Postseason Appetizer

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – No. 6 North Carolina will open ACC Tournament play on Thursday morning against No. 21 Miami with a roster that is ironically more experienced with NCAA postseason play than conference tournament action.

North Carolina earned its ninth-straight trip to the NCAA Tournament last June despite failing to qualify for the ACC Tournament, which only invites the top eight squads in the 12-team league. Combine that rare development with the current underclassmen-dominated roster and it becomes a short discussion when highlighting the current Tar Heels that have played in the ACC Tournament.

Senior Ben Bunting (6-for-12, RBI) started all three ACCT games at left field in '09, while junior Levi Michael (3-for-14, 2 RBI) also started each game at second base. That pair represents six of the nine total starts that UNC has in ACC Tournament action, with junior Jacob Stallings (0-for-6, RBI) getting two starts at catcher and senior Greg Holt (1-for-4) notching one start as the designated hitter.

Holt and fellow senior Patrick Johnson also combined for 4.0 innings pitched in relief, allowing just one earned run, two hits while striking out four batters and walking three others.

In 2008, Bunting and Holt scratched their names into the scorebook with one at-bat each as pinch hitters.

But even with six everyday players preparing for their first ACC Tournament game, along with a host of pitchers, the Tar Heel veterans refuse to ask their inexperienced teammates to look at this weekend any differently than the difficult grind that the ACC regular season represents over the final three months of the schedule.

"They've handled ACC play very well all year long, so I think it's just keeping the same approach that we've been doing," Michael said. "It's just like any other game. Especially during the ACC [Tournament], you've got to step up and be locked in for these games, so that's what I expect out of all of these guys this weekend."

For some programs, the vast inexperience heading into a conference tournament may present some anxiety-filled days and sleepless nights for those coaching staffs, but head coach Mike Fox has preferred to make his mark in the NCAA Tournament and the statistics back that up – under Fox's direction, UNC is 46-24 in the NCAAs and just 12-21 in the ACC Tournament.

Need more evidence that the real tournament starts next weekend? Just consider the fact that Holt will be making his first start of the season and just the third of his career on Thursday against No. 5 seed Miami. Regular weekend starters Patrick Johnson and Kent Emanuel are slated to pitch on Friday and Saturday, respectively.

"We want to win," UNC pitching coach Scott Forbes said. "Every time we play, we're going out there to win and we're going to try to win the tournament. But we are going to set up our pitching where it benefits our pitchers and our rotation to be the best they can be the following weekend. If that means taking Patrick Johnson out at 100 pitches where next weekend we let him go 120, then that's what we'll do."

That's not to suggest that the ACC Tournament is a waste of time with its heavily-criticized setup that includes two round-robin pools over four days and culminates with the winners advancing to a championship game on Sunday, but the relevance of the event mirrors that of the ACC's basketball tournament, minus the long tradition and standard tournament brackets.

"It's a big deal to make the ACC Tournament and compete for that championship," Johnson said. "The NCAA Tournament is the main thing, but after not making it last year and being where we were, I think it was a point of emphasis for us to play well throughout the year and make the ACC Tournament."

Despite criticism directed at the new format, ACC officials can at least lean on the fact that every conference champion has made the trip to Omaha for the College World Series since the two-bracket double-elimination setup began – Clemson in '06, North Carolina in ‘07, Miami in '08, Virginia in ‘09 and Florida State in ‘10.

It just so happens that North Carolina has punched its ticket to Omaha three other times in the past five years and managed to bypass the ACC Tournament last season en route to yet another NCAA Tournament appearance.

If anything, this weekend's event will provide a hearty plateful of postseason experience for the young players on this roster that should help prepare them for the road to Omaha.

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