Parity provides wide-open tournament for ACC baseball

N.C. schools hold three of the top four seeds

UNC coach Mike Fox leads the top-seeded Tar Heels into this week’s ACC Tournament. (Photo courtesy UNC Athletics)

Down? Or wide open?

As the 2018 ACC Baseball Tournament opens at Durham Bulls Athletic Park, opinions on the state of the league are mixed.

The classic powers have fallen on hard times: Virginia, the 2015 national champions, are the 10 seed. Florida State, winners of two of the last three tournaments, is a six seed. Perennial power Miami needed a 10-game winning streak to get over .500 in the league.

In their place are North Carolina, NC State and Duke, Triangle teams that have resided in or near the top 10 all season and are the top seeds in three of the tourney’s four pods — Clemson tops the fourth pod. It’s the first time that three teams from the state are in the top four seeds since 1991.

“All you have to do is look at the national rankings and the RPI,” said Georgia Tech coach Danny Hall. “That top 10 is loaded with ACC teams. The national perception is that the league is down, but there’s a lot of teams at a little bit under that .500 mark. Every team from one through 12 has a couple good starters and a couple good relievers. I think our league is as good as it has been and probably deeper than it ever has been.”

So, have the top teams fallen back to the pack, or has the rest of the league caught up to them? That’s a question that the NCAA Tournament will help sort out, starting next week. For the time being, however, the leaguewide parity ensures a wild week at DBAP.

“If you gave me six teams to pick, I could very easily lose,” said FSU coach Mike Martin, “because somebody else would win it. Any of 12 teams can win this thing.”

“Any time the bottom half catches up to the top half, it makes for a great league,” said Louisville coach Dan McDonnell.

Here’s a look at the four pods and what to expect this week:

North Carolina (37-17, 22-8 ACC, top seed)

Mike Fox’s Tar Heels hit a late-season skid, losing to Coastal Carolina and dropping a series against Duke. The Heels appear to have righted the ship against Virginia Tech, however.

“We lost to some good teams,” Fox said. “The ball didn’t bounce our way. We didn’t get the big hit, didn’t get it done out of the bullpen. But the tournament is a different animal — everybody plays at a high level. We’re a better team when we feel like people are doubting us. We play with a little bit of an edge. Maybe we came out of the exam period and lost a little bit of that. Maybe we got it back last weekend.”

The Heels will need to get past No. 8 Georgia Tech and No. 12 Pitt to advance to the semifinals.

UNC should get a boost from the return of ace starting pitcher Luca Dalatri, who missed 12 weeks with an injury before returning to the mound last weekend.

Clemson (43-13, 22-8, No. 2 seed)

The only pod with no in-state representative will have Clemson battle No. 7 Miami and No. 11 Notre Dame. Miami enters what will be retiring coach Jim Morris’ final postseason on a 10-game win streak. “Your goal as a coach is to be hot entering the postseason,” he said. “We look a lot better than we did two weeks ago.”

NC State (40-14, 19-11, No. 3 seed)

Elliott Avent’s Wolfpack drew the big names, in UVA and FSU. The pool play rematch with the Seminoles will give the Pack a chance to avenge a tough series loss to close the regular season. State lost back-to-back walk-off heartbreakers. “That series was about as good as it gets,” said FSU’s Martin. “It was extremely exciting — a great way to spend a weekend watching very good college baseball.”

“They’re fresh on my mind,” Avent said of the Noles. “We just got through playing them. They’re just as hot as they can be right now. Good teams are good teams, but good teams on a roll present quite a problem.”

Duke (39-14, 18-11 No. 4 seed)

Chris Pollard’s pod includes No. 5 Louisville and No. 9 Wake Forest and is a microcosm of the league.

“It looks like the toughest pool to me, on paper,” said Wake coach Tom Walter. “The four-five-nine pool is always tough because there’s no difference between one through five.”

Wake and Louisville are both very young and appear to have jelled as the season went on, while Duke has had one of the best seasons in school history.

“I’m proud of our club,” Pollard said. “We had what is in a lot of ways an historic season. We played some of our best baseball down the stretch.”