By the end of the NCAA baseball tournament selection show Monday, North Carolina coach Mike Fox was already thinking ahead to next season, knowing that this one, for his team, was over.
“The door’s closed, so to speak, on this season,” Fox said after the selection show came and went without UNC. “All we can do now is move forward and go back to work.”
It has been a long time since the Tar Heels found themselves in this position. The last time they failed to make the NCAA tournament was in 2001, which is also the last time, before this season, they had lost six consecutive conference games.
UNC’s six-game ACC losing streak this season came at the worst possible time – right at the end of the regular season. The Tar Heels endured three-game sweeps against Notre Dame and Virginia on consecutive weekends, and that likely pushed UNC out of the NCAA tournament field.
The poor finish, at least, was one of the reasons UNC missed the tournament, Fox said.
“And I think our conference record (hurt us),” Fox said. “I think any time you finish below .500 or like we did in the conference … I think those two things probably in the committee’s mind, I’m not speaking for them, but I’m assuming those were hard to overlook.”
UNC entered the ACC tournament as the No. 8 seed, needing a victory in a play-in game that Fox described as “do or die” to reach pool play. The Tar Heels beat Virginia Tech in that play-in game, but then lost to Louisville and Florida State before defeating Clemson in the final game of pool play.
After that victory Friday, Fox said he hoped UNC had done enough to earn an at-large bid. He said then he was hoping that eight ACC teams would make the NCAA tournament field. Seven did – including the Clemson team UNC defeated Friday.
With an RPI of No. 24, UNC was viewed as one of the first teams – maybe the very first team – left out of the tournament field.
Between now and 2001, Fox had built UNC into one of the most consistently good programs in the country. The Tar Heels have been to the College World Series six times during his tenure, all since 2006.
“It’s going to be a little different,” he said. “But it is what it is. It’s not a good feeling, but you hope when you don’t have good feelings about things that you’ll do things to put yourself in a position this time next year, you know, to not feel this way.”
Despite his success at UNC, Fox said, “I never thought we were immune to this.
“I mean, it’s not a given (to make the NCAA tournament). And you can say that, but then all of a sudden when you’re not in, that’s the reality. So no program is immune to this. There’s a lot of really, really good teams out there.”
Just weeks ago, it appeared UNC was solidly in the NCAA tournament field. The magazine Baseball America included the Tar Heels in their final tournament projection, which it released Monday morning.
Still, there were some factors working against UNC. For one, the way the Tar Heels ended the season left them hoping – instead of knowing – they’d be in the tournament. Then other conference tournaments featured surprise winners – especially Texas in the Big 12 – that stole automatic bids, limiting number of spots for at-large teams, like UNC, that had been left hoping.
Fox said he wasn’t surprised UNC didn’t make it.
“Any time you’re on the bubble you can’t be surprised, really, one way or the other,” he said. “We just didn’t do enough. We just didn’t do enough – I don’t think we gave the committee enough reasons to get us in, honestly.”