Titles For Tennessee, Duke Highlight College Baseball’s Conference Tournament Week (Off The Bat)


Image credit: (Photo by Brian Westerholt/Four Seam Images)

Conference tournament week is annually one of the best weeks of the season and it delivered again this year, with thrilling games all week, around the country.

Here are 10 takeaways from the week that was in college baseball.

1. Tennessee on Wednesday got punched in the face at the SEC Tournament. After getting a first-round bye, the Volunteers matched up with Vanderbilt and lost, 13-4, to open their stay in Hoover.

They could have pretty well packed it in from there. Tennessee came to the SEC Tournament as the No. 1 team in the country, the SEC regular-season champion and just about locked into a top-eight seed in the NCAA Tournament. They didn’t have anything to prove.

But Tennessee bounced back and went to work anyway. It beat Texas A&M, 7-4, and Mississippi State, 6-5, in elimination games to advance to the semifinals. There, it beat Vanderbilt, 6-4, to advance to the final against LSU. And against the hottest team in the country, Tennessee edged LSU, 4-3, to win the SEC Tournament for the second time in three years.

“I think kind of what we were able to overcome in this tournament, which you have to do every year to win it, tells you a lot about yourself,” coach Tony Vitello said. “It should build some confidence.”

With the SEC Tournament run, Tennessee (50-11) locked up the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament. It doubled up on SEC championships, leads the nation in wins and ranks first in RPI. The Volunteers have long looked like the most complete team in the country, now they also have the most complete resume in the country.

The No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament has not won the national championship since 1999, a history which is well documented at this point. And no one needs to tell it to anyone in Knoxville – they got the only history lesson they’ll ever need on the subject in 2022 when Notre Dame upset the top-seeded Volunteers in the Knoxville Super Regional – but these Volunteers aren’t going to be bothered by history. This is a team that’s playing well and has what it needs to compete for a national championship. They deserve to be the favorites in the NCAA Tournament.

2. LSU started the week as a team that appeared to be on the NCAA Tournament bubble. It had finished SEC play at 13-17 and its RPI was 30. It went into Tuesday’s first-round, single-elimination game against Georgia with some real urgency. If it lost that game, it was staring at a long, nerve-wracking week.

Instead, LSU had one of the best weeks of its season. It beat Georgia, 9-1, and then shelled Kentucky, 11-0, on Wednesday. Those wins removed any doubt about its NCAA Tournament status, but it wasn’t slowing down. It twice erased late deficits to win one-run games against South Carolina, on Thursday scoring four runs in the final two innings for an 11-10 victory and, in Saturday’s semifinals, wiping away an 8-0 deficit to ultimately win, 12-11, in 10 innings in one of the most unhinged games in SEC Tournament history. LSU mounted another comeback attempt in Sunday’s final, but fell one run short agains Tennessee in a 4-3 loss.

The Tigers (40-21) are playing their best baseball of the season at the perfect time. Lefthander Gage Jump and righthander Luke Holman are looking like the formidable 1-2 punch they were expected to be coming into the year. Lefthander Griffin Herring is pitching like an elite bullpen option. Sluggers Tommy White and Jared Jones anchor a lineup that is coming into its own and has built some real depth.

It’s incredible to think that just six weeks ago, LSU was 3-12 in SEC play. Bad results have a habit of snowballing on teams in the SEC and most teams – even the good ones – would go into a death spiral at that point, regardless of whether the schedule eased or not. But the Tigers pulled out of it, which is a major credit to Jay Johnson, his staff and the player leadership. Because the Tigers didn’t give in, they’re now in a position to make another run at the College World Series.

3. Duke struggled down the stretch. It lost its final three ACC series, falling to sixth in the conference standings. But once the Blue Devils arrived in Charlotte, they were ready to go.

Duke took care of business against Virginia Tech and then rolled past NC State, 8-1, in the de facto pool championship game. The Blue Devils advance to the semifinals, where they broke the game open late against Miami in an 8-2 victory. In Sunday’s final against Florida State, they left no doubt, winning, 16-4.

Duke (39-18) has won two of the last four ACC Tournament titles. That success follows a 70-year drought, as the Blue Devils previous conference tournament championship came in 1951 when it was a part of the Southern Conference.

This week’s success pushed Duke’s RPI up to No. 16. That, combined with its trophy, seemed to give it a solid chance to host a regional. In the end, however, the selection committee did not pick the Blue Devils as a host. Their non-conference strength of schedule (234) was likely a big part of the reason why, but it still feels like a clear snub.

While Duke will now hit the road for regionals, its in a solid spot as the NCAA Tournament begins. Ace Jonathan Santucci this week threw a bullpen and looks like he’s on track to return in regionals after missing his last two starts. Bullpen ace Charlie Beilenson is rolling again. And Duke got its offense on track in Charlotte. It’s not a team any host will be excited to see pop up in their regional.

4. Arizona (36-21) is one of the best stories of the season that has gone far too overlooked. The Wildcats were picked eighth in the preseason Pac-12 coaches poll. They then started the season 10-13, including losing two of their first three conference series. Arizona got back on track with a sweep of UCLA at the end of March and hasn’t looked back.

The Wildcats won the Pac-12 regular season title and then doubled down, this week winning the conference tournament. They beat Stanford, 6-3, in the semifinals and then walked off with a 4-3 victory against Southern California in the championship game.

The selection committee then on Sunday rewarded Arizona with a home regional, despite its RPI of 31. That’s well beyond the usual range for a host, but Arizona made a pretty strong case for being the best team in the conference, even with its home series loss to Oregon State.

I don’t think anyone is truly going to have a problem with Arizona hosting and if the selection committee was looking for a place to show that it isn’t just using RPI as a crutch, it found a good spot. If this is a precedent setter moving forward, I don’t think coaches or fans will mind a deference being given to teams that win both regular-season and tournament championships, especially those that played high-end schedules (Arizona’s overall strength of schedule is 23 and its non-conference schedule rates as the hardest in the country).

5. Dallas Baptist swept through the Conference USA Tournament. The Patriots beat Louisiana Tech, the host and No. 1 seed, 17-10, in the final. In its first two years in CUSA, DBU has now won a regular-season title (2023) and a tournament title.

DBU (44-13) for me is the biggest hosting snub of the year. Yes, Duke and Mississippi State had solid cases. But the Blue Devils stumbled badly down the stretch to finish sixth in the ACC. Mississippi State lost five quad 4 games.

But DBU? What more were the Patriots supposed to do? They rank No. 17 in RPI. They won their conference tournament. They’re 9-2 in quad 1 games. They lost just two games outside the first two quadrants. They went 5-0 against regionals hosts (Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Arizona). Their KPI is 24, better than ECU, Arizona and UC Santa Barbara. They played a solid schedule (SOS 79, non-conference SOS 61). They went through a tough stretch in April, going 4-7 and losing three straight series. But they bounced back from that to finish 16-2.

If the selection committee comes out after the selection show and says that DBU failed the eye test, well, I guess I must accept that. We don’t have the Patriots ranked in the top 16 of the Top 25, after all. But the metrics are all there for DBU and I’d rather the committee lean on publicly known metrics rather than something as nebulous as the eye test.

6.  Oklahoma State stayed hot as it won the Big 12 Tournament. Since losing the first two games of their series at Texas in early May, the Cowboys have won nine of their last 10 games. They on Saturday beat Oklahoma, 9-3, in the tournament final.

Oklahoma State finished solidly behind Oklahoma in the Big 12 standings, but it is now 4-1 on the season against its rival. The Cowboys never trailed on Saturday, eliminating any drama from their last meeting as conference foes.

The Cowboys (40-17) have rounded into form as a pretty complete team. I know they haven’t gotten a lot of buzz, in part due to some inconsistencies in the first few months of the season, but this is a dangerous team in June. Nolan Schubart (.355/.510/.813, 20 HR) and Carson Benge (.342/.451/.680, 17 HR, 10 SB) pack a punch in the lineup, while Brian Holiday (6-3, 3.12), Sam Garcia (7-3, 3.27) and a deep bullpen head up the pitching staff. Oklahoma State has lost back-to-back home regionals, but if it can get over the hump, this is the kind of team that can make real noise in June.

7. Nebraska (39-20) did it the hard way this week in Omaha. The Huskers lost their opening-round game against Ohio State in the Big Ten Tournament, dropping them into the loser’s bracket. They then won five straight games to win the event, capping the run with a 2-1 victory against Penn State in the championship game. The tournament title was Nebraska’s first since 2005, when it was a member of the Big 12.

It’s a bit tough to get a read on Nebraska’s chances of producing an NCAA Tournament run. The Huskers have played a bunch of good teams, but not many great teams. How will they fare on the road against a No. 1 seed?

I’m eager to find out. The rotation, led by Brett Sears (9-0, 2.02) is strong and the bullpen has some solid depth. I’ve got more questions about the lineup and that’s where the draw might end up being important for Nebraska. Will it be able to keep up if it gets sent to a regional where the ball starts jumping? Josh Caron, who set a Big Ten Tournament record with six home runs in Omaha, is the only player on the team with double-digit home runs.

8. Penn State came up short in the Big Ten Tournament final, losing 2-1 to Nebraska. But what a last few weeks for the Nittany Lions (29-24).

Penn State won five of its last six Big Ten games, including sweeping Maryland in College Park on the final weekend of the regular season, just to make the Big Ten Tournament. The Nittany Lions carried that momentum into the tournament, as they swept through bracket play, including beating No. 1 seed Illinois, 8-4. They pushed Nebraska to the limit in the title game, falling in the ninth inning.

In coach Mike Gambino’s first season in Happy Valley, Penn State won more games than it had since 2012. It reached the Big Ten Tournament championship game for the first time since 2000 and he became the first coach to reach the title game in his first season since Minnesota’s John Anderson in 1982.

Penn State’s not going to be happy with just making the Big Ten Tournament championship game, it wants to win those games. But for Gambino’s first season, it was significant progress and something real to build on.

9. Southern Miss swept through the Sun Belt Tournament to win the championship for the second straight year. The Golden Eagles (41-18) beat Coastal Carolina, Troy and Appalachian State to reach the title game, where they scored five runs in the ninth to beat Georgia Southern, 14-11.

Southern Miss caught fire in May, going 13-1 in the month. First-year head coach Christian Ostrander has the Golden Eagles playing their best baseball of the season as they head into the NCAA Tournament, where they look like they’re going to be a very difficult out. Southern Miss has won back-to-back regionals, and it wouldn’t come as any surprise if it extends that streak this weekend.

10. Tarleton State battled through a difficult bracket to win the Western Athletic Conference Tournament. The tournament format protects the top two seeds, giving them double byes. Tarleton, meanwhile, was the No. 5 seed and had to get through a couple extra games. In the end, it went 5-1 on the week, beat three of the top four seeds and defeated California Baptist, 9-1, in the championship game.

The Texans (32-29), however, did not receive the WAC’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament because they are still in their reclassification period as they move up from Division II. By NCAA rule, during the first four years a school is moving up, it is not eligible for the postseason. The same rule last year denied an NCAA Tournament appearance to UC San Diego, which won the Big West.

While Tarleton’s season ends without an NCAA Tournament appearance, it’s still a very impressive run under first-year coach Fuller Smith. The Texans last year went 26-26 and finished 11th in the WAC. This year offered marked improvement and promise for the future.

Eight for Omaha

Arkansas, Clemson, LSU, North Carolina, Oregon State, Tennessee, Texas A&M, West Virginia

By noon on Monday, it’ll probably be impossible for these eight picks to be right just because of how the bracket gets built. But, as I write this on Sunday night, these are the eight teams I feel best about putting together Omaha runs.

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