ACC Baseball Tournament preview: 10 critical questions (and answers)
Wake Forest is the No. 1 team in the nation. Clemson is college baseball’s hottest team. Virginia is balanced, steady and experienced.
As the top seeds in their respective pools, the Deacons, Tigers and Cavaliers are heavily favored to battle it out for the championship at the ACC Tournament that begins Tuesday at Durham Bulls Athletic Park.
But the odds are actually against all 3.
Believe it or not, it’s been a full decade since a team seeded higher than 4th has won the tournament. Two 9 seeds and a pair of 8s are among those that have taken home the title since North Carolina claimed the crown as the top seed in 2013.
So if you’re headed to the ballpark expecting chalk, you might want to consider bringing an eraser. Because something beyond explanation almost always seems to happen in this tournament.
There’s a lot at stake this week above and beyond the awarding of a conference championship.
Here are 10 questions (and answers) to help you get ready:
What is the tournament format?
The current format, which has been in use since 2017, divides the field into 4 3-team pools with each team guaranteed 2 games. The team with the best record in each pool advances to the semifinals. If all 3 teams finish with 1-1 records, the highest-seeded team in the pool moves on. Saturday’s semifinals and Sunday’s final are single-elimination.
The Pools are as follows:
Pool A: 1. Wake Forest, 8. Notre Dame, 12. Pittsburgh
Pool B; 2. Virginia, 7. North Carolina, 11. Georgia Tech
Pool C: 3. Clemson, 6. Boston College, 10. Virginia Tech
Pool D: 4. Miami, 5. Duke, 9. NC State
While the format isn’t perfect and often becomes a source of frustration when a team is eliminated from the semifinals before taking the field for its 2nd game, it’s still better than a traditional double-elimination system that can tax a pitching staff heading into the NCAA Tournament.
Who has the most to gain?
Beyond winning a conference championship and the ACC’s automatic NCAA Tournament bid, Duke and Boston College stand to gain the most with a strong performance in Durham this week. Both teams are safely into the NCAA field. The surprising Blue Devils are 35-19 with an RPI of 19. The even more surprising Eagles are 34-17 with an RPI of 14.
Depending on what happens elsewhere, winning 2 or 3 games could catapult either – or both – into a top 16 NCAA seed that would allow them to host a regional. Winning the title would guarantee a home regional no matter what happens in the other conferences.
Who has the most to lose?
NC State’s sweep of Pittsburgh during the final weekend of the regular season helped the Wolfpack’s NCAA chances considerably, but at 34-18 overall with a losing conference record, coach Elliott Avent’s team is still hanging precariously on the bubble as it heads to Durham.
Going 2-and-BBQ this week would make for some nervous moments and sleepless nights leading up to Selection Monday. But at least there would still be a chance, given State’s RPI of 26. Notre Dame’s significantly lower RPI of 47 would effectively end the NCAA hopes of the 30-22 (15-15) Irish.
Can the teams top last year’s record home-run output?
While Durham Bulls Athletic Park is hardly a pitcher-friendly stadium, it’s still not as much of a home-run haven as last year’s venue, Truist Field in Charlotte. At least hitters have to clear a 32-foot high “Blue Monster” to take advantage of the cozy dimensions in left field.
Truist, by contrast, has no safeguard to protect its inviting right field stands – appropriately nicknamed The Home Run Porch – looming only 315 feet from home plate. That helped produce a tournament-record 54 long balls in 15 games, surpassing the previous mark of 51 in Greensboro in 2010.
What does NC State need to do to avoid another NCAA disappointment?
The only sure thing is to win the whole shebang, something the Wolfpack hasn’t done since 1992, though they’ve come close with trips to the final in each of the past 2 years. One win would be helpful. Two would be better. A trip to the championship game still better. But even that wouldn’t guarantee selection – especially given State’s recent history with the NCAA.
Two years ago, it got sent home from the College World Series 1 win from the championship series because of a COVID outbreak. Last year, it was one of the “first 4 out,” a snub that prompted a 1-word Tweet from the program’s social media account. “Criminal,” it said.
This year’s record is similar to the 36-21 mark that wasn’t good enough in 2022. But its current RPI is 7 spots better. And with a pool including top-20 RPI opponents Duke and Miami, the opportunity to improve it is there for the taking.
Can Clemson stay hot?
The Tigers won their final 12 regular-season games and went 22-3 overall and 18-2 in the ACC since April 7. They’ve risen to No. 4 in the RPI rankings and could be in line for a top 8 national seeding that would give them home-field advantage in a potential Super Regional series.
Coach Erik Bakich’s team rallied from a slow start around a deep lineup, fueled by conference Freshman of the Year Cam Cannarella and batting champion Billy Amick, that is averaging 7.4 runs per game despite ranking next-to-last in the conference with 57 homers.
But as good as Clemson has been for as long as it has been, tournament time is the start of a new season. Momentum doesn’t always carry over. And in a pool that includes dangerous BC and a desperate Virginia Tech, the Tigers can’t let their guard down.
Does Duke have a home-field advantage?
The Blue Devils play about half of their home games at DBAP and they won the tournament championship the last time the event was held there, in 2021. But that doesn’t necessarily translate into an appreciable advantage for coach Chris Pollard’s team.
Duke was just 4-5 against ACC competition at DBAP this season. And unlike Clemson, the Blue Devils are coming into the postseason on anything but a heater. They’ve won only 3 of their final 9 games, including nonconference losses to Rider and Gardner-Webb, while also dropping 2-of-3 in Coral Gables to pool mate Miami last weekend.
Which pool is the toughest?
It goes without saying that Pool A is the most difficult because it contains the nation’s top-ranked team. But the competition for the Deacons isn’t the most challenging. Pitt finished last in the Coastal Division at 10-18 in the league and Notre Dame was just 15-15, although 1 of those wins came against Wake.
By far the deepest, most competitive group is Pool D. Miami and Duke finished 2-3 in the Coastal and just played 3 competitive games to finish the regular season while NC State, as mentioned, will be highly motivated for victories and confident, considering its recent history in this tournament.
Will the top seeds finally play like top seeds?
The ACC Tournament has not been kind to top-3 seeds since UNC won the title as a No. 1 in 2013. The 8 events that have been contested since then have been won by 9th seeded Georgia Tech in 2014, No. 4 Florida State in 2015, No. 6 Clemson in 2016, No. 8 Florida State in 2017, No. 5 Louisville in 2018, No. 5 UNC in 2019, No. 9 Duke in 2020 and No. 8 UNC last year.
Who will be this year’s surprise team?
Lower seeded teams haven’t just taken home the trophy since 2013, 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?
The Hokies come in as the 10 seed. But just last year, they won the Coastal Division and were the top team in the field. They eventually made it to the Super Regionals, where they came just 1 win shy of getting to Omaha. And if that wasn’t enough, they’re 3-0 all-time in postseason play against Clemson and BC, the 2 other teams in their group.