By Turner Walston
It’s down to the final weekend in ACC baseball, and the conference tournament picture looks . . . well, it’s still pretty murky, actually. For the first time, ten teams will earn invitations to the tournament, with teams 7 through 10 playing in play-in games to reach pool play. As the teams come down the stretch, three have set themselves apart: Miami, Virginia and Florida State will finish atop the table in some order. Incredibly, 10 of the remaining 11 teams have a shot at one of the final seven spots.
Here’s the league standings as of now, regardless of division:
Because the division winners earn the top two seeds in pool play, we know that Florida State will be one of those top seeds. The Seminoles are five games ahead of the next-closest Atlantic Division team (Maryland) and thus have secured the division title. Meanwhile, Miami has a single-game lead over Virginia in the Coastal Division. The Cavaliers took two of three from the Hurricanes in head-to-head play and would have the tiebreaker should the teams finish with identical records.
That’s where this weekend comes in: there is still much to be settled below the top three. Six team are within two games of each other, and with three games to be played, much can (and will) change.
This weekend’s ACC schedule looks like this:
Virginia at Wake Forest
Duke at Florida State
North Carolina at Miami
Boston College at Clemson
NC State at Virginia Tech
Pittsburgh at Notre Dame
Georgia Tech vs. South Florida (non-conference)
To readers of this web site, the most important series of the weekend takes place in Coral Gables as the Diamond Heels travel to take on first-place Miami. The Hurricanes are one of the hottest teams in baseball: since that series loss to Virginia, the Hurricanes have won 17 of 18 in conference play, including sweeps of NC State, Virginia Tech, Pittsburgh, Clemson and Duke. Carolina, meanwhile, sits at fifth place and is looking to both improve their NCAA Tournament résumé and stay in the top six in conference (and out of the play-in games). Wildly inconsistent to begin the season, the Tar Heels have actually won 8 of their last 11 overall. They’re capable of beating the league’s best, with wins over Virginia and Florida State, but also own maddening losses to teams like Boston College and Pittsburgh.
Carolina’s schedule in 2014 has been a difficult one. Because they’re in the Coastal Division, the Tar Heels were guaranteed series against both Virginia and Miami. Incidentally, both of those series will have been on the road. It turned out too that the Heels would play a series against Florida State, far and away the Atlantic’s best team, for the first time in conference play since 2011. Carolina, Boston College and Georgia Tech are the only two teams to have played all of the league’s top three (Brutally, Boston College played at Miami and Virginia on consecutive weekends in March).
A 2-1 series win at Miami (never mind that it’s been six years since that last happened) would put the Tar Heels at 16-14 in league play and in good shape for tournament play. Short of that, the Tar Heels will need some help to stay in the top six. Maryland’s conference slate is done at 15-14. The third game of their series with Clemson was canceled, and so Maryland at 15-14 finishes ahead of a 15-15 Carolina team in terms of winning percentage. Clemson is 13-13 and with two wins against Boston College also would leap ahead of Carolina. Should Duke get swept at Florida State, they too would own a tiebreaker over the Tar Heels by virtue of their home sweep of Carolina in March.
Should Carolina get swept, they’d fall behind Georgia Tech via the tiebreaker and potentially into a tie with Pitt and NC State (Carolina would finish ahead of those two teams).
But Carolina isn’t the only team with a cloudy ACC tournament picture. If the season ended today, Pitt and NC State would finish tied for 10th. Those two teams didn’t play each other, so the teams’ record against the best common opponent is the next tiebreaker. Right now, that best common opponent is Duke. The Panthers swept Duke while NC State lost two of three to the Blue Devils, so Pitt would get the nod.
But, the season doesn’t end today. If Pitt and NC State finish with identical records, and if Clemson were to slide ahead of Duke after the weekend, the Tigers would be that best common opponent. State took two of three from Clemson while Pitt lost the series 2-1. That would give the tiebreaker edge to NC State.
Beyond simply making the ACC Tournament (which the Tar Heels are assured of), the goal is to avoid that Tuesday play-in game. Why? Because if you lose it, you’ve lost your only game of the week and your only chance to improve that NCAA Tournament résumé. If you win it, you’ve still got three (or four) games remaining in the week, and that can be taxing on a pitching staff, particularly if you’re not sure of your NCAA Tournament fate.
Speaking of that, Carolina appears to be just inside the NCAA Tournament bubble as of Wednesday morning. A single win at Miami would appear to secure a bid, though a series win or some good work in Greensboro would go a long way toward locking that down.
Now, are you confused? Because I am, and I just typed it all. Suffice it to say, the final weekend of ACC play offers a lot of intrigue. The dust is far from settled, so keep one eye on the Tar Heels in Coral Gables, and another around the league.