2018 NCAA Tournament: Greenville Regional Preview
1. East Carolina (43-16, 14-10 American Athletic Conference)
29th appearance (first since 2016); automatic bid; third in the American Athletic Conference; AAC Tournament champions
BA 500 Prospects: OF Dwanya Williams-Sutton (387)
Season In A Sentence: The Pirates entered the season with considerably lower expectations than in 2017—when they were considered College World Series contenders—but this year’s club remained consistent throughout and earned the top seed in a regional for the sixth time in school history.
Player To Watch: Bryant Packard, OF: The 2018 American Athletic Conference player of the year, Packard led the Pirates in batting average (.403), runs (47), hits (83), home runs (14), RBIs (50), total bases (140) and slugging percentage (.680). The sophomore, who was a unanimous first team all-AAC selection, also ranks among the nation’s top 15 in both batting average (seventh) and slugging percentage (15th).
Best Weekend: American Athletic Conference Tournament, May 22-26. Although an early season series win against North Carolina deserves some consideration, East Carolina’s triumph in the AAC Tournament is the highlight of its season thus far. The Pirates entered the conference tournament directly on the hosting bubble, but wrapped up the No. 12 national seed with back-to-back wins over AAC regular season champion Houston and fellow hosting hopeful Connecticut to claim the tournament title.
Outlook: The Pirates are familiar with their first regional opponent, as they swept home-and-home midweek games against UNC Wilmington by a combined score of 11-8. Overall, East Carolina went 13-11 against NCAA Tournament teams in 2018, paced by a pitching staff that led the AAC in team ERA (3.28) and an offense that tied for the conference lead in home runs (57).
2. South Carolina (33-24, 17-13 Southeastern Conference)
32nd appearance (first since 2016); at-large bid; third in the SEC East Division
BA 500 Prospects: RHP Adam Hill (81), OF Carlos Cortes (177), RHP Cody Morris (292), C Chris Cullen (449)
Season In A Sentence: After missing the NCAA Tournament for just the second time this century in 2017, the Gamecocks bounced back under first-year head coach Mark Kingston and won their final five SEC series of the season.
Player To Watch: Carlos Cortes, OF: Statistically, South Carolina has several hitters who have had a better season than Cortes, who is hitting .244/.369/.507. However, Cortes might have the most game-changing ability of anyone in the Gamecocks’ lineup, as he leads the team in home runs (15) and also walks (39) more than he strikes out (29).
Best Weekend: vs. Ole Miss, May 4-6. South Carolina’s streak of five consecutive series wins in SEC play to end the regular season included a home sweep of LSU and a series win against Texas A&M in College Station. Yet, the Gamecocks’ series win over Ole Miss might have been the most impressive of the bunch, as they outscored the No. 4 national seed Rebels by a combined score of 24-11 in the first two games. A one-run loss in the series finale wasn’t enough to dampen a weekend that proved South Carolina could beat any team in the country.
Outlook: South Carolina will turn to junior righthander Adam Hill (7-5, 4.08) in the regional opener against Ohio State. After that, the Gamecocks will likely rely on a trio of underclassmen—sophomore Cody Morris (7-3, 3.80) and freshmen Logan Chapman (3-3, 5.64) and Carmen Mlodzinski (2-5, 4.76)—to start their remaining regional games. How those pitchers—none of whom have appeared in an NCAA Tournament—respond to the pressures of the weekend will likely decide whether South Carolina advances beyond Greenville, N.C.
3. Ohio State (36-22, 14-10 Big Ten Conference)
21st appearance (first since 2016); at-large bid; sixth in the Big Ten
BA 500 Prospects: RHP Ryan Felter (197)
Season In A Sentence: Ohio State was steady throughout the regular season, never losing more than two games in a row and winning 11 of its 22 games against NCAA Tournament teams while making it to the semifinals the Big Ten Tournament.
Player To Watch: Noah McGowan, 3B: Ohio State’s lone first team all-Big Ten selection, McGowan led the Buckeyes in batting average (.359), on-base percentage (.449), slugging percentage (.581), home runs (9) and RBIs (55). The catalyst for an offense that ranked second in the Big Ten in both batting average (.287) and on-base percentage (.383), McGowan will need to have an impactful weekend for Ohio State to win a regional filled with solid offensive teams.
Best Weekend: vs. Indiana, April 20-22. Ohio State picked up some important wins at Bill Davis Stadium this season, including a series win against Purdue during the regular season’s penultimate weekend. The Buckeyes’ best series win in terms of RPI, however, was a mid-April defeat of Indiana. Ohio State lost the series opener on Friday, 4-0, but bounced back to win a pair of one-run games on Saturday and Sunday. In a tightly bunched Big Ten, two wins against a top-30 RPI opponent in Indiana could have been the difference between Ohio State being on the right or wrong side of the NCAA Tournament bubble.
Outlook: Against South Carolina, the Buckeyes will hand the ball to junior lefthander Connor Curlis (7-4, 3.81), who ranks among the Big Ten’s top 10 in both wins (fourth) and strikeouts (73, ninth). Solid starting pitching performances from both Curlis and junior righthander Ryan Felter (5-5, 4.62) will be vital for an Ohio State team that has a 4.58 team ERA. If the Buckeyes can reach the later innings with a lead, closer Seth Kinker ranks fourth in the nation with a 1.49 ERA and his 11.80 strikeout-to-walk ratio is the third-best mark in the country.
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4. UNC Wilmington (37-21, 14-9 Colonial Athletic Association)
Ninth appearance (first since 2016); automatic bid; fourth in the Colonial Athletic Association; CAA Tournament champions
BA 500 Prospects: C Ryan Jeffers (295), RHP Clark Cota (378)
Season In A Sentence: The preseason favorite to win the CAA title, UNC Wilmington finished fourth in the regular season standings but reached its potential in the CAA Tournament, winning its first conference tournament since 2015.
Player To Watch: Ryan Jeffers, C: A two-time first team all-CAA selection, Jeffers is hitting .320/.472/.660 with a conference-best 16 home runs and a team-best 54 RBIs. In four regular season games against potential regional opponents East Carolina and Ohio State, Jeffers was 4-for-16 with one RBI and two runs scored. The 6-foot-2, 220-pound junior will need to produce at a higher clip if the Seahawks are going to advance past this weekend.
Best Weekend: CAA Tournament, May 23-26. On the outside looking in at the NCAA Tournament entering the CAA Tournament, UNC Wilmington did what it needed to do in order to keep its season alive. The Seahawks rattled off four wins in four days, including two wins over CAA regular season champion Northeastern, to earn their fifth CAA Tournament title and advance to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2016.
Outlook: The Seahawks lost all four of their regular season meetings with fellow Greenville Regional participants East Carolina and Ohio State. However, UNC Wilmington should be considered one of the more dangerous No. 4 seeds in the tournament based on talent, prior regionals experience and the familiarity of opening play just two hours away from home against a well-known, in-state opponent.