Off The Bat: Conference Tournament Week Provides Thrills Around The Country

1. It’s unusual that I think the selection committee botched the host sites in a real way. There’s often a team that you feel like got snubbed—think Oklahoma last year—but that’s just kind of the way things work. There’s always a team that’s just on the wrong side of the dividing line, whether we’re talking top-eight seeds, hosts or the tournament bubble. Year after year, however, I come away thinking the committee pretty much got the right hosts.

This year feels different. When the selection committee on Sunday released the 16 host sites, I was genuinely disappointed by the decision not to put a regional in Boston. The Eagles have a hosting-worthy resume. They’re 35-18, went 17-15 against ACC competition, rank 18th in RPI, went 18-9 in true road games, went 7-9 vs. Top 25 opponents (more T25 wins than six of the hosts) and 13-14 against top-50 opponents (as many or more than four hosts).

It’s not a top-eight resume and if this were any other ACC team (with the possible exception of Notre Dame), I wouldn’t be writing this. Someone has to get snubbed, after all.

But this is BC. This is a team that didn’t play a home game until March 22 and played 32 of its 59 games (60.4%) away from home. This was an opportunity to put a regional in the Northeast, where there hasn’t been an NCAA Tournament game since 2010. And this was an opportunity to do it without forcing it, which the selection committee did in 2010, when it sent Florida State on the road to Norwich, Conn., as a traveling No. 1 seed.

It’s not the selection committee’s job to grow the game or help the sport establish stronger ties in areas of the country outside its traditional hotbeds. But it is within the selection committee’s directions to “place regional tournaments so that the maximum national balance can be obtained.”

A Boston Regional could have reasonably been top-seeded and host BC, No. 2 Connecticut, No. 3 Northeastern and pick a No. 4 seed from Army, Central Connecticut State and Maine. That regional would have meant something special to the players and fans and helped bring new people to college baseball. There’s truly nothing like postseason baseball for bringing new people into the game.

This is a missed opportunity. BC and UConn (which nearly had a hosting-caliber resume itself) will be back in the hosting mix sooner than later, but you never know when. The selection committee could have created a special atmosphere, one that would have helped expand the game’s popularity. Instead, those teams will all get on planes this week and head South and West. It’s nothing the players aren’t used to—they did it all February and March.

2. Two weeks ago, Vanderbilt was swept at Florida. It was the second straight series loss for the Commodores, who were in the midst of a stretch that saw them lose six times in eight games.

On Sunday, Vanderbilt won the SEC Tournament, defeating Texas A&M, 10-4. The Commodores went 4-1 in Hoover and scored 30 runs over the final three games as they fought out of the loser’s bracket to claim the title.

It wasn’t the cleanest tournament run you’ll find. Vanderbilt had to gut it out through a couple of the games and dig deep into its pitching staff with lefthanders Ryan Ginther and Carter Holton still out injured and Hunter Owen making his first start in three weeks. But Vanderbilt found a way and enough pitching.

The biggest development was probably Owen’s return, as he threw three innings Thursday against Florida. He gave up one run on two hits and a walk and struck out five, throwing 43 pitches. Having him available during the NCAA Tournament is critical, especially with Holton’s status still uncertain. A 1-2 punch of lefthander Devin Futrell (7-3, 3.55) and Owen (4-0, 3.15) would be formidable.

But it was also encouraging to see other pitchers step up for the Commodores. At some point during the NCAA Tournament, if Vanderbilt is to make a run at a national championship, it will need somebody beyond Futrell, Owen and closer Nick Maldonado (1-1, 1.45, 8 SV) to step up. Sam Hliboki, Patrick Reilly and Thomas Schultz all did a good job of that at the SEC Tournament. If that carries over into the NCAA Tournament, Vanderbilt’s pitching staff starts to look a lot better, regardless of its health concerns.

3. Clemson stayed scorching hot as it swept through the ACC Tournament, beating Miami in Sunday’s championship game. The Tigers (43-17) have won 16 straight games going into the NCAA Tournament, the third-longest streak in the country this season (although it’s only the second longest active streak; Oral Roberts has won 18 straight).

Clemson this week outscored its opponents—Virginia Tech, Boston College, North Carolina and Miami—39-15. It trailed briefly in the championship game against Miami, falling behind, 5-3, in the fifth inning. That lasted until the bottom of the seventh, when the Tigers put up eight runs to break the game open and win the ACC Tournament for the first time since 2016.

Clemson’s rise in the second half has been remarkable. The Tigers, who were 16-13 on April 2, now seemingly can’t lose. They were 35-23 a year ago, on the wrong side of the NCAA Tournament bubble. Now, they’ll begin regionals as legitimate national championship contenders in their first season under coach Erik Bakich.

4. Oregon went through a swoon in the first half of May, losing eight of nine games at one point. It recovered last weekend in time to win a series at Utah and then found another gear this week in the Pac-12 Tournament.

The Ducks swept through the event, beating Arizona, 5-4, in the championship game. Jacob Walsh gave Oregon the lead for good in the title game with his 14th homer of the season and Matt Dallas closed the door, getting Chase Davis, the tournament MVP, to fly out to end the game.

Oregon is still piecing things together on the mound, as it continues to be without ace Jace Stoffal. Its bullpen held opponents to three runs in 24.1 innings over the four games and freshman Turner Spoljaric delivered a quality start in the championship game, a strong rebound from a start earlier in the tournament when he lasted just one inning and gave up six runs.

If the Ducks and pitching coach Jake Angier can keep finding the right moves out of the bullpen, Oregon could be feisty in regionals. The Ducks haven’t played terribly well on the road, but perhaps this week was a turning point in that regard.

5. TCU on Sunday night won the Big 12 Tournament for the second time in three years, beating Oklahoma State in the final. The Horned Frogs bookended their season with big weekends at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas, as they started the year with big wins against Vanderbilt and Arkansas in the venue before sweeping through the conference tournament.

In between, things weren’t always as smooth for TCU. But the Horned Frogs will enter the NCAA Tournament on a six-game winning streak and are 14-2 since the calendar flipped to May. So, what’s changed? TCU’s offense has found its stride. The Horned Frogs are averaging 8.75 runs per game in May, up from 7.47 entering the month. They’ve also gotten some solid pitching over the last month. Freshmen Kole Klecker and Louis Rodriguez have been strong as starters and the Frogs are finding their way in the bullpen.

If TCU can carry its momentum into the NCAA Tournament, it looks like a tough out.

6. One of the stories of the NCAA Tournament is going to be Tulane, which is 19-40 but won the American Athletic Conference Tournament to advance to regionals. The Green Wave’s 40 losses are the most entering the NCAA Tournament of any team in the super regional era (beginning in 1999), surpassing 2011 New Mexico’s 39. With a .322 winning percentage, however, Tulane is ahead of 2014 Youngstown State, which was 16-36 (.308).

I’m generally not a big believer in conference tournaments. If we’re talking about the SEC, and you’re packing crowds in and making money off the event, I say do it. If you’re not doing that, maybe bring four teams in and play a double-elimination tournament or pit the top two seeds in a three-game series. I want the best teams from every conference in the NCAA Tournament and big conference tournaments don’t do enough to protect the regular season champion.

That said, what happened this week in Clearwater, Fla., is the advantage to a big, open conference tournament. Tulane, which had won consecutive games just once during the regular season, had a chance to press reset on its season and it took full advantage of the opportunity. Now, the Green Wave, in their first season under coach Jay Uhlman, are going to regionals for the first time since 2016. It’s the magic of conference tournament week.

7. Charlotte flew under the radar most of this season, in part because it started 6-10 and was 24-25 on May 13. Since then, however, the 49ers have caught fire. They won four straight games to end the regular season and then, after losing to Louisiana Tech in the Conference USA Tournament opener, ran off five straight wins to come through the loser’s bracket and beat Dallas Baptist for the tournament title. Charlotte is now going to the NCAA Tournament for the second time in three seasons after not making it for a decade before 2021.

Charlotte’s C-USA Tournament title was the program’s first and it comes in its final season in the conference. Next season, the 49ers will join the American, but on its way out, Charlotte made history thanks in large part to outfielder Cam Fisher. He was named tournament MVP after hitting six home runs in the event.

Fisher is now hitting .352/.509/.831 with 30 home runs and eight stolen bases. His 30 home runs lead the nation, as he last week passed Brock Wilken, Charlie Condon, Shane Lewis and Jac Caglianone to climb to the top of the leaderboard.

8. One of the unfortunate realities of conference tournaments is the way the weather can and usually does impact the schedule. No one got it worse this week than Samford at the Southern Conference Tournament.

Forecasted bad weather on Sunday led the tournament to rework the schedule to conclude the event Saturday. That meant that Samford, the regular season champion, which was coming through the loser’s bracket, would have to win three games Saturday to win the tournament and advance to the NCAA Tournament.

It was a heavy ask for the Bulldogs, but they did it. They beat UNC Greensboro, 9-5, in a game that started at 8 a.m. in Greenville, S.C. Samford then had to beat Wofford twice to claim the conference championship. It beat the Terriers, 7-2, in the first game and completed the sweep with a 5-2 victory.

Samford now advances to the NCAA Tournament for the third time in five seasons and the first under coach Tony David, who took over the program from Casey Dunn after the 2021 season.

9. Rich Maloney has been the coach at Ball State for 18 seasons over two stints sandwiched around 10 years at Michigan. In that time, he’s led the Cardinals to a 613-377-1 record and five regular season Mid-American Conference titles. He’s coached a No. 1 overall pick in Bryan Bullington, had five other players drafted in the first round and is the program’s winningest coach. At Michigan, he led the Wolverines to regionals four times and a super regional once.

But, for all that success, Maloney had never led Ball State to the NCAA Tournament. His Cardinals had finished as MAC Tournament runners-up seven times and in 2021, when there was no conference tournament, they were one of the first four teams out of the NCAA Tournament.

That changed Saturday. Ball State defeated Kent State, 12-9, in dramatic fashion to win the MAC Tournament. Playing at Kent State, the Cardinals took an early lead and were up, 8-2, at the seventh-inning stretch. But the Golden Flashes scored five runs in the seventh and two more in the eighth to take a 9-8 lead into the ninth inning. They were one out away from forcing a decisive second championship game when Adam Tellier launched a grand slam to give Ball State a 12-9 lead. Kent State didn’t go quietly in the bottom of the inning and got the tying run to the plate, but it wasn’t enough. Ball State held on for the win and the Cardinals are going to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2006.

10. While its season ended a week ago, UC San Diego made history this weekend. The Tritons were crowned outright Big West champions when Cal State Fullerton lost to Cal Poly on the final day of the season. UCSD (34-18, 21-9) finished one game ahead of Fullerton and Cal State Northridge in the standings.

The championship is UCSD’s first Big West title in school history. The Tritons are in their third season as a member of Division I and have quickly found their stride on the diamond.

While UCSD is the conference champion, it is not postseason bound. The NCAA requires a four-year reclassification period for all schools moving up to Division I and during that time its programs are not eligible for the NCAA Tournament, meaning UCSD won’t be postseason eligible for baseball until 2025.

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