"We have a target on our backs, but we're kind of used to that this year, being the No. 1 team (in the Baseball America poll) for most of the season," outfielder Chaz Frank said Thursday. "We've had some pretty high expectations, and I think we've met them so far, but that really doesn't matter. This is a whole new season starting tomorrow. We're looking to play up to the hype of our team."
The Tar Heels (52-8) take on fourth-seeded Canisius (42-15) on Friday evening after second-seeded Florida Atlantic (39-20) faces third-seeded Towson (29-28) in the opener of the double-elimination regional.
The winner in Chapel Hill advances to face the winner of the regional hosted by South Carolina, with a spot in the College World Series on the line.
The Tar Heels - who enter at No. 1 in the RPI - should have an easier time getting through the first weekend of the tournament than they did last year, when they were the only top-eight national seed to be knocked out in the regional round.
Florida Atlantic is 27th in the RPI, but both Towson and Canisius have rankings in the 90s. All three teams won their mid-major conference tournaments.
"People say we don't have the toughest regional, but we have to respect every opponent like they're N.C. State or Clemson or somebody hard in our conference who's coming in here and trying to beat us," Frank said.
No team in the nation has more wins than North Carolina, and only Mississippi State (32) played more games against tournament teams than the Tar Heels, who went 22-7 against teams in the tournament.
Four of those came in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament last weekend, which UNC won for just the second time since 1990. That 4-0 roll included back-to-back extra-inning victories over Clemson in 14 innings and N.C. State in 18.
"We should be prepared with the competition we've played in our league, and we should be prepared with the venues we've played (in) and the pitchers we've faced," coach Mike Fox said. "That should not be an issue, the preparation part of it."
Florida Atlantic would seem to be most capable of giving the Tar Heels a tough test. The Owls enter on an 11-game winning streak, and they claimed their first Sun Belt tournament title and eighth NCAA tournament berth in Division I.
Canisius had the best season in program history, setting school and Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference records for victories on its way to its first NCAA tournament berth.
But the best feel-good story in Chapel Hill belongs to Towson.
The school's baseball program was supposed to be cut because of financial problems in the athletic department and gender-equity imbalance, but the team was saved last month when the state of Maryland approved $300,000 to fund the team for two years.
Playing with what veteran coach Mike Gottlieb called "a sense of calm" with their future secure, the Tigers won the Colonial Athletic Association tournament and earned their first NCAA berth since 1991.
"Even when things are going good, it's difficult to get here," Gottlieb said. "Everything they've had to overcome, had to hear, had to think about in terms of their future, for this to be the way the season ends, on this level, is outstanding."