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Can UConn baseball make a super regional?

The Huskies have been close on several occasions but have been unable to break through to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament in more than a decade.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

In this year’s NCAA Tournament, UConn baseball got a better draw than some other 3-seeds, with No. 15 Maryland, Wake Forest and LIU joining the Huskies in the College Park Regional. That doesn’t mean it’s an easy draw, though. The Terrapins and Demon Deacons are dangerous squads.

At No. 6 in the RPI, Wake Forest is the highest-rated team by that metric to not host a Regional since the NCAA Tournament expanded to 16 sites in 1999. The Demon Deacons finished 15-14-1 in ACC play, went 1-1 in the ACC Tournament and had a 21-15-1 record against the RPI top 100.

Meanwhile, No. 15 Maryland started 8-0 and never truly cooled down, finishing 45-12 overall, including 15-7 against the RPI top 100. Ranked No. 9 in the RPI, the Terrapins won the Big Ten, the No. 8 RPI league, by one-and-a-half games and were projected by D1Baseball to be the No. 6 seed, rather than down at No. 15.

UConn will need to be at its best if the team is to advance to its first super regional in 11 years. It’s unlikely this team has six future major leaguers on its roster — as the 2011 squad that reached the second weekend did — but it has plenty of quality pieces and has racked up plenty of wins over the course of the season with a strong starting rotation and a fourth starter — the latter of which has been missing in years past.

The Huskies’ top two starters, Austin Peterson (10-2, 3.22 ERA) and Pat Gallagher (9-3, 3.21), each were All-Big East First Team players, while the Sunday starter, Enzo Stefanoni (6-1, 3.01) was on the second team. In past seasons, finding a quality fourth starter, which is required to win a Regional unless a team goes undefeated, has been a struggle, but Cole Chudoba (3-1, 3.08) has six starts, while Ian Cooke (7-1, 3.33) is fourth on the team in innings. Each have given UConn length, whether out of the bullpen or as a starter.

Chudoba has thrown more than three innings in each of his last four outings, including 5 23 frames of shutout ball against UMass on April 19, while Cooke held USC bats quiet across 7 23 innings March 15 and did the same thing over eight innings to Boston College April 20. Cooke also features in a steady bullpen that includes Garrett Coe (2-1, 2.56), Devin Kirby (2-0, 3.38) left-handed specialist Brendan O’Donnell (3-1, 2.45) and closer Justin Willis (1-1, 4.58).

However, No. 15 Maryland and Wake Forest are the two best teams the Huskies will face in nearly four months, while at No. 135 in the RPI, LIU is better than Georgetown, who swept Penders’ nine the final weekend of the regular season.

UConn faced off against Louisville, which is hosting a regional as the No. 12 overall seed, in the USF Invitational on February 20. That’s the Huskies’ only Quad 1 game this year and the only game they played against a team to make a regional.

Meanwhile, its game the day before against Charlotte was UConn’s only Quad 2 game until May, when Creighton came to town and got swept followed by a series win against Xavier the next weekend. Aside from a single matchup against each of the Bluejays and Musketeers in the Big East Tournament, that is the entirety of the Huskies’ games against the RPI top 100.

Penders tried to put together a solid schedule, joining the USF Invitational, playing Pepperdine in a series and facing USC and Long Beach State midweek, while limiting its exposure to the bottom tier of local teams in midweek games. But due to a combination of unexpected poor seasons from schools and the lack of a high-end opponent in a weekend series, UConn’s strength of schedule was No. 181 in the country, according to Warren Nolan. It didn’t help that the Big East had two sub-200 RPI teams while another pair are sub-175 — which represents half the league.

The results can’t be argued. Save for the Georgetown series, UConn cruised. The Huskies were 14-1 across the 15 weekends of the regular season, sweeping six of them, while dropping just three midweek games and going 3-0 in the Big East Tournament. They finished 46-13, which is two wins short of the program record. The issue is that the results came against weak competition, with 31 of the team’s 59 games coming against the bottom half of Division I, of which 15 were against the bottom third. It’s unclear how UConn will fare against two top 10 RPI teams.

This was an issue for UConn last season, too. The Huskies won 29 of 36 at one point after a slow start against a tough schedule. But when it came time to face No. 10 Notre Dame, the team wasn’t prepared to play an opponent of that quality and lost 26-3. The next day, it was eliminated by Central Michigan.

Maryland beat Rutgers in a series on the road and swept Baylor, Campbell and Michigan, each of which are in the RPI top 100. Wake Forest may have been mediocre in the ACC with a 15-14-1 record, but the Demon Deacons have Quad 1 series wins against Georgia Tech and NC State, in addition to a Quad 2 series sweep over Duke.

UConn has performed well against its schedule, which is all the team can do, but now it’s time to face Rhett Lowder, ACC Pitcher of the Year, in addition to a pair of all-freshman team players in Tommy Hawke and Nick Kurtz.

Should they match up against Maryland, the Huskies’ pitching staff will need to contend with Big Ten Player of the Year Chris Alleyne and five other all-conference first-team performers.

While Maryland and Wake Forest are each in the RPI top 10, the College Park Regional is not the worst postseason draw for a 3-seed. Texas Tech will have to contend with No. 16 Georgia Southern and Notre Dame, the latter of which had a strong argument to host, in the Statesboro Regional, while San Diego is matched up with No. 3 Oregon State and Vanderbilt, which is No. 7 in the RPI, in the Corvallis Regional.

However, these are still strong teams and the margin for error is going to be much smaller than in matchups against Big East teams. Only the Huskies know if they’re ready for the jump in competition from largely Division I bottom-feeders to two of the top 10 teams in the country by some metrics.

Only time will tell whether UConn can get back to a Super Regional, one step away from the College World Series.