2021 NCAA Tournament Lubbock Regional Preview
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No. 1 Texas Tech vs. No. 4 Army (12 p.m. ET, ESPNU)
No. 2 UCLA vs. No. 3 North Carolina (7 p.m. ET, ESPN News)
No. 1 Texas Tech (36-15)
Season in a sentence: Texas Tech put together another impressive season, overcoming a few key injuries to enter NCAA Tournament as a top-eight seed with a chance to make a third straight College World Series appearance.
Best pitcher: Ryan Sublette, RHP—Texas Tech had to this season rebuild its pitching staff and even after losing righthander Brandon Birdsell to injury, the Red Raiders still have a strong rotation with Michah Dallas, Patrick Monteverde and Mason Montgomery anchoring the group. They’ve all had their moments, but Sublette has been consistently strong out of the bullpen. He is 6-3, 2.43 with 52 strikeouts and 15 walks in 37 innings. He’s capable of extended outings—his season high is four innings—and he’s all but certain to be asked to get four outs or more some time this weekend.
Best hitter: Jace Jung, 2B—Jung was this season named Big 12 player of the year, joining Eric Gutierrez, Hunter Hargrove and his older brother Josh as Red Raiders to win the award since 2016. Jung, a second-year freshman, put together a standout season at the plate and is hitting .342/.475/.717 with 20 home runs, 48 walks and 39 strikeouts. He has plenty of raw power and twice this season hit three home runs in a game. But he also has solid on-base skills and plays a crucial role in the lineup.
Outlook: Texas Tech is 24-5 at home this season and while it did lose a home series to Baylor, that was just its first home series loss in three years. The Red Raiders have a high-powered offense, suited to the conditions in Lubbock, and the deepest pitching staff in the field. While Texas Tech has at times looked shaky—it lost series to Baylor and Kansas State, went 0-3 Opening Weekend in the State Farm Showdown and last week went 1-2 in the Big 12 Tournament—it’s risen to the big occasions this year—winning series against the other three Big 12 teams in the NCAA Tournament. With home-field advantage in the NCAA Tournament, Texas Tech will be very difficult to beat.
No. 2 UCLA (35-18)
All-Conference Honorees: TBA
Season in a sentence: UCLA was ranked No. 2 in the Preseason Top 25 and while it’s shown that potential at times this season, it’s never consistently played at that level for an extended run.
Best pitcher: Max Rajcic, RHP—Part of the reason UCLA hasn’t lived up to its preseason expectations is that its rotation has not been the force it was expected to be. While the Bruins’ starters have battled inconsistency, the bullpen has been solid with Rajcic leading the way. The freshman has established himself at the back of the bullpen and is 2-1, 1.55 with seven saves in 22 appearances. He has 33 strikeouts and seven walks in 29 innings. If UCLA can give Rajcic the ball with a lead, it will feel good about its chances.
Best hitter: JT Schwartz, 1B—Schwartz missed the first couple weeks of the season due to injury but has done nothing but hit since returning to the lineup. He’s batting .405/.528/.635 with seven home runs and more walks (35) than strikeouts (22). Schwartz combines a powerful bat with advanced on-base skills, serving to lengthen the Bruins lineup.
Outlook: At its best, UCLA can match up with any team in the nation. The trouble has been getting that best to show up consistently, especially on the road, where it is 14-9. While the Bruins are coming off a resounding sweep at Arizona State to finish the season, outscoring the Sun Devils 32-14, that came on the heels of losing a series at home to California. So, which Bruins show up in Lubbock? That’s anyone’s guess. The good news for UCLA is that shortstop Matt McLain is back from injury and went 4-for-13 and scored five runs at ASU. The key for the Bruins now lies with getting a good start Friday. They are just 6-9 in weekend openers this season and can’t afford to fall into the loser’s bracket straight away.
No. 3 North Carolina (27-25)
Season in a sentence: North Carolina was young this season and it showed with up-and-down results, but the Tar Heels did enough to secure an NCAA Tournament bid in Scott Forbes’ first season as head coach.
Best pitcher: Austin Love, RHP—After pitching out of the bullpen his first two seasons with the Tar Heels, Love this year moved to the front of the rotation with impressive results. He is 9-4, 3.68 with 120 strikeouts and 30 walks in 95.1 innings. While he wasn’t at his best in the ACC Tournament, he finished the regular season strong, throwing back-to-back complete games against Louisville and Georgia Tech to lead UNC to two critical victories.
Best hitter: Justice Thompson, OF—Thompson this season joined UNC as a junior college transfer and made an immediate impact. He’s hitting .312/.390/.457 with seven home runs and 14 stolen bases. While Thompson is prone to striking out (he did so in a quarter of his plate appearances), he can impact the game in multiple ways. He has the power to drive the ball, he has plus speed and he’s an excellent defender in center field.
Outlook: UNC this year is just 8-15 away from Boshamer Stadium and its lone road series win came at Boston College in mid March. So, to win a regional, the Tar Heels are going to have to show more fight on the road. Love gives them a chance against any team in the country, but they’ll need more than just him this weekend. In what will likely be an offensive environment in Lubbock, the Tar Heels will need some of their young pitchers to rise to the challenge.
No. 4 Army (28-23)
All-Conference Honorees: SS Kevin Dubrule (second), RP Connelly Early (second), 1B Ross Frederick (second), 3B Anthony Giachin (first), SP Anthony LoRicco (second), DH Nick Manesis (second), OF Sam Ruta (first)
Season in a sentence: Army was just 4-11 after the first five weekends of the season but was able to turn that around in the final two-thirds of the season and won the Patriot League Tournament for the third straight season, beating Lehigh in the finals.
Best pitcher: Connelly Early, LHP—Early has worked in a unique role this season, working almost exclusively out of the bullpen for extended outings. He’s thrown at least four innings in four of his last six outings and is guaranteed to see important innings every weekend. He is 4-2, 1.57 with 36 strikeouts and 17 walks in 34.1 innings this season. Early has a 15-inning scoreless streak coming into regionals.
Best hitter: Anthony Giachin, 3B—Giachin is a four-year starter for Army and has appeared in every game the Black Knights have played since he arrived at West Point. He’s been an offensive force from the start and is a career .303 hitter with 209 hits (seventh most in program history). This season, he’s hitting .305/.429/.480 with a team-high 12 doubles, three home runs and eight stolen bases.
Outlook: Army was sent to Lubbock for regionals in 2019 and went 0-2 with losses to Texas Tech and Florida. For the Black Knights to produce a better result this weekend—like when they upset host North Carolina State in the opening game of the 2018 Raleigh Regional—they’ll need to get strong pitching performances. Army doesn’t have a high-octane offense—it hit just 26 home runs this season, though it has stolen 76 bases—and so it is imperative it doesn’t get into a slugfest. UCLA and UNC are relatively good matchups in that regard, but the Black Knights are still facing a stiff test.