There’s always an advantage to being the top seed in a tournament or playoff. It’s even more important in the pool play format the ACC has used for its postseason baseball event since 2017.

The tournament, which begins on Tuesday at Charlotte’s Truist Field, is broken into 4 3-team groups, with the team holding the best record in each advancing to the single-elimination semifinals.

If all 3 teams finish with identical 1-1 records, the highest-seeded team in each pool moves on.

That means this year’s top seeds – North Carolina, Clemson, NC State and Florida State – could end up with a built-in margin for error the other 2 teams in their pod don’t.

Of course, you still have to play the games. And you still have to win enough of them to advance. Or at least hope that 1 of the other teams doesn’t go unbeaten.

And that hasn’t always been as easy as it sounds. Especially once the knockout round begins.

Consider that since 2013, the last time a No. 1 seed won the tournament, the same number of 8 and 9 seeds have brought home the championship trophy (2 each) as top-4 seeds (No. 4 Florida State in 2015 and Clemson last year).

With the balance and quality of the conference during the regular season, which ended Saturday with 5 teams in the top 11 and 7 in the top 20 of the national polls, this year’s event promises to be even more wide-open and competitive than ever.

With NCAA Tournament bids, host sites and seeds all still to be decided there’s a lot more at stake this week beyond the tournament title.

Here are 10 questions (and answers) to help you get ready for the festivities:

What do the pools look like?

The tournament format isn’t perfect and often becomes a source of frustration when a team is eliminated from semifinal contention before it ever takes the field for its 2nd game. But it’s still better than a traditional double-elimination system that can tax a pitching staff heading into the NCAA Tournament.

This year’s pools are as follows:

Pool A – 1. North Carolina, 8. Wake Forest, 12. Pitt
Pool B – 2. Clemson, 7. Louisville, 11. Miami
Pool C – 3. NC State, 6. Duke, 10. Virginia Tech
Pool D – 4. Virginia, 5. Florida State, 9. Georgia Tech

Three pool play games will be contested each day between Tuesday and Friday. The winners of Pools A and D will play in the first semifinal on Saturday, followed by the winners of Pools B and C. The championship game is scheduled for Sunday at noon.

All games will be televised on ACC Network.

Which pool is the toughest?

Pool A is a tough one, particularly if Wake Forest can shake off last week’s sweep at the hands of NC State. But when you’re talking about the true Group of Death, it’s Pool D.

And it’s not close.

Virginia, the No. 4 overall seed, brings the ACC’s most potent offense to Charlotte. The Cavaliers are hitting .340, 26 points higher than anyone else. Their 106 home runs are 1 more than the Deacons for the league lead. They’d be advised to keep putting up those kinds of numbers in the tournament.

Why?

Because 5th-seeded Florida State can score in bunches, too. The Seminoles are 3rd in the conference at 8.75 runs per game. They’re 2nd in batting average at .314 and close behind in homers with 99.

UVa and Florida State didn’t play during the regular season. But the Cavaliers did face No. 9 Georgia Tech. And it didn’t go well. The Yellow Jackets won 2 of the 3 meetings, scoring 37 runs along the way. The Cavaliers’ only win in the series was an 8-7 victory in 11 innings.

Of the 4 top seeds, UVa might be the one that needs its advantage the most.

Which pool is the easiest?

Second-seeded Clemson had the best luck of the draw. The Tigers won the Atlantic Division at 20-10 (40-13 overall) and are in a group with 2 teams against whom they won 2 of 3 during the regular season.

Unlike Pool D, this quadrant of the bracket will likely be decided by pitching. That should give Clemson a distinct edge. Not only is its 4.47 ERA 2nd-best in the ACC to top-seeded UNC, but the team that figures to give it the most trouble, No. 7 Louisville, ranks next-to-last in the conference at 6.44. The Cardinals’ 86 home runs allowed are the most in the league.

In contrast to most teams that hope to come into the postseason hot, 11th-seeded Miami arrives in Charlotte as a hot mess. The Hurricanes lost their final 2 regular season games to 12th-seeded Pitt last weekend. At home. They finished with an 11-19 ACC record and need to win the tournament title to avoid their first losing season since 1959.

Who has the most to gain?

NC State.

For a change, the Wolfpack won’t be on the bubble heading into the NCAA’s Selection Monday. They were already safely in the field and in contention to host a regional before finishing the regular season with a flourish by sweeping Wake Forest.

Instead, Elliott Avent’s surging team has its sights set on much more ambitious goals. A couple of wins in pool play should be enough to clinch a Raleigh regional. And winning the championship could very well catapult State into a top-8 national seed, which would also put it in position to host a super regional if it advances that far.

Who has the most to lose?

Georgia Tech.

The Yellow Jackets came from behind to salvage a win in its regular-season-ending series at Florida State on Saturday to finish 31-21. Their RPI ranking is 46 and they are among the final teams in the NCAA field, according to most projections.

Winning at least 1 pool play game, especially given the high RPI opponents they’re seeded to face, will probably be enough to squeeze into the field of 64. Beating both Florida State (RPI 8) and UVa (RPI 12) should take all the stress out of their Selection Monday watch party. Going 2-and-BBQ in Charlotte would almost certainly bump them onto the wrong side of the bubble.

Why not NC State?

Now that #NCStateStuff is dead and buried courtesy of Kevin Keatts and his ACC champion basketball team, it will be interesting to see how the school’s teams in other sports pick up on the positive vibes.

The Wolfpack are already starting to build momentum. Freshman pitchers Cooper Consiglio and Jacob Dudan have emerged as shutdown arms out of the bullpen to bolster an injury-riddled pitching staff while sophomore Derrick Smith has been lights out since moving into the closer’s role. Offensively, an already potent batting order has gotten even more dangerous with Alex Sosa and Noah Soles back returning from injuries and swinging hot bats.

State has made it to the tournament championship 3 times since 2015 and twice in the past 3 years. But it hasn’t won a title since 1992. Maybe this is the year that drought ends, too.

Who will be this year’s surprise team?

Few if any tournament ever goes completely chalk. Especially this one. Not only have teams seeded outside the top 4 frequently taken home the trophy, as previously mentioned, but during that same span, 4 double-digit seeds have made it out of pool play into the semifinals – No. 12 Pitt in 2018, No. 12 BC in 2019, No 11 Pitt and No. 10 NC State in 2022.

So who’s the most likely dark horse this week?

Georgia Tech.

The Yellow Jackets are seeded 9th. But they finished the regular season by winning 5 of their final 7 ACC series, including wins against higher seeds Virginia and Duke. They also feature a dangerous lineup that ranks 4th in the conference with a .314 average and is anchored by one of the most powerful hitters in the country in soon-to-be ACC Freshman of the Year Drew Burress.

Who is the favorite to win tournament MVP?

The UNC centerfielder Vance Honeycutt should already be brimming with confidence on the strength of an ACC Player of the Year-caliber regular season that saw him hit a career-high 313 with 22 homers, 57 RBIs and 28 stolen bases while becoming the Tar Heels’ all-time leading home run hitter.

As if that isn’t enough, he should be even more juiced about returning to the scene of his greatest triumph as a Tar Heel.

So far, at least.

Honeycutt became the first freshman in 17 years to win the tournament’s MVP in 2022, the most recent time it was held in Charlotte. He led UNC to the championship by going 6-of-15 with 4 homers, 10 RBIs, 5 runs scored and 4 walks in 4 victories at Truist Field, punctuating the performance with back-to-back bombs in his first 2 at-bats of a 9-5 title game win against NC State.

How many homers will be hit?

Honeycutt wasn’t the only one launching bombs in 2022. In all, the teams combined for a record 54 dingers in 15 games of that tournament, surpassing the record of 51 in 2010 in Greensboro.

None of the major betting sites have set odds on this year’s output. But if they had, the smart money would be on taking the over.

Three teams – Virginia, Wake Forest and Duke – have reached triple digits in homers this season. Four others – UNC and Florida State with 99 each, Clemson with 98 and Virginia Tech with 95 – could potentially join them this week.

Combine that power surge with Truist Field’s inviting right-field wall only 315 feet from home plate and appropriately nicknamed “The Home Run Porch” and there should be plenty of fireworks to go around.

Will the final pool play games mean something this year?

The final 2 games of last year’s tournament were little more than meaningless exhibitions because Miami and Wake Forest had already clinched their spots in the semifinals before ever taking the field against Duke and Notre Dame, respectively.

That made for an incredibly anticlimactic finish to pool play.

Although there’s no way to guarantee that won’t happen again, this year’s schedule is set up to produce a much more dramatic finish. Barring an early upset by either Pittsburgh or Miami, the bottom 2 seeds in the field, semifinal berths should be on the line in each of the final 2 games on Friday night – Clemson against Louisville in Pool B and North Carolina-Wake Forest with Chase Burns on the mound in Pool A.

Featured photo by Neil Redmond/ACC