The top eight teams in the ACC will travel to Greensboro, N.C., to battle for the conference championship at NewBridge Bank Park.
The format of the tournament is unique, with the teams broken into separate four-team pools. Between Wednesday and Saturday, each program will play three games, all against the other members of their pool. The two teams with the best records from pool play will then meet on Sunday at noon for the league title.
The three other teams in North Carolina’s pool are No. 3 seed N.C. State, No. 6 seed Miami and Wake Forest. Each of those teams beat the Tar Heels at least once during the regular season. The Hurricanes swept the Heels in early April and the Wolfpack are currently ranked as high as No. 13 in the polls.
“We’re going to face left [handed pitchers], left, left, I know that,” head coach Mike Fox told reporters following the regular season finale on Saturday. “We told them [today] will be the last right hander you guys will see the rest of the year. So, here come all the lefties.”
Despite the stiff competition at the ACC Tournament, the event can be a difficult one for coaches and players to approach considering it stands between the end of the regular season and the start of the NCAA Tournament. With the sweep of Virginia Tech, North Carolina in all likelihood has locked up a top-8 national seed, meaning they will be in line to host both the regional and super regional rounds. Some would argue that leaves the Tar Heels with little to play for in Greensboro.
“We’re going to try and win it, honestly,” senior catcher Jacob Stallings said. “We have pitching depth so we can run a lot of guys out there… We’re going to go and give it out best. That’s what we do every year.”
Quirky things tend to happen at the ACC Tournament. Last season Patrick Johnson had a no-hitter going for the Tar Heels against Wake Forest, but the game was postponed due to rain at around 2am. This forced the North Carolina staff to throw an extra pitcher when the game resumed the following day. Finding the delicate balance between trying to win the tournament and preparing for the regional round the following week is a challenge for the coaching staff.
“We would like to be ACC champions, but we also know there’s a little bit bigger prize out there,” Fox said.” “So we keep that in the back of our mind if things get crazy and you play extra innings or get backed up or that sort of thing.”
In particular, setting up the pitching rotation can be a difficult. Ideally, the team would treat the ACC Tournament as a normal week with four games. One game would be a ‘staff’ day and the weekend starters would pitch the remaining three contests. However, as the Tar Heels saw last year, the ACC Tournament rarely plays out as planned.
“That’s going to be the trick is when do we throw Kent [Emanuel], when do we throw Benton [Moss],” Fox said. “And the ACC is going to have something to say with that because they’ll tell us whether we’re playing whenever. Last year we didn’t play on the first day.”
The Heels will play on opening day this time around, followed by a 3pm start on Thursday against Miami and a 7pm start on Saturday against N.C. State.
Ever since North Carolina basketball coach Roy Williams famously referred to the ACC Tournament as a “cocktail party” years ago, many Tar Heel supporters have viewed conference tournaments with a condescending eye. However, as the saying goes, “you play to win the game” and North Carolina is approaching next week with the goal of entering NCAA Tournament play as ACC champions.
“We’re going to do everything we can to win that one,” Fox said. “We really don’t approach it any other way.”