2021 NCAA Tournament Knoxville Regional Preview
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No. 1 Tennessee vs. No. 4 Wright State (6 p.m. ET, ESPN3)
No. 2 Duke vs. No. 3 Liberty (12 p.m. ET, ACCN)
No. 1 Tennessee (45-16)
Season in a Sentence: Tennessee arrived back on the scene among college baseball’s elite by going 45-16 overall and 20-10 in SEC play, with its only series losses coming to Vanderbilt and Arkansas, earning the Volunteers back-to-back postseason appearances for the first time since 2004-2005.
Best Pitcher: Sean Hunley, RHP—This Tennessee pitching staff is built from the back, and Hunley is a big reason why it has been able to do that so successfully. The former starting pitcher has taken to this role as a long reliever nicely. In 30 relief appearances this season, he’s thrown 60.2 innings with a 2.82 ERA, 61-to-10 strikeout-to-walk ratio, a .207 opponent batting average and seven saves.
Best Hitter: Jake Rucker, 3B—The UT lineup is incredibly deep, so any number of players could be listed here, but Rucker has been the best combination of hitting for a high average, getting on base at an impressive clip and hitting for some power. This season, he’s hitting .332/.402/.508 with 18 doubles, seven home runs and 50 RBIs. Of all of those, the only stat in which he leads the team is doubles, but he does a little bit of a lot of things for the UT lineup.
Outlook: There is a lot of excitement about this team around Knoxville, and it’s easy to see why. This group has everything you would want in a team in order to make a run to the College World Series, which in Tennessee’s case would be the first since 2005. It’s the clear favorite in this regional, but the selection committee did it no favors in grouping it with three other extremely strong teams. That will make for fun baseball in Knoxville this weekend, but it does make life a little more difficult for the Vols.
No. 2 Duke (32-20)
All-Conference Team Honorees: OF Joey Loperfido (2nd), OF R.J. Schreck (3rd)
Season in a Sentence: Duke got out of the gate in ACC play ice cold and was as good as done from a postseason perspective as the calendar flipped to May, but the Blue Devils got hot just in time, sweeping their last two conference series to get back on the bubble and then winning the ACC Tournament to leave no doubt, earning the program’s third straight regional appearance.
Best Pitcher: Marcus Johnson, RHP—Pitchers like freshman lefthander Luke Fox and third-year sophomore righthander Jack Carey deserve mention, but on a team for which the bullpen has been a strength all season, Johnson stands out. In 54 innings spread over 29 relief appearances, he has a 3.00 ERA, a .190 opponent batting average and seven saves.
Best Hitter: R.J. Schreck, OF—Schreck is a great story of a player coming into his own as a veteran when things didn’t necessarily go his way early on. After hitting less than .200 in each of his first two seasons in Durham, Schreck exploded onto the scene in 2021. He’ll go into the regional hitting .330/.433/.598 with 15 home runs and 47 RBIs.
Outlook: Few teams in college baseball are as hot as Duke right now, and don’t forget that this is a team that seems to always find a way to play well in a regional setting. It did, after all, win regionals in 2018 and 2019 on the road. After floundering for most of the regular season, Duke has found some things down the stretch and now has to be considered a real threat in Knoxville, even up against a very talented Tennessee team.
No. 3 Liberty (39-14)
All-Conference Team Honorees: C Gray Betts (1st), 2B Will Wagner (1st), OF Aaron Anderson (1st), SP Trevor DeLaite (1st), RP Fraser Ellard (1st), 3B Trey McDyre (2nd), SS Cam Locklear (2nd), DH Brady Gulakowski (2nd), SP Trey Gibson (2nd)
Season in a Sentence: With the ASUN split into two divisions for the 2021 season, Liberty dominated the North Division to the tune of a 19-2 record, and while it fell short in the ASUN Tournament, the work it did in collecting quality non-conference wins against ACC competition helped the Flames earn an at-large bid and their second consecutive postseason appearance.
Best Pitcher: Trevor DeLaite, LHP—A graduate transfer from Maine, Delaite stepped into the Flames’ rotation immediately and dominated. He’s 11-1 with a 1.98 ERA, a .215 opponent batting average and an 83-to-19 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 100 innings.
Best Hitter: Aaron Anderson, OF—A transfer from Division II Flagler (Fla.) College who came to Liberty after graduating from Flagler in three years, Anderson is a hit machine in the lineup. He has a .370/.447/.559 slash line with 22 doubles, four homers and 42 RBIs.
Outlook: Liberty won’t be deterred by the moment this weekend. Not only does it have a lot of familiarity with Duke from playing the Blue Devils in the midweek, but it was also paired with Tennessee in the 2019 Chapel Hill Regional. The Flames are going to be a tough out this weekend in a regional full of tough outs.
No. 4 Wright State (35-11)
All-Conference Team Honorees: C Sammy Sass (1st), 2B Tyler Black (1st), OF Quincy Hamilton (1st), OF Alec Sayre (1st), SP Austin Cline (1st), 1B Zane Harris (2nd), SS Damon Dues (2nd), SP Bradley Brehmer (2nd)
Season in a Sentence: Wright State dominated the Horizon League this season, putting up a 28-4 conference record, with a road series loss to Youngstown State in late March representing its only slipup on the way to winning the Horizon League regular-season and tournament title, earning the program its seventh regional appearance since 2006.
Best Pitcher: Austin Cline, RHP—Cline goes into the weekend 8-1 on the season with a 3.07 ERA, a .223 opponent batting average and 91 strikeouts compared to 16 walks in 70.1 innings. He also threw at least five innings in every Horizon League start this season, an impressive run that illustrates his level of consistency from start to finish.
Best Hitter: Quincy Hamilton, OF—It’s tough to pick the best hitter on what is, in many ways, statistically the best offense in college baseball this season. And there’s certainly something to be said for Tyler Black, who is a top-notch prospect for the upcoming draft, but there’s no denying the season Hamilton had. He’s hitting .368/.532/.749 with 17 doubles, 14 home runs, 61 RBIs and 20 stolen bases while walking (54) far more often than he strikes out (30).
Outlook: This is where the selection committee really didn’t do Tennessee any favors, because not only is Wright State arguably the toughest No. 4 in the entire field, it’s also a team that won a series against the Volunteers back in 2020 just before the season was shut down. Winning a regional would be a tall task for the Raiders, especially once their pitching gets taxed, but this program has been to regional finals before and it can get there this time around, too.