Friedlander: Top-seeded Wake Forest bucks ACC Tournament history by advancing to semifinals
DURHAM, NC – The No. 1 seed at the ACC baseball tournament is heading to the semifinals.
And in other news, water is wet.
It only makes sense since by definition, the top seed in a postseason event is the best team in the field and is expected to make a deep run.
But that’s not how it’s worked in the ACC in recent years.
Since the league went to its current tournament format in 2017, no top seed had ever advanced out of pool play into the single elimination semifinals.
Until Wake Forest did it Thursday.
The Deacons, who also happen to be the No. 1 team nationally, flipped the script by routing 12th-seeded Pittsburgh 10-2 in their postseason opener at Durham Bulls Athletic Park.
Because the top-ranked team in each of the tournament’s 4 pools automatically advances in the event of a 3-way tie at 1-1, the victory assures Wake of a spot in this weekend’s knockout round regardless of what happens against Notre Dame on Friday.
When informed of the history his team had just bucked, coach Tom Walter joked that he was glad he wasn’t informed of the circumstances before the game.
Even if he had been, it probably wouldn’t have mattered.
As Walter explained, this year’s Deacons have something those previous 1 seeds that tried and failed to get out of pool play didn’t.
“We have Rhett Lowder,” he said.
Rhett Lowder is fun to watch.
Holding 92-95 MPH, topped at 96 in the first, w/ two different shapes (4S and 2S). SL looks much improved, 84-87 MPH with legit two-plane break and spin near 2600-2700 RPMs. CH with serious fade and dive at 84-87 MPH. Very easy and loose delivery. pic.twitter.com/GmkNwisV7W
— Tyler Jennings (@TylerJennings24) May 25, 2023
Even though the 2-time ACC Pitcher of the Year admittedly didn’t have his best stuff, he was still good enough after surviving a rocky 1st inning to pick up his 13th win without a loss this season.
The junior right-hander also had plenty of help.
His teammates banged out 16 hits, including home runs from Brock Wilken, Danny Corona and Bennett Lee, and took the drama out of the proceedings by scoring 3 times in the top of the 1st and putting the Panthers away early.
In doing so, they avoided the fate that tripped up so many high seeds before them.
This year’s No. 2, Virginia, was eliminated by North Carolina in its final game of pool play Thursday by an identical 10-2 score.
Opinions differ as to the reason so many high seeds keep getting planted, Is it a product of a deep, talented conference – which the ACC is – or a format highly conducive to producing upsets.
The answer is probably a little of both.
Because while the ACC holds up against anyone in the country, especially this year with 6 of the top 20 teams in college baseball’s RPI rankings, it’s also no secret that the system used to determine the 4 semifinalists isn’t exactly the best for producing chalk results.
It’s not as if teams are tanking or aren’t motivated. They’re playing for a championship, after all.
It’s just that the lower seeds have more of what retired UNC basketball coach Roy Williams used to call “want to.”
“When you’re the No. 1 seed in this tournament, you know you’re hosting a (NCAA) regional and you’re likely to be a national seed,” Walter said. “Sometimes you get into this game and it doesn’t mean as much to your club as it does the other club.
“A lot of times they’re on the bubble fighting for their life. We’ve been on the other side of that plenty of times. I don’t think it’s an anomaly. I think there are a lot of good reasons for that.”
The current format might not be the best, most equitable way of determining a champion. But you have to at least give the ACC for trying.
It has experimented with several different ideas over the past 2 decades in an attempt to find one that keeps everyone from the coaches to the fans to the broadcast partners happy.
A true double-elimination bracket was replaced by a system consisting of a play-in round, a round robin contested within 2 4-team pods and a winner-take-all championship game.
The latest iteration divides the league into 4 smaller 3-team pools. The team with the best record in each group advances to the semifinals. If all 3 finish pool play with a 1-1 record, the highest seed moves on.
There are certainly flaws to the format, the most noticeable is that it lends itself to games that have no bearing on the outcome of the tournament. Two such meaningless matchups are scheduled for Friday.
But TV likes it because the matchups are predetermined and can be scheduled according to viewer interest. And the coaches, at least most of them, tolerate it because it simulates a regular weekly schedule and is less likely to burn out a pitching staff heading into an NCAA regional the following week.
“You look at other tournaments, the SEC Tournament, it’s double-elimination and it’s a bear,” Walter said. “You’ve got teams playing 6-7 games. I think at the end of the day, the most important part of this tournament is getting our teams ready for next weekend.”
That might be the case. But with a championship trophy being handed out to the last team standing on Sunday, the importance of winning this tournament shouldn’t be diminished.
Especially when you’re Wake Forest and you haven’t won any postseason tournament since 2001.
It won’t be easy, though.
Not only have the Deacons already played their mound ace in the hole, but they still have another bit of history left to overcome. It’s been 10 full years since the top seed brought home the prize from the ACC’s championship event.
Just don’t tell Walter about it until after his team is finished playing.
Featured photo courtesy of the ACC