All Mike Fox and his North Carolina baseball team can do now is wait, and it’s likely to be an uncomfortable one – an agonizing one – until they find out whether their season will continue or if it ended on Saturday with a 10-1 defeat at N.C. State.
That loss, combined with Boston College’s doubleheader sweep against Georgia Tech on the same day, will keep the Tar Heels out of the ACC tournament for the first time since 2010. That was the bad news for UNC on Saturday.
The good news, if there was any: In 2010, the last time it didn’t qualify for the ACC tournament, it still received an invitation to the NCAA tournament. Now the Tar Heels are hoping the same thing will happen, though Fox, the UNC coach, didn’t sound particularly optimistic on Saturday.
“If you don’t make the ACC tournament,” he said hours before the Boston College victory that kept UNC out of it, “I don’t think we’re going to get in (to the NCAA tournament).”
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Fox was speaking in the moments after UNC’s disappointing regular-season finale came to its grim conclusion. His sense of optimism about whether there might be another game was undoubtedly affected by what he’d witnessed during the previous three hours.
The Tar Heels’ loss on Saturday provided a fitting finish, in some ways, to what has been a difficult second half of the season. The first half began with so much promise, what with an 18-2 start that suggested UNC might be among the best teams in the country.
After the Tar Heels won five of their first six ACC games, though, their season began to unravel. UNC lost six of its final eight ACC series, and some of the same problems that defined the team’s relative struggles a season ago remained unsolved this season.
Lack of offense and timely hitting often doomed the Tar Heels. So did inconsistent pitching, outside out of the reliable and strong outings that Zac Gallen, the team’s No. 1 starter, usually provided.
And yet, according to some metrics, UNC remains among the top 20 teams in the country. As of Friday, before splitting the final two games of the series against N.C. State, the Tar Heels were 16th in the RPI.
They’ve also played the third-most difficult schedule in the country, according to warrennolan.com, a website that tracks rankings in various college sports. UNC’s high RPI and difficult strength of schedule combine to make a case that the Tar Heels belong in the NCAA tournament.
“I’d like to say I’m confident in our team no matter what, and our RPI,” Adam Pate, a senior outfielder, said on Saturday after the loss at N.C. State. “That’s not for us to decide. But yeah, we’re confident.”
The Tar Heels don’t have the chance to bolster their NCAA tournament case in the ACC tournament, which begins on Tuesday at Durham Bulls Athletic Park. And even if they had qualified, they would have had to earn their way into ACC tournament pool play with a victory in a play-in game.
A loss there could have further damaged UNC’s NCAA tournament chances. And so while the ACC tournament begins this week for 10 teams, the waiting game begins for the Tar Heels, who won’t learn their postseason fate until a week from Monday, when the NCAA tournament field is announced.
They find themselves in a similar position to where they were a season ago, when UNC failed to make the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2001. If the Tar Heels are out of the NCAA tournament again, it’d be the first time since 1996 and 1997 that they’ve missed it in consecutive seasons.
“I think our kids are always competing and confident, so we’ll see what happens,” Fox said on Saturday. “Hopefully we’ll get a chance to keep playing. ... We’ll see. We hope so.”