2021 NCAA Tournament Gainesville Regional Preview
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No. 1 Florida vs. No. 4 South Florida (12 p.m. ET, SEC Network)
No. 2 Miami vs. No. 3 South Alabama (5 p.m. ET, ACC Network)
No. 1 Florida (38-20)
All-Conference Honorees: OF Jud Fabian (first)
Season in a sentence: Florida was ranked No. 1 in the Preseason Top 25 and while it hasn’t quite lived up to those expectations, it produced a solid season and will host a regional in its first season in Florida Ballpark.
Best pitcher: Hunter Barco, LHP—Barco had a couple rough starts to open the season but has since found his footing and the second-year freshman has become the Gators’ most reliable starter. He’s thrown four straight quality starts and is 10-2, 3.81 with 94 strikeouts and 25 walks in 82.2 innings. Barco offers significant upside and projects to be a first-round pick in the 2022 draft.
Best hitter: Jud Fabian, OF—Fabian got off to a slow start to the season but has gotten back on track in the second half. His 20 home runs rank sixth nationally, just two behind the leaders. While Fabian has dynamic tools and is an excellent defender in center field, he has also struggled with swing-and-miss issues at times this season (he’s struck out in 29% of his plate appearances). He’s hitting .258/.375/.581 with six stolen bases and 40 walks.
Outlook: Florida shook up its pitching staff midway through the year, moving Jack Leftwich to the bullpen as a relief ace and Franco Aleman to the rotation. The results improved in the second half, but this still isn’t a vintage Gators’ pitching staff with an overwhelming rotation. Their trio of Tommy Mace, Barco and Aleman still stacks up well and the bullpen trio of Leftwich, Christian Scott and Trey Van Der Weide have been solid. Florida has a powerful offense and can score runs in a variety of ways. Since losing a series to Miami at home on Opening Weekend, Florida has been very difficult to beat in Gainesville. If the Gators can flip that result against the Hurricanes from earlier in the season, they’ll be in good shape this weekend.
No. 2 Miami (32-19)
All-Conference Honorees: C Adrian Del Castillo (second), OF Christian Del Castillo (second), RP Carson Palmquist (first), 2B Anthony Villar (second)
Season in a sentence: This season has been a roller coaster ride for Miami from the high of winning an Opening Weekend series at Florida to losing a series at Boston College at the start of May, before finishing the regular season strong and winning 20 ACC games.
Best pitcher: Carson Palmquist, LHP—In a year of great relievers nationally, Palmquist has still stood out. He has struck out 72 batters, walked six and held opponents to 20 hits in 41.1 innings. That’s helped him go 1-1, 1.74 with 13 saves. He throws from a difficult angle and has at times been simply unhittable.
Best hitter: Christian Del Castillo, OF—While Adrian Del Castillo is the better prospect and is projected to be a solid draft pick next month, his older brother Christian has actually been Miami’s top hitter this season. Del Castillo transferred from Seton Hall following last season and is hitting .368/.431/.495 with seven stolen bases. He leads the team in hits (70), on-base percentage and OPS (.926). He’s not the flashiest player in the Hurricanes lineup, but he has been the most dependable.
Outlook: Miami has struggled against Florida since Kevin O’Sullivan took over in Gainesville. But this season the Hurricanes beat the Gators twice on the road to earn their first series win in the rivalry since 2014. So, they won’t be intimidated going to Gainesville. But a lot has happened since then and these are not the same teams that played in February. Miami has run through several iterations of its starting rotation and finding the right alignment of pitchers to get the ball to Palmquist will be crucial to its chances this weekend.
No. 3 South Alabama (33-20)
All-Conference Team Honorees: OF Ethan Wilson (1st), SP JoJo Booker (2nd), SP Jeremy Lee (2nd)
Season in a Sentence: After going 33-20 overall and 15-9 in the Sun Belt, South Alabama is making its first regional appearance since 2017 by virtue of going 4-0 in the Sun Belt Tournament to secure the automatic bid.
Best Pitcher: JoJo Booker, RHP—A highly-regarded recruit coming out of high school, Booker put it all together and became a workhorse in the Jaguars’ rotation this season. He’s 7-0 on the season with a 3.66 ERA, 78 strikeouts and a .232 opponent batting average in 78.1 innings. His presence really helped mitigate the effects of losing rotation mate Jeremy Lee to injury in late April.
Best Hitter: Ethan Wilson, OF—An outfielder who has a chance to be the Jags’ highest draft pick since Travis Swaggerty, Wilson lived up to expectations this season, even as he was put in the position of having to do a lot of heavy lifting in a lineup that was a little light. He’s hitting .319/.430/.550 with 12 doubles, four triples, eight home runs and 32 RBIs with more walks (33) than strikeouts (20).
Outlook: The ace in the hole for South Alabama in this regional is that it’s not a team that is going to beat itself, and it is very much set up to win as a pitching and defense outfit with a .979 fielding percentage and 3.84 team ERA. The ceiling for the Jags this weekend will be determined by what it gets on offense, especially beyond Wilson and Michael Sandle, the two best hitters in the lineup.
No. 4 South Florida (28-27)
All-Conference Team Honorees: 3B Carmine Lane (2nd), SP Collin Sullivan (2nd)
Season in a Sentence: After finishing right around .500 in both overall record (28-27) and conference record (14-14), USF got hot at just the right time, going 4-1 in the American Athletic Conference Tournament to win the automatic bid and earn its fourth regional appearance in six seasons.
Best Pitcher: Jack Jasiak, RHP—After his freshman season got cut short in 2020, Jasiak burst onto the scene as a star in 2021. Going into the postseason, he has a tough-luck 6-7 record but a 2.92 ERA, 86 strikeouts and a .208 opponent batting average in 89.1 innings. His best work has come in the last two weeks against the best team in the conference in East Carolina and in the conference tournament against Tulane. In those two starts, he’s thrown a combined 15.2 scoreless innings with just four hits allowed, and in the Tulane start, he punched out 12.
Best Hitter: Carmine Lane, 3B—Like Jasiak, Lane made the most of his first full season on campus by hitting .326/.378/.522 with 14 doubles, 10 homers and 41 RBIs. With no other regular in the USF lineup hitting better than .280, Lane is truly the player who makes the offense go.
Outlook: In Jasiak and fifth-year Collin Sullivan, USF has a one-two punch in the rotation that should keep it in games early on in this regional. What it gets from its pitching staff if it can get past the first two games and what kind of offensive production it gets against three other teams with talented pitching staffs are the questions that will dictate how far the Bulls can go.