Luke DeCock

New ACC baseball format unsatisfactory, yet unavoidable – DeCock

Hundreds of North Carolina and N.C. State fans wait to enter the Durham Bulls Athletic Park on May 25, 2013 to watch the two Triangle schools face off during the ACC Baseball Championship at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park.
Hundreds of North Carolina and N.C. State fans wait to enter the Durham Bulls Athletic Park on May 25, 2013 to watch the two Triangle schools face off during the ACC Baseball Championship at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park. rwillett@newsobserver.com

The ACC baseball tournament begins Tuesday morning with a new home (Louisville, Ky., instead of Durham, thanks to House Bill 2) and a new 12-team, pool-play format, the latest Frankenstein progeny of the coaches’ conflicting desires for both inclusion and predictability.

On the one hand, the ACC wants to get as many teams as possible in the field, to avoid a repeat of last year when North Carolina was excluded from the NCAA tournament in part because it finished 11th in the ACC at a time when only 10 teams made the conference tournament (and two of those went home the first day). This year, the field grew to 12.

On the other, college coaches are paranoid about burning arms ahead of the NCAA tournament, which is why the ACC moved away from a double-elimination format in 2007. Coaches want to know ahead of time when and how often they’ll be playing, which is why pool play is preferred these days, even if its impossible to break ties in any rational way.

There’s no way to check both boxes and still have a meaningful tournament where everyone enters with an equal chance to win, so those opposing aims led to this year’s awkward 12-team format, with four three-team pools playing 12 games spread out over four days before semifinals Saturday and the championship Sunday. With each team playing only two games with seeding as the tiebreaker, anyone but the top seeds is automatically eliminated after its first loss. That makes it single elimination for the two lower-seeded teams in each pool and, essentially, double elimination for the top seed.

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Duke’s Peter Zyla fields a fly-ball against Wake Forest in the ACC Baseball tournament in 2016. Chuck Liddy cliddy@newsobserver.com

N.C. State has two full days off between its opening game (Tuesday against Boston College) and its second game (Friday night against North Carolina, a game that would have drawn five digits at the DBAP), but that wait will be excruciating if the Wolfpack loses to the Eagles, because the winner of Wednesday’s game between BC and UNC would advance regardless of what happens Friday. The same thing would happen to Clemson with a loss to Duke on Tuesday.

There are no easy solutions here, as long as preservation (of NCAA hopes and arms) is the priority, but the current format essentially railroads the top seeds into the weekend, defeating the point of getting four extra teams into the field. The tournament begins with four days of largely exhibition play – four of the final five games of the tournament this year could potentially all be meaningless, depending on earlier results – followed by three games that truly matter.

At the same time, it’s hard to suggest a better format than this that that is both inclusive, equitable and predictable. You could play a 12-team single-elimination tournament in five days, but no one wants that. Double elimination is the traditional format for the baseball postseason, but takes too long and burns too many arms – and the field would have to be slashed to make it work. (Even a combo – two rounds of single elimination followed by double elimination starting in the semifinals would take as many as 15 games spread over seven days, with eight teams playing only one or two games and one perhaps playing as many as seven.)

The new format probably won’t matter in Louisville, where novelty will play a factor in the single-year attendance and interest in the tournament, but it’ll be interesting to see whether midweek attention wanes next year in Durham – especially if North Carolina and N.C. State aren’t playing in the pool-play finale again.

As long as the ACC remains focused on conflicting goals – a maximum number of teams and a minimum number of games – the tournament is going to be less a determinant of a true champion and more of a baseball exhibition with a championship weekend at the end.

Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, @LukeDeCock

ACC tournament seeds

Pool A

1. Louisville (23-6 ACC)

8. Florida State (14-14)

12. Notre Dame (10-20)

Pool B

2. UNC (23-7)

7. N.C. State (16-14)

11. Boston College (11-19)

Pool C

3. Wake Forest (19-11)

6. Miami (16-13)

10. Georgia Tech (11-19)

Pool D

4. Virginia (18-12)

5. Clemson (17-13)

9. Duke (12-18)

ACC tournament schedule

Note: All games, except championship game, will be televised by Fox Sports Carolinas

Tuesday’s games

Miami vs. Georgia Tech, 11 a.m.

N.C. State vs. Boston College, 3 p.m.

Clemson vs. Duke, 7 p.m.

Wednesday’s games

Florida State vs. Notre Dame, 11 a.m.

Boston College vs. UNC, 3 p.m.

Georgia Tech vs. Wake Forest, 7 p.m.

Thursday’s games

Duke vs. Virginia, 11 a.m.

Wake Forest vs. Miami, 3 p.m.

Notre Dame vs. Louisville, 7 p.m.

Friday’s games

Virginia vs. Clemson, 11 a.m.

Louisville vs. Florida State, 3 p.m.

UNC vs. N.C. State, 7 p.m.

Saturday’s games

Pool A winner vs. Pool D winner, 1 p.m.

Pool B winner vs. Pool C winner, 5 p.m.

Sunday’s championship

Semifinal winners, noon (ESPN2)

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