GREENSBORO, N.C. — There are plenty of pros and cons to using the pool play format for a conference tournament.
The ACC switched to this format from a double-elimination tournament in 2007, not wanting to force teams to burn through their pitching staff such a short time before NCAA’s began. But one of the cons — in theory, anyway — is that a team won’t have anything to play for after it has been technically eliminated from title game contention.
That theory, of course, doesn’t always translate.
Just ask North Carolina, a team fighting for its NCAA Tournament life, playing against Virginia in the Friday nightcap.
The Cavaliers didn’t get to where they are — 44-12 overall with an almost certain national seed on the horizon — by taking any game lightly. But Virginia head coach Brian O’Connor talked to his team at batting practice earlier in the day about what he knew they already knew — they were out of ACC Tournament title contention with a loss on Friday to Maryland.
"They understood that coming to the ballpark today that we didn’t have a chance to compete for the championship," O’Connor said. "Our opportunity for our championship would be tonight and tomorrow night."
With a 3-2 win over North Carolina in a crazy, back-and-forth game against an opponent that fought as hard as it could, it felt like a championship for the Cavaliers.
And it was just as deflating to North Carolina (33-25), a team that finds itself on the fringe of the NCAA Tournament with just one more chance to get a good win. The Tar Heels were still alive for the ACC Tournament title before the final pitch from Virginia closer Nick Howard struck out UNC’s Landon Lassiter in the bottom of the ninth.
UNC starter Benton Moss had a fantastic outing, allowing zero earned runs (two unearned), four hits and striking out eight in 6 2/3 innings. When he left the game, though, his team was down 2-0.
"That’s the game of baseball. We’ve been grinding it out all season," Moss said. "Baseball is all about confidence. If you lack confidence, it makes it that much harder. If you have confidence, it makes it that much easier sometimes."
It’s hard to know how many disappointments head coach Mike Fox’s team can take. A number of bad breaks early piled up for the Tar Heels (including a ground-rule double that would have scored a run), but Fox says those things tend to even out. In other words, good teams have luck — but they make some of their own luck, too.
"Game swings both ways, you get breaks some days and some days you don’t and you go back and play these 1-run games over and over, but it’s all over with now," Fox said. "We’ve got to focus on playing tomorrow."
UNC came into pool play needing to beat N.C. State to have any shot at making the NCAA Tournament. They did that, but then they had three chances to get a top-30 RPI win that would likely solidify their place in the field. That has yet to happen, and they were so close to getting it on Friday night.
"We’ve got a game tomorrow and we’re going to do everything we can to show up and compete tomorrow and hopefully play a little better. Then it really is out of our hands after that. We’ll see," Fox said. "There will be something on the line but there’s been something on the line for us, I think, probably the last 8-10 games. Won’t be anything new."
Virginia, meanwhile, knows it’s in and likely knows it will get a national seed. O’Connor said he didn’t talk to his team much about that. Like everyone else, he sees the pros and cons of the pool play format. It will just be hard for him to make a case against it when his own team provided such a great baseball game, even knowing they were out of it, on Friday night.
"Do I like that everybody that cheers on our team and cheers on North Carolina to know that we, back on Monday, that we’re playing North Carolina on Friday night at 7:00 and the same thing tomorrow night, Florida State? I think for the fans, it’s a great benefit," O’Connor said. "As a competitor, it’s tough because you like for your tournament to be ended on the field, whether you win or lose.
"I don’t think there’s a perfect formula, but it’s what we have and it seems like it’s worked pretty good historically."
Very quietly, Virginia’s win meant that Maryland — winners of their 11th game in a row — will represent Pool B in the ACC Championship game. The Terrapins are the No. 6 overall seed and will face either No. 4 Duke or No. 9 Georgia Tech in the title game on Sunday.
Maryland has never won the ACC Tournament, and this is the Terps’ last team playing as a member of the ACC in any sport. Wouldn’t it be fitting, then, if they went out with a title?
The Terps knocked off Virginia in Game 1 by blasting home runs repeatedly. Against Florida State, they did it with pitching. Freshman Mike Shawaryn has started three games this year against top-10 opponents (two against FSU) and has a 2-0 record with a 0.20 ERA and 17 strikeouts in those games. He pitched seven shutout innings against the No. 3 Seminoles.
Maryland’s bats have come alive, too. In the Terps’ last ACC series, they hit .336 as a team and 15 of their 36 hits were for extra bases against Pittsburgh. And in two ACC Tournament games against two of the top five teams in the country, Maryland has batted just .250 but 10 of their 15 hits have been for extra bases.
"It’s kind of like I told (Maryland head coach) John (Szefc), I wished him good luck and told him I hoped I didn’t see him again until Omaha," Florida State head coach Mike Martin said.
Szefc didn’t seem like he’d be surprised if his team ends up there, either.
The Terps’ 11-game win streak is second-longest in the country.
"With how well we have been playing in the month of May, it doesn’t surprise me a whole lot," Szefc said. "These guys have played loose. They have bent but they haven’t broken. Just real happy for the players."
Clemson was one of the teams O’Connor mentioned feeling sorry for in the pool play format, and with good reason. The Tigers won two games, including a hard-fought nail-biter against Miami on Thursday night, only to come back on Friday morning and have to do it all again. One bad performance, and they’re now going home with no shot at the title.
Clemson did finish 36-23 and with wins against Duke and Miami, that should be enough to ensure they get selected to the NCAAs.
"We played tough in this tournament. It’s a great conference," Clemson manager Jack Leggett said. "We finished second in our division, fifth in the conference, won two ballgames here, beat Duke, beat Miami, played tough today. We’ve got a great baseball team. I would be shocked and disappointed if anything else happened, so we’re looking forward to going back and practicing and hopefully preparing ourselves for next weekend."
Georgia Tech’s win ensured that the Yellow Jackets still have a shot at the ACC title game. All they need is for Miami to beat Duke in the opening game on Saturday.
And if Duke wins, the Blue Devils are in.
That’s the only game left with any consequence in the ACC Tournament picture, although there’s plenty on the line for North Carolina as it gets its final shot at a marquee win when it takes on Maryland. Then the nightcap is, ironically, the only "meaningless" game in the tourney, as both Virginia and Florida State are expected to get national seeds and have only pride on the line.
But if Friday night was any indication, they’ll put on a heck of a show anyway.