The Tar Heels (39-10 overall, 16-8 ACC) enter their stretch run with the table set for a national seed in the NCAA Tournament in June. UNC currently ranks No. 3 in the Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) and boasts an 11-6 record against RPI Top-50 teams and a 19-4 mark against RPI top-100 teams.
North Carolina’s strength of schedule also ranks 10th nationally, but the terrain only increases in difficulty over the next two weeks – the Tar Heels face the toughest remaining schedule in the country with their opponents’ combined winning percentage standing at .772, according to Boyd's World.
Aaron Fitt, national college baseball writer for Baseball America, believes UNC is in “very good shape” for hosting a NCAA Regional and is firmly in the mix for a national seed, but also indicated that the Tar Heels’ resume is currently incomplete.
“One thing to remember is that two of the best teams in the league are still ahead of them on the schedule,” Fitt said. “I think one of the reasons that they’ve been able to build a nice conference record, with the exception of Florida State and maybe Clemson, is that they haven’t necessarily played the best teams yet. Virginia is the best team in the league and Georgia Tech is very talented, so let’s see what they do the next two weeks.
“I think this team still has some things to prove to show that it’s an elite team. Right now I think it’s a very good team, but I’m still not completely convinced that it’s an elite team. Maybe I should be, but I’m not.”
Fitt is not alone in his rationale. While only two teams in country possess higher winning percentages than North Carolina – No. 1 Virginia (89.6) and No. 2 Vanderbilt (87.2) – the Tar Heels’ average ranking in the five major polls is No. 14.
A pair of series victories over the next two weekends would go a long way in rectifying the discrepancy between UNC’s poll and RPI rankings, but winning either series would be considered a mild upset.
Georgia Tech (35-14 overall, 18-6 ACC, No. 9 RPI) will roll out arguably the ACC’s top starting pitching rotation, led by All-America candidate Mark Pope (10-2, 1.27), and balances a 2.71 team ERA (2nd ACC) with a .310 team batting average (3rd ACC). UNC counters with a 3.53 ERA (6th ACC) and .292 batting average (6th ACC), in addition to a 6-6 road mark in conference play.
Virginia (43-5 overall, 20-4 ACC) leads the league in both categories with a 2.23 ERA and a .314 batting average.
Adding to the drama of the next 10 days is UNC’s dogfight for a national seed. Fitt currently has No. 1 Virginia, No. 5 Florida, No. 2 Vanderbilt, No. 3 South Carolina, T-No. 7 Arizona State and T-No. 7 Oregon State penciled in as national seeds, leaving North Carolina to battle Georgia Tech and Florida State for what is likely the ACC’s lone remaining seed.
UNC earned a road series win over Florida State (36-12 overall, 16-8 ACC, No. 4 RPI) in April, but the Seminoles have won eight of their last 10 and close the season with a road series at N.C. State (28-21 overall, 11-13 ACC) before a home finale against Clemson (34-15 overall, 13-11 ACC).
Georgia Tech travels to Virginia Tech (28-21 overall, 9-15 ACC) for its final series of the season.
While the Yellow Jackets and Seminoles are favorites to win their final two series, North Carolina will enjoy the luxury of attacking from its slight underdog role in its quest for a national seed.
UNC appears to have sewn up a regional host bid, but late charges by Clemson and Miami (31-16 overall, 16-7 ACC) could derail those plans if the Tar Heels post a losing record in their final seven games.
“I think if they can avoid losing both of these series, then they’ll host,” Fitt said. “And if they win both of these series, then they are definitely a national seed. If they win just one of these series, then they might still be a national seed.”
With so much yet to be decided on the diamond, the Tar Heels are employing the right approach in preparing for their stretch run.
“We just take it one game at a time,” junior catcher Jacob Stallings said. “We have seven games left, and Georgia Tech and Virginia are certainly the two best teams in the league by record, so we’re going to have to play well. We know that, and we know if we play well we could play our way into hosting [and] a national seed.”
That level of achievement has become commonplace for head coach Mike Fox’s program as UNC has traveled to Omaha to play in the College World Series four of the past five seasons.
“When we come back after Christmas we all write down our team goals, and I can guarantee you 35 guys in the locker room all wrote down, ‘Host a regional, host a super-regional, make it to Omaha, win a national championship,’” senior pitcher Greg Holt said. “At the end of the season that’s where we want to be… We control our own destiny.”
North Carolina begins its stretch run with a 4 p.m. first pitch against Georgia Tech at Russ Chandler Stadium in Atlanta on Friday.