Image credit: Virginia lefthander Andrew Abbott (Photo courtesy of Virginia)
ACC Continues Unpredictable Season
No major conference has this season been more unpredictable than the ACC. The wildness began in February, as it began conference play with a slew of upsets on the second weekend of the season.
Now, as the regular season winds down, the conference is as unpredictable as ever. The conference’s teams can all be linked to each other through the transitive property in one giant wheel of destiny or chaos, depending on your viewpoint.
That wheel will finally come to a halt after next weekend, with the end of the conference’s 12-week, 36-game schedule. But it wouldn’t be the 2021 ACC season if not for a few final surprises. So, after an eventful weekend around the conference, let’s break down some of the biggest developments.
The ACC Will Produce At Most Two Regional Hosts
Before the weekend’s action began, the selection committee gave the ACC bad news. Unlike normally, when host sites for regionals are announced the day before the NCAA Tournament bracket is released, the committee this year had to announce a shortlist of 20 potential host sites for regionals a few weeks in advance of Selection Monday to allow for each host school to set up a coronavirus testing site.
The committee’s shortlist was announced Friday at noon and there were only two ACC schools on it—Notre Dame and Pittsburgh. Any part of that news—that Notre Dame and Pitt might host regionals, that the ACC would have at most two regional hosts, that regional hosts would be announced in mid May—would have been unbelievable in the buildup to the season (Well, maybe not the altered host site selection process. The pandemic forced every sport to alter its postseason in some way).
But it has been apparent that the ACC collectively has an RPI problem for weeks. Notre Dame (26-10, 22-10) is the lone team from the conference that ranks in the top 20 of the metric and most of the conference’s teams are jammed together in the 40s. The changes the ACC made to its schedule to accommodate playing through the pandemic—a 12-week conference season, 36 conference games, 50 games maximum—haven’t helped it. Neither has subpar non-conference play and scheduling.
Whatever the reason, this is where the ACC is. The selection committee did not cut it much, if any, slack for its RPI woes and now it will host at most two regionals—its lowest total since 2001.
And two home regionals is far from guaranteed. Notre Dame can plan on hosting a regional at Frank Eck Stadium, but Pittsburgh (22-16, 16-14) is no lock. The Panthers already were near the bubble going into the weekend and they responded to the news by getting swept at home by North Carolina State. Pitt has lost five of seven games since returning from a two-week pause due to Covid-19 issues. Its RPI has slid to No. 41 and its .533 ACC winning percentage ranks sixth in the conference. No part of that says host.
Pitt this weekend plays at Wake Forest, which has already been eliminated from the ACC Tournament race. Nothing short of a sweep will do for the Panthers and a solid showing in the ACC Tournament would be helpful.
There is, however, a chance that Pitt could host a regional as a No. 2 seed. That used to be a more common practice but hasn’t been used by the selection committee since 2010. Bringing it back this year might be useful, however. Pitt would give the committee a geographically advantageous host—Pittsburgh sits on the border of the Midwest and Northeast and the only other school on the shortlist in those areas is Notre Dame—and be a comfortable landing spot for a traveling one-seed, which the selection committee might need. Old Dominion (36-14) was not on the selection committee’s potential host list but ranks in the top 20 in RPI and will be a strong contender in next week’s Conference USA Tournament. Oklahoma State (30-16-1) also wasn’t chosen as a potential host, but also has a top-20 RPI and the Cowboys have a history of playing well in the Big 12 Tournament under Josh Holiday.
Even During Finals Break, Notre Dame Wins
Notre Dame was off this weekend due to its finals break, but even that couldn’t halt its momentum. Due to results around the conference, the Fighting Irish clinched the conference title, their first since joining the ACC in 2014.
The Fighting Irish last won a regular-season conference title in 2006, when they were members of the Big East. They’ve already won 22 ACC games, their most conference wins since 2001. They’ll aim to add to that total next weekend at Virginia Tech.
While I picked Notre Dame as my preseason Omaha Sleeper, it’s safe to say no one saw this coming from the Irish. They were picked last in the Atlantic Division in the preseason ACC coaches’ poll and if I through they would win 22 ACC games, they would have ranked in the Preseason Top 25.
Instead, a veteran pitching staff, a deep lineup, an elite defense and a few stars have led Notre Dame to the top of the conference. Coach Link Jarrett, in his second year in South Bend, has the Irish playing like the #OmaIrish.
NC State, Virginia Have Dug Out Of Deep Holes
While Notre Dame and Pitt have been two of the season’s best surprises, for a time in the first half of the season NC State and Virginia were two of the biggest disappointments. The Wolfpack started the season 1-8 in ACC play and missed a weekend due to Covid-19 issues. The Cavaliers lost their first five ACC series, going 4-11.
Now, however, both NC State and Virginia look to be on the way to the NCAA Tournament. The Wolfpack (26-14, 17-13) this weekend swept Pitt on the road and the Cavaliers (25-21, 16-17) swept Wake Forest.
NC State has won 10 of its last 11 games and is streaking into its regular-season finale against Florida State. The No. 3 seed in the ACC Tournament is on the line in that showdown.
UVa has won eight of its last 11 games and three straight ACC series. It may not be totally over the hump yet—while 16 ACC wins would put a team squarely in the NCAA Tournament in a normal year, it probably needs a series win this weekend against Boston College to finish the job. But with BC already eliminated from the ACC Tournament and UVa playing as well as it is, that should be a manageable result.
The Cavaliers on Friday delivered perhaps the most impressive result of the weekend when they beat the Demon Deacons, 17-0, and threw a no-hitter. Lefthander Andrew Abbott, making likely his final appearance at Disharoon Park, struck out 16 batters in 7.1 hitless innings to carry the bulk of the load in the no-hitter.
While NC State and UVa don’t have standout overall records, no team will be happy to draw them in regionals.
Louisville’s Up-And-Down Season Continues
Louisville has been perennially one of the ACC’s powerhouses since it joined the conference in 2015. But it has never been able to get on track this season, undone in part by injuries.
The Cardinals (26-18, 16-13) are coming off their worst weekend in years. First, on Friday, their hopes of hosting a regional were dashed. Then, they were swept at North Carolina (24-22, 17-16) and outscored 20-6 in the series.
Louisville has lost its last six road games, swept at both Clemson and UNC. After not getting swept for a decade, the Cardinals have now been swept twice in three weeks.
The Cardinals this week return to the friendly confines of Jim Patterson Stadium, where they are this year 18-6, for games against South Carolina-Upstate and Miami. They’ll need to find a way to get right before the postseason begins and they’ll then need to find an answer for playing away from home. Louisville this season is just 8-12 on the road.
La Salle, Playing Its Final Season, Sets Program Wins Record
For La Salle, Sunday should have been a day of unbridled celebration. The Explorers defeated Fordham, 9-5, to improve to 32-17, setting the program record for wins. A program that won just 10 games four years ago and in each of the last three Atlantic 10 Conference seasons had gone 4-20 in conference play is streaking toward a division title.
But nothing is quite that simple this year for the Explorers. La Salle in September announced it would eliminate seven sports, including baseball, at the end of the school year. The Explorers would get a final season on the diamond, but the end of it would also mark the end of a program that has been playing since 1947.
And so, with every game, the end comes closer for the Explorers. The wins are to be celebrated, but what comes after the season is never far from their minds.
Coach David Miller has worked to get his team to embrace an attitude where every game is a Game 7 because there’s no reason not to put everything on the line this year. He knew that message had gotten through a month ago when La Salle swept a series at Massachusetts. He expected the bus ride back to Philadelphia to be a raucous one as the Explorers celebrated a sweep in conference play. Instead, about 15 minutes into the ride, Miller looked around and realized the whole team was asleep.
“They were just so mentally and physically exhausted that they just wanted to go to bed,” Miller said. “That’s when I knew the team understood what they were playing for. When we lose, our bus rides are quiet. When we win, our bus rides our quiet.”
On Sunday, the Explorers had a happy, quiet bus ride back from the Bronx. They had beaten the preseason division favorites and were coming home in first place. They had broken a program record that had stood since 1985, the last time they advanced to the NCAA Tournament. They are one win away from qualifying for the A-10 Tournament for the first time since 2013.
But the Explorers aren’t done yet. They this weekend face crosstown rival St. Joseph’s beginning Thursday in their regular-season finale and provided they don’t get swept (or if Rhode Island splits its series at UMass), they’ll have postseason baseball to play.
“They understand when we got on the bus tonight, go home and enjoy it,” Miller said. “But when we get on the field tomorrow, you know what you have to do to prepare for Thursday. These kids have earned nothing yet. Right now, we have 32 wins and that’s great.
“That’s the other best part about what they bring to the table. They’ve taken 32 wins and buried it.”
La Salle is not the most talented team and it hasn’t played a murderer’s row of opponents (its strength of schedule ranks 289th nationally), but it knows what it needs to do to win and has executed that plan well all season long. The offense is led by catcher Tatem Levins (.326/.423/.527, 7 HR) and first baseman Ryan Guckin (.333/.390/.585, 5 HR). Center fielder Jack Cucinotta (.222/.381/.392, 6 HR, 27 SB) brings dynamism to the top of the lineup. The Explorers have a strong 1-2 punch atop their rotation in veteran Colin Scanlon (7-2, 3.05) and freshman Frank Elissalt (6-3, 3.41).
“We have a bunch of hungry kids,” Miller said. “They have a bit of attitude on the field but they’re probably the nicest group of kids off the field. They just have it. They have the it factor.”
The Explorers have also been galvanized by the school’s decision to cut the program. Instead of allowing the news to fracture them last fall, they have banded together to play for each other. Behind the scenes, alumni worked to raise money to save the program. While fundraising efforts were enough to save men’s swimming, thanks in part to its shared facility and staff with the women’s swimming team, baseball’s bid fell on deaf ears in the administration.
Through it all, the Explorers kept working and now have made history.
“The kids know the only thing they can control is how hard they play,” Miller said. “Every game is the 7th game of the World Series because every game matters, every pitch matters.”
A fairy tale season is being authored at La Salle. It isn’t the kind that ends with a neat, tidy happy ending. No, it’s a fairy tale in a true Brothers Grimm sense, warts and all. For now, however, the Explorers can enjoy their turn as Cinderella and try to push back the stroke of midnight as long as possible.
Eight for Omaha
Arizona, Arkansas, Mississippi State, Notre Dame, Oregon, Tennessee, Texas, Vanderbilt
Last week, I was asked by a radio host how chaotic I expected the NCAA Tournament to be. This year’s men’s basketball tournament produced the most upsets of any tournament in history. Could baseball follow in those footsteps or will June play out more to chalk? If what we’re seeing as college baseball comes down the stretch is any indication, buckle up for a wild NCAA Tournament.
Over the last three weeks, every team in this projected College World Series field has taken a series loss except Arkansas. Tennessee maybe should also be excepted, as its lone series loss in that time is against Arkansas. But everyone else has been upset. Some have been more surprising (Missouri beating Mississippi State in Starkville) than others (Arizona losing to Stanford on the road).
I’ve stuck with largely the same field over the last few weeks, but maybe I’m being too conventional. Maybe we’ll see Louisiana Tech or UC Irvine or La Salle in Omaha. For now, I’ll project a more staid field, however. Oregon is the lone new entrant in the field, replacing Texas Christian, which lost a home series to Louisiana-Monroe. While the Horned Frogs are still on track to host and in the driver’s seat for the Big 12 title, it’s getting harder to trust them to produce back-to-back strong weekends. The Ducks, meanwhile, have impressive pitching depth, led by starters Robert Ahlstrom (6-3, 2.20) and Cullen Kafka (5-2, 2.45) and closer Kolby Somers (1-0, 1.17, 9 SV) and a deep offense.
Bryant: For the ninth straight season, Bryant is the Northeast Conference regular-season champion. The Bulldogs (24-12-1, 20-4) clinched the regular-season title Sunday with a 7-5 victory at Wagner. They have won all eight NEC series and lead the conference in ERA (3.43) and scoring (7.49 runs per game).
Charlotte: The 49ers (37-16, 24-8) won the Conference USA regular-season title for the first time in program history with a 6-4 victory Saturday. Charlotte was a charter member of CUSA and was a part of the conference from 1995-2005 and returned to the conference in 2014. In between, it won five Atlantic 10 Conference titles, and this is its first conference title since 2013. The 49ers’ clinching victory came a day after the NCAA announced they were on the shortlist to host regionals and Saturday’s clincher only improves their chances for that.
Eli Davis, LHP, Kansas: Davis threw a no-hitter Friday against Kansas State in a 10-0 victory that was shortened to seven innings by run rule. He struck out four batters, walked two and faced just two batters more than the minimum. The Jayhawks swept a doubleheader against their in-state rivals, outscoring the Wildcats, 12-0, on the day. Davis is 6-5, 5.10 with 59 strikeouts in 65.1 innings this season.
North Carolina Central: The Eagles, like La Salle, will be eliminated at the end of the season, but are making the most of their final year. NC Central (25-18, 17-11) this weekend swept Florida A&M to win the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference’s South Division for the first time in program history. The South Division is the stronger of the MEAC’s two divisions and the Eagles have to be considered the favorites going into the conference tournament.
Paul Skenes, C/RHP, Air Force: Skenes has been one of the most impressive freshmen this season as he has pulled the difficult double of catcher and closer for the Falcons. But this weekend he took his game to another level as Air Force swept San Jose State. Skenes went 9-for-11 with two home runs, two doubles, six walks and eight runs in the four-game series. He also saved the wins Friday and Sunday, holding the Spartans to one run in 2.2 innings of the two appearances. On the season, Skenes is hitting .387/.463/.663 with 10 home runs and is 1-0, 1.99 with 10 saves in 15 appearances on the mound.
The Big 12 title is on the line as No. 14 Texas Christian visits Kansas State and No. 4 Texas hosts West Virginia. TCU (35-14, 16-5) goes into the final weekend with a one-game lead on Texas (38-12, 15-6) in the Big 12 standings. While the Longhorns own the tiebreaker after last weekend winning the series in Fort Worth, they will still have to this weekend get a better result than the Horned Frogs to claim their second title in three seasons. TCU is aiming for its first title since 2017.
No. 1 Arkansas hosts No. 8 Florida in another blockbuster showdown. The Razorbacks have already played six weekends against teams currently ranked in the Top 25. They’ve gone 14-4 in those games, all of which have come away from Baum-Walker Stadium. Arkansas (39-10, 19-8) faces another premium opponent this weekend, as Florida (35-16, 17-10) comes to Fayetteville to conclude the regular season. The Razorbacks hold a one-game edge on Tennessee in the SEC title race and their magic number to clinch their first championship since 2004 is two.
No. 17 Stanford visits No. 13 Oregon for critical series. The Cardinal (28-12, 13-8) this weekend fell off the pace in the Pac-12 title race when they dropped a rivalry series at California, and now are a few games behind No. 9 Arizona (35-13, 19-8) and Oregon (33-11, 17-7). Still, this series is a pivotal one for the championship. The winner will remain in the race with the Wildcats, while the loser will likely be eliminated.