2021 NCAA Tournament Austin Regional Preview
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No. 1 Texas vs. No. 4 Southern (2 p.m. ET, Longhorn Network)
No. 2 Arizona State vs. No. 3 Fairfield (7 p.m. ET, ESPN3)
No. 1 Texas (42-15)
Season in a sentence: After going 0-3 on Opening Weekend, Texas regrouped, found its stride going into Big 12 play and won the conference title for the second time in three seasons.
Best pitcher: Ty Madden, RHP—Madden took a step forward this year and has become the unquestioned ace of the staff. He is 6-4, 2.66 with 103 strikeouts and 31 walks in 88 innings. He’s a classic, big, Texas righthander, listed at 6-foot-3, 215 pounds and has the fastball to match, running it up to 100 mph. Madden was named Big 12 pitcher of the year, becoming the first Longhorn to win the award since Taylor Jungmann in 2011. Madden gives Texas a good chance to win every time he takes the ball.
Best hitter: Ivan Melendez, DH—Melendez, a junior college transfer, has this season brought a powerful presence to the Texas lineup. He’s hitting .331/.441/.633 with 11 home runs and leads the Longhorns in on-base percentage and slugging percentage. With Melendez joining Cam Williams and Zach Zubia in the heart of the order, Texas has some real power threats.
Outlook: Texas has been one of the most consistent teams in the country this season and has lost just one series since Opening Weekend. It’s 27-5 at home and is built to play in Disch-Falk Field, where its pitching and speed play up. It has perhaps the best rotation in the country, with righthander Tristan Stevens and lefthander Pete Hansen backing Madden, and its bullpen trio of Aaron Nixon, Cole Quintanilla and Tanner Witt gives it the edge at the end of games. With such a deep pitching staff and lineup and one of the best defenses in the country, the Longhorns are going to be difficult to beat this weekend.
No. 2 Arizona State (32-20)
All-Conference Honorees: TBA
Season in a sentence: Despite losing its biggest stars from 2020—including Spencer Torkelson—and then this spring seeing its pitching staff get bitten by the injury bug, Arizona State put together a solid season and is making its second straight regionals appearance.
Best pitcher: Justin Fall, LHP—Arizona State has had to overcome several injuries on its pitching staff, including to Opening Day starter Cooper Benson. That has led the Sun Devils to have to piece things together more than they would like, but through it all Fall has grown into a more significant role. He is 7-2, 3.86 with 45 strikeouts and 32 walks in 74.2 innings.
Best hitter: Ethan Long, 1B—Long, a true freshman, began the season as Arizona State’s closer but soon had worked his way into the regular lineup at first base. Before long, he was mashing home runs at an astonishing rate, easing the loss of Torkelson as the first overall draft pick a year ago. Long this season is hitting .340/.408/.725 with 16 home runs in 48 games. He’s cooled over the last two weeks (he’s 2-for-23), but he has the ability to homer in bunches and hit 11 in 10 games in late April and early May. If he heats up again this weekend, watch out.
Outlook: Arizona State has overcome a lot this season after losing the core of its offense in the draft and then enduring a spate of pitching injuries. The Sun Devils acquitted themselves well and with their offense can’t be counted out. But they lost series to all four of the teams that finished ahead of them in the Pac-12 standings. Arizona State will have to find another gear to upset Texas this weekend.
No. 3 Fairfield (37-3)
All-Conference Honorees: RP Bryson Cafaro (second), C Mike Caruso (first), 1B Sean Cullen (second), SS Justin Guerrera (first), OF Mike Handal (first), SP Jake Noviello (first), OF Dan Ryan (second), SP Michael Sansone (first)
Season in a sentence: Fairfield dominated the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference’s league-only schedule, including a 25-game winning streak to open the season, and was rewarded with an at-large bid after it was upset in the MAAC Tournament championship game.
Best pitcher: Michael Sansone, LHP—Sansone is listed at 5-foot-8, 170 pounds, but plays big on the mound. The MAAC pitcher of the year went 8-1, 2.35 with 66 strikeouts and 11 walks in 61.1 innings. His eight wins are tied for the program’s single-season record and he’ll have a chance this weekend to break the record.
Best hitter: Mike Caruso, C—Caruso, the Stags captain, earned MAAC player of the year honors after leading the conference in both batting and on-base percentage during the regular season. He’s hitting .414/.532/.566 with three home runs, all while providing strong defense and leadership from behind the plate.
Outlook: There’s no doubt that Fairfield is a talented team. Just how talented, however, is subject for discussion. The Stags had an impressive regular season, picking up admirers along the way for their banner year. They also picked up a fair number of doubters, however, because the MAAC is typically one of the five worst conferences in college baseball. Now, Fairfield gets a chance to silence those doubters. It’s facing a tough task between Arizona State’s offense and Texas’ all-around excellence. The Stags won’t have seen an opponent like either the Sun Devils or Longhorns all season. They could well hold their own—the MAAC has sprung a couple upsets in the NCAA Tournament over the last decade, including Quinnipiac’s victory against East Carolina to open the 2019 Greenville Regional—but this weekend could expose them as a great MAAC team, but not ready for prime time.
No. 4 Southern (20-28)
All-Conference Honorees: DH O’Neill Burgos (second), C Taj Porter (second)
Season in a sentence: Southern finished third in the SWAC West Division but went on a run in the conference tournament and won its second straight title, upsetting top-seed Jackson State in the championship game.
Best pitcher: Enrique Ozoa, RHP—Ozoa has been excellent all season long as the Jaguars closer. He’s 0-0, 1.33 with seven saves in 13 appearances and a 22-to-3 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 20.1 innings. While he’s listed at just 5-foot-7, 170 pounds, Ozoa has come up big at the end of games for Southern.
Best hitter: Tremaine Spears, OF—While O’Neill Burgos got all-conference honors and hit the game-winning home run against Jackson State, Spears is Southern’s leading hitter and does a bit of everything at the plate. He is batting .304/.426/.476 with six home runs and eight stolen bases.
Outlook: Southern acquitted itself well in the 2019 Starkville Regional, pushing Mississippi State in the opening game before being eliminated. But despite that game being just two years ago, very little of that team remains at Southern. A few starting pitchers are back, but that’s about it. The Jaguars even have a new head coach, as Chris Crenshaw was in November promoted on an interim basis to take over when Kerrick Jackson was hired away to run the new MLB Draft League. It’s a tough assignment for Southern, as it tries to become the first SWAC school to win an NCAA Tournament game since 2014, when Jackson State upset host Louisiana-Lafayette in the opening game.