I'll be honest here -- most years, drawing the ACC assignment from the three big conference tournaments (ACC, Big XII, SEC) wouldn't have thrilled me. Too many years of watching ultra-talented Clemson and Georgia Tech teams underachieve in Omaha had jaded me on ACC baseball. Don't blame the messenger -- an ACC team hasn't dogpiled at Rosenblatt since Wake Forest won it all in 1955. (Don't even think about counting independent Miami's titles.) Come to think of it, was the dogpile even invented in 1955?
But this year I'm seriously fired up to be in Jacksonville, because the ACC has several teams capable of making major noise in Omaha and the conference is absolutely loaded with marquee talent. Plus, several of these teams have RPI rankings in the 15-20 range, so a big week could get them a #1 seed and an opportunity to host.
This year's tournament will also be easier to cover because the league has adopted the two-division, round-robin format that the Big XII debuted last year. While double elimination tournaments appeal more to me in principle, cramming eight teams into that format pretty much guaranteed that whoever fought through the loser's bracket would play a ton of games in a short period of time, completely go through their pitching staff, and would end up giving some freshman pitcher his first start of the season in the championship game. That's no way to decide a championship.
The round-robin format has several fan-friendly benefits. First, the if-we-win-we-play-at-seven-if-we-lose-we-play-at-one uncertainty is gone; every game is scheduled in advance. Second, every team is guaranteed three games, so fans from far-flung Virginia don't have to make the longish trip wondering if their team will be headed home before the sun sets on day two.
Wednesday will offer a full day of baseball. Clemson and Virginia start it off at 10 a.m., followed by Georgia Tech and North Carolina, Miami and Clemson, and finally Wake Forest and Florida State.
Here's a quick overview of the eight teams fighting it out this week at the Baseball Grounds of Jacksonville:
#1-seed Florida State (46-9 overall, 24-6 in conference)
FSU won their first 23 games of the season against a schedule that could have been improved by adding some junior college opponents, so I wasn't really impressed at the time. Tony Thomas, Jr. hit about .500 against that part of the schedule, so his numbers also didn't awe me. Now, I'm a believer. The Noles bats didn't drop off much in ACC play -- they lead the league in batting average, runs scored (8.5 per game!), doubles (80 in 30 games!), triples, homers, and fielding (only 22 errors). Thomas batted an excellent .374 and hit nine of his ten homers in conference play, enough to be named ACC Player of the Year. Bryan Henry won Pitcher of the Year honors by going 9-0 with a 2.74 ERA and averaging seven innings a start; he's a ridiculous 14-0 in 16 starts on the season. The pro scouts don't have much interest in Henry -- Baseball America has him as the 50th-ranked senior prospect -- but all he does is win, 27 times in the past two years. This team is solid, solid, solid. The Noles are probably already a lock for a national seed. They'll be tough to beat, both this week and in Omaha.
#4 Clemson (36-20, 18-12)
Other than their ugly uniforms, I have no reason to dislike Clemson. But every year, they're loaded with pro prospects who seem to disappoint on the big stage. This year, however, expectations aren't as high. Though Andy D'Allesio (14 homers) is again leading the offense for what seems like his sixth season with the Tigers, it's the pitching staff that has held the team afloat. Clemson scored the fewest runs in ACC play of the eight teams here, but their 3.81 team ERA ranked second in conference play. The Tigers don't have a starter with more than five wins, but they have a load of solid pitchers who come out of the bullpen, including sometimes-starter always-flamethrower Daniel Moskos, whom the pro scouts really love. If Clemson makes it to Sunday, they could sneak a 1-seed from the selection committee.
#5 Miami (35-20, 17-13)
The U has a really interesting team. Yonder Alonso is an absolutely dominant hitter (.376 batting, .730 slugging, 18 homers, 72 RBI, and an amazing 56/28 BB/K ratio). The pitching staff boasts three excellent starters in freshman Eric Erickson (1.85 ERA), Scott Maine (3.06), and Enrique Garcia (3.14). Unfortunately, for the Canes, the bullpen has been flat-out bad. If the Miami starters can keep their pitch counts down, they have a pretty good shot at playing Sunday. Like Clemson, Miami's RPI is borderline 1-2 seed-worthy, so a good week in Jacksonville might earn them a 1-seed and a host.
#8 Wake Forest (31-25, 14-16)
The Deacons will be a tough team for the selection committee to evaluate. They have a lofty #24 RPI, but their overall and ACC records are propped up by a 6-0 record against ACC dregs Maryland and Duke. At .269, they have the lowest batting average in conference play of the eight teams here, and they've actually been outhit by their opponents on the season, .275 vs. .293. Though they don't hit well, they do get hit really well -- an incredible 97 HBPs as a team. With 17 homers, Allan Dykstra is the one guy in the lineup you can't let beat you. He's also been hit 18 times, but that's only second-best on the team.
#2 North Carolina (45-11, 21-9)
I love these guys. To use Bum Phillips terminology, in 2005 they knocked on the door when they challenged Alabama in the Supers, in 2006 they beat on the door when they were a couple of bounces away from winning it all. And 2007 could be the year when they kick the SOB in. The mark of a great program is not dropping off after losing their studs. Pitchers Andrew Miller and Daniel Bard were both picked in the first round of the MLB draft last June, but the Tar Heels might even be better this year; their staff ERA is. After losing so much talent to the draft, they needed someone new to step up, and freshman Dustin Ackley did. His .443 average pretty much ends any discussion on who the best frosh in the country is. He had plenty of help, though, as the Tar Heels' .323 batting average in ACC play was bettered by only FSU. Junkballer Robert Woodard, the "other starter" last season, is a solid ace at 8-2 and 3.05, and Andrew Carignan (1.35 ERA, .169 opponents' average) has turned into a "game over" closer. They Heels have probably already looked up a national seed, and I expect to see these guys again in Omaha this year.
#3 Virginia (41-13, 19-9)
Great team, great story. This is the bunch I'm most excited about seeing. Brian O'Conner, a Paul Maineiri disciple, has done an amazing job with this program. I had Sean Doolittle on my preseason Player of the Year ballot, but he started slowly this season, so I dropped him off early. In early April I checked the Cavs' stats to see if he had snapped out of it, and HOLY MOLY, LOOK AT THIS THOMPSON KID! Jacob Thompson, with a 10-0 record and a filthy 1.46 ERA has been near the top of my national Player of the Year ballot for several weeks. He's not the only guy on the staff who can chunk it, though, as the Cavs posted a 3.11 ERA in ACC play to lead the league by nearly a run. They need shutdown pitchers, because that offense hasn't been Omaha-quality. The Cavs hit only 16 homers in conference play, fewest of the eight teams here, and though they stole 123 bases on the season, their 52-for-72 success rate in ACC games is nothing to get really excited about. The Cavs are a lock for a 1-seed, and national seed is still a slim possibility.
#6 North Carolina State (36-19, 16-14)
Don't count on a quick game when the Pack is playing. NC State hitters work the count Boston Red Sox-style, finishing the ACC schedule with the most walks and the most strikeouts. In conference play, State batted .302 and averaged just under seven runs per game, so they're pretty solid when they swing, too. Ryan Pond is probably the team's toughest out -- he's batting .339, but his 44 walks push his on-base average to nearly .500. The Pack also has a couple of interesting pitchers. Eric Surkamp is only 4-3, but his ERA is a dandy 2.94. And what can you say about Andrew Brackman? 6-4 and a 3.81 ERA are not exactly All-America numbers, but pro scouts absolutely drool over the 6'10" skyscraper's 98 mph fastball. Brackman is the only pitcher in the tournament who reached double figures in both hit batters and wild pitches, so he doesn't always know where it's going, which makes him even scarier. State's probably locked into a 2-seed, but they could give the committee a lot to think about by winning this thing.
#7 Georgia Tech (31-23, 15-14)
Man, what to say about this team? The Ramblin' Wreck has been a train wreck this year. There's fantastic talent on the roster, including Matt Weiters (.366, 10 HR), who will be one of the top picks in the draft this season, and on-base machine Danny Payne (.517 OB%, 58 walks), who might be one of the most underrated players in the country. But GT has to be absolutely sick at how poorly their season has gone, and absolutely disgusted at how they played last week against Florida State, when they were outscored 44-15 in a three-game home sweep. They've lost six of their last seven, and although most of those losses were to great teams, this is not a very good team right now. Their staff ERA was 5.15 this season, and opponents hit .294. The defense was the worst in the conference, with 45 errors in 29 ACC games and a league-low 19 double plays. This is a team that has to get it together this weekend, because three more losses will have them sitting at home next week wishing there was a baseball NIT.
So who's going to be in the winner's circle Sunday?
It almost seems stupid to pick anybody but FSU or Carolina. But one lesson learned from last year's Big XII debut of the round-robin format is that can be easier for an underdog to make it to the title game -- 6-seed Kansas won the tournament partly because every team in their bracket threw their #3 starter against the Jayhawks. Don't be surprised if a low seed like NC State benefits from that same effect and makes it to Sunday.