It was officially announced Sunday that Knoxville would host a regional for the first time since 2005, and Monday afternoon, the NCAA announced the full bracket for the 2021 NCAA Baseball Tournament.
After a 45-16 regular season, the Vols earned the No. 3 national seed in the tournament and will be the top seed in the Knoxville Regional. Joining the Vols in Knoxville this weekend are No. 2 Duke, No. 3 Liberty and No. 4 Wright State. The regional round is a double-elimination format with the winner moving on to the NCAA Super Regional next weekend.
“Three conference champs coming to our place, if I’m not mistaken,” Tennessee head coach Tony Vitello said. “Three programs that are well coached, that finished the season strong, that are very, very familiar with postseason play. I think a couple of the teams have been in super regionals as of late. So easy stuff for you guys to write about, and clearly a group that each of us will have each other’s attention.”
It’s certainly one of — if not the toughest — regional in the nation, with each of the four programs winning at least 32 games in the regular season. Duke and Wright State both won its conference, the ACC and the Horizon League, respectively, while Liberty fell short in the title game, like Tennessee did.
The NCAA’s Rating Percentage Index (RPI), which ranks teams based on winning percentage, strength of schedule and their opponents strength of schedule, is pretty revealing on just how tough this regional is. Tennessee is the highest, of course, at No. 5. But Duke (20) and Wright State (24) are both within the top 25, and Liberty is not far behind at No. 36.
The Vols are quite familiar with the teams in this bracket, specifically Wright State and Liberty. Wright State took two of three in Knoxville in March 2020, so the Vols will be eager to avenge their home ballpark Lindsey Nelson Stadium Friday at 6 p.m. ET.
The Raiders have won four Horizon League Championships in the last six seasons, and have a high-powered offense that leads the nation in batting average (.342), on-base percentage (.451), slugging (.578), doubles per game (2.74), scoring per game (10.6) and total runs (488).
Liberty, the ASUN runner ups and a 39 game winner, defeated Tennessee in the opening game of the Chapel Hill Regional in 2019. Tennessee did beat the Flames in a 10th inning thriller just two days later, but the opening-round loss was enough to leave a bad taste in the Vols’ mouth.
Led by the ASUN Coach of the Year Scott Jackson, Liberty finished 10th in nation with a 3.44 ERA and sixth nationally allowing 3.6 runs per game. The Flames had two pitchers earn ASUN honors, the Pitcher of the Year Trevor Delaite and Freshman of the Year Trey Gibson.
“It’s easy to use that as fuel,” senior left fielder Evan Russell said on playing the familiar opponents. “In this game, it’s so hard, because we can either use it as motivation, or we can tense up a little bit, and want to throw the first punch and try too hard. In this game, if you try too hard, it’ll bite you in the tail. We have to balance it. But I think we have a lot of guys just relaxed and confident.”
And the final team in the regional, Duke, is the hottest team right now. The Blue Devils have rattled off 12-straight wins, most recently a 1-0 shutout of NC State in the ACC Championship Game. Senior Joey Loperfido was named the ACC Championship MVP after going 7-for-18 with three doubles and two home runs.
Their conference championship is a bit deceiving, however. The Blue Devils lost every regular season conference series against teams that finished .500 or better team. They were 6-15 against those teams, while 10-2 against sub .500 teams.
Despite the challenging draw, the Vols are still the favorites in this regional. They have the lowest team ERA in the SEC while scoring the most runs. Should they advance, they will host a Super Regional given their top-4 national seed status.
The Eugene regional, the one opposite the Vols’, is not quite the heavy-weight matchup that Knoxville is. Oregon is the host, with Gonzaga, LSU and Central Connecticut State rounding out the regional. They are ranked 16, 27, 28 and 114, respectively in RPI.
And maybe the best news for the Vols is that both Arkansas and Vanderbilt are on the other side of the bracket. Tennessee wouldn’t have to face those demons until much later in the tournament, should it advance that far.
Above all, the thing that stands out the most to the Vols is just how far the program has come. In 2019, the Vols were nervously waiting to see if they had qualified for a regional. This year, they were just waiting too see who they would be hosting.
“Guys are playing hacky sack two minutes before the thing starts,” Vitello said. “And really, after 30 minutes of the show, or really after the guys knew who we would play in game one, they kind of were ready to move on.”
That culture shift speaks to just the phenomenal job that Vitello and all of his coaches have done to turn this program on its head in just four years.
“We were average my first year,” senior reliever Sean Hunley said. “I’ve said it before, it’s a testament to our coaches, with the culture that they’ve brought, and the fight that we bring each and every day to the field. And going from last year, I kind of expected to be in this situation this year, with how much we’ve progressed. And we’re excited to get this thing going.”