RBIs (44), doubles (18) and home runs (8). Whoever throws to Smith on Friday will want to avoid giving him anything he can use to keep his team in the game.
While it probably won’t have so many hits to work with against UNC, it also won’t be the first time the team faces the Tar Heels this season.
On March 13, the two programs separated by Alamance County played in Chapel Hill. North Carolina took home a 1-0 victory, using a small-ball fifth inning to bring home a runner and relying on a four-hit complete game from Rodney Hutchison, striking out seven and walking one to keep the Aggies at bay.
In comparing performances against common opponents, High Point, N.C. State, South Carolina and Appalachian State, the Tar Heels are clearly the better team. But if the Aggies want to hand the host team a Regional game-one loss for the second year in a row – and it’s certainly possible – they’ll need to jump out to an early lead in a continuation of their recent offensive success.
If the team can do that, it'll have a better chance. In letdown games this season, UNC’s offensive production has slowed down and hasn’t been able to match early scores by its opponents. But to be clear, the Aggies have a tough matchup and will have trouble sending the Tar Heels to the loser's bracket.
No. 3 seed Houston (36-23, 16-8 American)
Houston, the American Conference Regular-Season champion, enters the Regional as an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. They’ll open play facing Purdue on Friday at 7 p.m., but could face UNC on Saturday.
The Cougars will be a formidable force that could create problems for the Tar Heels. After posting a 9-6 record against eight top-25 teams including a three-game sweep of ECU in late April, the team has all the talent and experience to make a deep run onto the Super Regional.
A number of players will certainly be tough for North Carolina to minimize.
Starting pitcher Aaron Fletcher has had a 2.43 era in 85.1 innings so far this season, striking out 76 batters and only walking 17. Although he is coming off one of his worst performances of the season against Tulane in the conference tournament, there's no reason why he won't get back to the success he's had all year. The AAC’s Pitcher of the Year could pose big problems for hitters this weekend, especially if he rests on Friday and faces the Tar Heels on Saturday. He’s coming off a long period of rest and will have a fresh arm capable of mowing through the lineup.
At the plate, North Carolina should be looking out for sophomore infielder Jared Triolo. Triolo, who has played in every game this season, has a ridiculously high .343 average and team-leading 80 hits. Along with fellow .300 hitters Charlie Bartlett and Joe Davis, the trio of hitters will be consistent from the plate and could put up runs in a hurry against UNC if it isn't careful.
Houston has the experience to handle North Carolina, but it'll need all of its best pieces to play well to get there. As a team, it's hitting .259 this season with 94 doubles, nine triples, 30 home runs and 268 RBIs. After being embarrassed 12-1 by ECU in the conference tournament championship, it has all the motivation needed to power over the rest of the competition.
It just needs to execute like it did against the best teams it faced earlier this year. In some of the Cougars’ best performances, they haven’t put up monumental stats, but they also don't miss many opportunities either. During the sweep of then-No. 7 ECU, the team scored 14 runs on 28 hits.
Those kind of efficient numbers will be needed for a chance to beat North Carolina later in the weekend.
No. 2 seed Purdue (37-19, 17-6 Big Ten)
The Boilermakers are the Tar Heels biggest threat to come out of the Regional tournament. After being awarded an at-large bid to postseason play, the team is entering just its third NCAA tournament play in program history.
Purdue enters the tournament after losing to Minnesota in the Big Ten Championship Game, a loss that ended a seven game win streak. Before that, the team lost just three of its last 24 games on an impressive run to recover from a 16-16 start. Because of their play in the second half, the Boilermakers should not be underestimated.
With a .280 team average, Purdue has four hitters above .300 from the dish. Senior outfielder Alec Olund has a team-high .344 average from the back end of the lineup, while outfielder Skyler Hunter is just behind him at .330. Nick Dalesandro (.304) and Jacson McGowan (.302) also round out the team’s top hitters. Keep an eye on all four players throughout the tournament.
But the team’s biggest threat might be its pitching as of late. Ace Tanner Andrews has been impressive this season and will be one of the best pitchers to throw all weekend. In 93 innings pitched, he has a 7-4 record and a 2.71 era, contributing in a major way to the success of his team in the last stretch of the season. However, with the likely Friday starter against Houston, the Tar Heels will probably dodge facing Andrews thanks to the luck of seeding.
Purdue and North Carolina have had a similar arc of progression this season, kicking it into gear later in the spring. If the teams face one another later in the weekend, the winner might come down to who can keep up that consistency when it matters most.
The Boilermakers can just as easily come out on top, especially if the Tar Heels have a relapse of their uncharacteristic performance against Pittsburgh last week. Look out for them to play North Carolina close — and give it its toughest game all weekend.
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