May 31—A Southeastern Conference Eastern Division baseball title and this past weekend’s runner-up finish in the league tournament resulted in the No. 3 overall seed for the Tennessee Volunteers at the upcoming NCAA tournament.
Tennessee (45-16) will open NCAA play Friday night at 6 against Wright State (35-11) in the Knoxville Regional, which also contains Duke (32-20) and Liberty (39-14), who will collide Friday at noon. The Knoxville Regional was viewed as one of the toughest during Monday afternoon’s selection show on ESPN2, with Duke having recently won the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament.
The Blue Devils will enter Knoxville on a 12-game winning streak, while Wright State out of the Horizon League will arrive leading the nation with 10.6 runs a game and having prevailed in 21 of its last 22 contests. Liberty will enter after blistering the Atlantic Sun during the regular season with a 19-2 mark.
“It’s the same as our theme all year long,” Tennessee coach Tony Vitello said Monday afternoon on a Zoom call. “I think we have a competitive group, and they certainly seek out challenges more than they hide from them. There is a great challenge in this deal.
“We’re just getting familiar with all this stuff, but we have three conference champions coming to our place. Each of us will have each other’s attention, but you can only focus on the team that you’re playing the first game.”
Tennessee is hosting an NCAA regional for the first time since 2005.
The Volunteers need no introduction to Friday’s foe. Less than a week before the outbreak of the coronavirus wound up shelving last season, Tennessee lost two of three games to Wright State, which served as the lone blemishes of a 15-2 start.
Two seasons ago, when the Vols reached their first NCAA tournament in 14 years, they lost their first game 6-1 to Liberty. Tennessee got a second crack at the Flames and won 6-5 in 10 innings before getting eliminated by North Carolina, the regional host.
“Teams evolve as the year goes on in addition to evolving from year to year,” Vitello said, “so while there may be some familiar faces in each of the lineups, these are the 2021 teams that have gotten to this point.”
Duke reached an NCAA super regional two years ago at Vanderbilt, the eventual national champion. The Blue Devils throttled the Commodores 18-5 in the best-of-three opener before losing the next two.
This year’s top eight seeds, who would be assured of hosting NCAA super regionals by winning their respective regionals, are SEC regular-season and tournament champion Arkansas (46-10), Texas (42-15), Tennessee, Vanderbilt (40-15), Arizona (40-15), TCU (40-17), Mississippi State (40-15) and Texas Tech (36-15).
Ole Miss (41-19), Florida (38-20) and South Carolina (33-21) are also hosting regionals, so seven of the 16 four-team competitions using double-elimination formats later this week will be in SEC venues.
LSU (34-22) and Alabama (31-24) also made the 64-team field but must travel, with Paul Mainieri’s 15th and final Tigers team headed to Oregon for the Eugene Regional that contains Central Connecticut and Gonzaga in addition to the Ducks and Tigers. The winners of the Knoxville Regional and the Eugene Regional will meet in a super regional for a berth to the College World Series.
Alabama was among the last four teams selected, with the Crimson Tide winning just three SEC series this season against the teams — Auburn, Texas A&M and Missouri — that finished at the bottom. The Crimson Tide entered the SEC tournament seeded 10th but opened with victories over seventh-seeded South Carolina and the second-seeded Vols, which obviously registered with the selection committee.
“Congrats to Alabama for getting in,” Vitello said. “That’s a stressful deal going to Hoover and having to fight your butt off in order to keep your season alive.”
The SEC’s nine bids topped the eight from the ACC and the six from the Pac-12, and the SEC nearly had 10 selections. Georgia (31-25), the eighth seed in the league tournament, was among the first four teams left out.
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