North Carolina didn’t exactly build the kind of momentum it was searching for during the ACC baseball tournament, but the Tar Heels left Durham Bulls Athletic Park on Friday with a victorious feeling, at least, that they haven’t experienced all too often lately.
“It’s definitely good for us,” pitcher J.B. Bukauskas said after UNC’s 6-3 victory against Clemson – a win that was UNC’s second in 10 games. “We had a rough couple games.”
That was true in the tournament, where UNC lost consecutive games against Louisville and Florida State, and before the tournament – when the Tar Heels endured three-game sweeps in consecutive weekends leading into the postseason.
After his team’s loss to Virginia on the final day of the regular season, UNC coach Mike Fox expressed doubt about the Tar Heels’ NCAA tournament chances. He described the play-in game of the ACC tournament as “do or die” for UNC, which defeated Virginia Tech to advance into pool play.
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Asked about his team’s NCAA tournament prospects after the victory on Friday and Clemson, Fox said, “I hope we’re in.” The Tar Heels appear to be in good shape for it, at least, despite their struggles during the past two weeks.
They rank 24th in the RPI – fifth among ACC teams – and Baseball America projected UNC into the tournament field even before its play-in game victory against Virginia Tech. Still, for a program that has been to the College World Series six times during Fox’s tenure, this is new ground for UNC.
The Tar Heels this time of year have usually been more assured of their NCAA tournament prospects. Often, their only question has been which teams would be sent to Chapel Hill for a regional they’d be hosting.
When the Tar Heels on Monday gather to watch the tournament selection show, they’ll learn instead where they’ll be headed. Baseball America’s most recent projection, a week ago, had UNC as a No. 3 seed in the regional hosted by LSU.
“This is kind of a little bit new territory for us, somewhat,” Fox said of the uncertainty surrounding his team.
Fox knows UNC’s RPI makes it seem like the Tar Heels are a lock to make the NCAA tournament but, he said, “I don’t think that’s enough to get you in.”
“I hope our league gets eight (bids),” he said. “And we’ll just see if we’ve done enough. We’ve had some good wins. We’ve had some tough weekends. I know they look at your last ten or 12 games. And that’s not in our favor right now. But we’ll just see. Hope for the best.”
The six-game conference losing streak that UNC brought into the ACC tournament was its longest since 2001. That’s also the last time the Tar Heels were left out of the NCAA tournament field.
After that season, Fox gradually built UNC into a national power. Ending the season in Omaha, Neb., and the College World Series became the norm, and the expectation.
But, he said on Friday, “We’re not immune, certainly, to this type of season.”
It will continue on Monday with a selection show that, for UNC, comes with more uncertainty than usual.