2021 NCAA Tournament Ruston Regional Preview
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No. 1 Louisiana Tech vs. No. 4 Rider (7 p.m. ET, ESPN3)
No. 2 North Carolina State vs. No. 3 Alabama (2 p.m. ET, ESPN3)
No. 1 Louisiana Tech (40-18)
Season in a sentence: La Tech brought back a talented, veteran team and parlayed that into its best season in more than 30 years, winning the Conference USA West Division and earning a chance to host regionals for the first time ever.
Best pitcher: Jonathan Fincher, LHP—Fincher has led the way for La Tech’s rotation all season long. He is 7-3, 3.12 with 81 strikeouts and 22 walks in 92.1 innings. He’s twice thrown shutouts this season and went toe-to-toe with top-ranked Arkansas. Fincher gives the Bulldogs a chance against any team in the country.
Best hitter: Hunter Wells, 3B—La Tech’s best unit is its offense, which averages 7.3 runs per game, so there’s no shortage of hitters having standout seasons. Wells gets the nod here, as he’s hitting .366/.433/.589 with 11 home runs and 61 runs to lead CUSA in batting and rank second in runs. With two more hits this weekend, he will become the program’s all-time hits leader (he has 269) and break his own single-season hits record (91).
Outlook: La Tech gets to continue its storybook season at the new J.C. Love Field, which was rebuilt after taking significant damage in a tornado two years ago. Getting to this point has been a big accomplishment for the Bulldogs, which have been to a regional just once (2016) since 1987. But they won’t be content with just hosting a regional, they want to win it. La Tech has competed well in some big spots and owns wins against Arkansas and Mississippi. To win this regional, which includes red-hot NC State and feisty Alabama, La Tech will need its pitching to step up behind Fincher and for its offense to continue to produce the way it has much of the season. La Tech has never won a regional, but it has a good chance to take that step this weekend.
No. 2 North Carolina State (30-17)
All-Conference Honorees: OF Jonny Butler (first), SP Reid Johnston (third), RP Evan Justice (third), OF Tyler McDonough (second), 1B Austin Murr (second), DH Terrell Tatum (first), SS Jose Torres (first)
Season in a sentence: After a 4-9 start to the season that included a pause due to Covid-19 issues, NC State turned its season around and now enters the NCAA Tournament as one of the hottest teams in the country.
Best pitcher: Evan Justice, LHP—NC State has a team ERA of 4.99, so this is not a pitching-led outfit. But the Wolfpack have a trusted bullpen ace in Justice. His overall numbers (4-2, 4.24) don’t necessarily stand out because he began the year in the rotation and had a few rough starts. But since moving to the bullpen in late March, he’s become the Wolfpack’s stopper. As a reliever, he is 3-0, 1.76 with nine saves in 15 appearances.
Best hitter: Jonny Butler, OF—Butler, like NC State, is entering regionals on a hot streak. His 11-game streak of multi-hit games came to an end in the ACC Tournament, but he’s still hitting .388/.460/.688 with 12 home runs and 14 stolen bases on the year. His breakout has been a big boost for the Wolfpack.
Outlook: It took some time to get here, but NC State is playing like the team it was expected to be coming into the year. The Ruston Regional presents a good matchup for the Wolfpack. It has the most postseason experience in the field and its offensive-oriented approach will play well in the Love Shack. That said, NC State will need its pitching staff to perform to win its first regional since 2013.
No. 3 Alabama (31-24)
Season in a sentence: After a hot start to the season, Alabama had to overcome several key injuries—including to ace Connor Prielipp—to reach the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2014.
Best pitcher: Chase Lee, RHP—Starters Tyler Ras and Dylan Smith have done a good job of replacing Prielipp and lefthander Antoine Jean in the rotation, but it’s been Alabama’s closer that has anchored the pitching staff. Lee is 7-0, 1.21 with seven saves in 21 appearances. He has 47 strikeouts and 10 walks in 37.1 innings. The sidewinder known as “The Viper” can give the Tide extended outings or work out of a quick jam.
Best hitter: Sam Praytor, C—Praytor has long been a key player for the Crimson Tide but took a step forward this year and became their first first-team all-SEC honoree since 2009. He is hitting .283/.370/.532 with 13 home runs. He’s started every game this season for Alabama and also provides strong defense behind the plate.
Outlook: Alabama has had its ups and downs this season as it has battled injuries, but there’s plenty of talent on the roster. It needs Ras and Smith to step up on the mound this weekend and if they do, Alabama may have an edge in what figures to be an offensive regional. The Crimson Tide were one of the last four teams to get in the NCAA Tournament and may be playing with a chip on their shoulder. They figure to be a tough out this weekend.
No. 4 Rider (23-16)
All-Conference Honorees: 3B David Bermudez (second), SP Pete Soporowski (second)
Season in a sentence: After finishing third in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference standings, Rider swept through the conference tournament, including an upset of regular-season champion Fairfield in the title game, to reach the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2010.
Best pitcher: Pete Soporowski, LHP—Soporowski, listed at 6-foot-2, 225 pounds, has been the workhorse at the front of the Rider rotation. He is 6-2, 3.20 with 59 strikeouts and 14 walks in 59 innings this season.
Best hitter: Sean McGeehan, OF—While Bermudez may have been the Broncs’ most consistent hitter, McGeehan is their most dangerous. He leads the team in doubles (nine), home runs (five) and stolen bases (12) and ranks second in runs (25). While his overall line of .212/.325/.409 won’t jump off the page, his dynamism makes him a key part of the lineup.
Outlook: Rider, like the rest of the MAAC, was this spring limited to a conference-only schedule. Now, it must go on the road to face La Tech in what will be a raucous environment Friday night and then will have to face one of two major-conference foes in its next game, possibly with elimination at stake. So, it’ll be quite the step up for the Broncs. However, they do enter the NCAA Tournament on a five-game winning streak and fresh off upsetting Fairfield in the MAAC Tournament championship game. Keeping that run going this weekend won’t be easy, but neither was the path to regionals.