Wednesday, April 16, 2014

A Tall Task Lies Ahead For NC State

Tuesday’s rainout at the DBAP should go down as a relief. Originally scheduled as a showcase non-conference showdown between two of college baseball’s powers, “The Duel At The DBAP” instead had all the earmarks of an elimination game between two of the game’s biggest disappointments.

At 20-15, NC State is No. 42 in the latest unofficial RPI rankings done by Boyd’s World. North Carolina, 21-15, is a stunning No. 85. These two teams came into the season fresh off of College World Series appearances in 2013 and both had high expectations for 2014. Now, with five weekends left in the regular season, the Wolfpack — somehow still on the bubble for the NCAA Tournament — is suddenly struggling just to make the 10-team field for the ACC Championship. The Tar Heels, meanwhile, should be safe for the conference tournament, but at the moment appear to be on the outside looking in for an NCAA Tournament at-large bid. UNC's remaining schedule does provide ample opportunity to take care of their RPI.

On April 15, however, beating either one of these fading giants wasn’t going to do anything for anyone’s RPI. Last night’s game, had it been played, was unlikely to help the winner much and could have been another damaging blow to the loser’s postseason chances. Which brings us to NC State’s current predicament. At 6-12 in conference play, the Pack is 12th in the overall ACC standings, a game out of 11th place, two games out of 10th and a berth in the conference tourney.

The more you think about it, Sunday’s crushing loss at Duke looms large for NC State. Had the Wolfpack held on and beaten the Blue Devils, it would be 7-11 in the ACC, still not great, but tied for 11th and just one game behind 10th-place Pitt. More to the point, the Pack would probably be feeling pretty good about itself after winning consecutive ACC series on the road and clearly outplaying the other team in both series.

After dropping the first game at Clemson two weeks ago, NC State rolled through the remaining two games of that series, beating the Tigers soundly in every phase of the game. After dropping the opener at Duke this past Friday, the Wolfpack won the middle game of the Duke series handily, then was administering an old-fashioned ass-whipping on the Blue Devils in the finale when the wheels came off the wagon in the eighth inning.

Now, instead of feeling upbeat about trending in the right direction, NC State enters play this weekend still leaking oil and threatening to throw a rod. More important, instead of an RPI maybe in the 35-38 range, the Wolfpack finds itself at 42. Teams outside the top 40 of the RPI are clearly on the bubble for the NCAA Tournament. Teams in the 35-40 range shouldn’t feel too secure either, but much safer than 42.

For NC State to lift its RPI safely into mid-30s, it needs to win some games against good teams, and there are precious few such games left on the schedule. The Wolfpack has four ACC series remaining. Of the four, only this weekend’s series vs. Georgia Tech, No. 31 in the RPI, figures to help the Pack in any significant way, and that’s only if State wins the series. Even that may not lift the Wolfpack off the bubble.

The rest of NC State’s schedule is a succession of potential land mines, just waiting to blow what’s left of the Wolfpack’s postseason prospects apart. After the Georgia Tech series, State has three other conference series remaining: vs. Boston College (No. 196 in the RPI) and Wake Forest (No. 64) at Doak Field, and at Virginia Tech (No. 84).

Outside the ACC, the Wolfpack has a three-game series at home vs. Coastal Carolina (No. 202), and single games vs. Campbell (No. 104), UNC Wilmington (No. 95), Radford (No. 149) and Richmond (No. 187).

That’s 16 games, each and every one of them a potential RPI killer. Beating bad teams does little to help anyone’s RPI. Losing to bad teams is lethal. Just playing teams like BC, Coastal Carolina and Richmond — teams in the 180-200 range — is a high-risk, low-reward proposition. Winning those games and/or series does nothing to move the needle on your RPI, but you’d better win them. Lose either series to BC or Coastal, or lose the game to Richmond, and the postseason becomes something you watch on TV.

According to Boyd’s World, NC State needs to win 18 of its remaining 19 regular-season games in order to attain a top 32 RPI. Nothing we’ve seen in 2014 should give anyone hope of that happening. It would appear that the Wolfpack’s best chance to boost its RPI into the 30-35 range will be to get into the conference tournament, hope for games against Florida State, Virginia, Miami or Clemson and win a couple of them.

NC State could probably get to Greensboro by going 7-5 or maybe even 6-6 in its last 12 ACC games, but five or six losses against the teams left on the schedule might put the Pack completely out of the postseason picture. NC State needs to get to Greensboro with a chance to help itself, and to do that, it will probably need to win at least nine of its last 12 conference games and at least six of the seven non-conference games left on the schedule, maybe all seven.

It’s a long way from here to there, no doubt about it, and even if the Wolfpack can pull all that off, May 26, the day the NCAA Tournament brackets are announced, could be a long, nervous day in the offices and locker room at Doak Field.

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