Host Snub Could Boost UVA Heading Into NCAA Tourney

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Brian O’Connor (Photo courtesy of Matt Riley of Virginia Sports)

“Shocked” was the word head coach Brian O’Connor used to describe his reaction to Virginia (42-14, 18-12 in the ACC) not being selected as one of 16 regional hosts in this year’s NCAA Division 1 baseball tournament. Others shared similar sentiments.

There was former Hoo and current Fresno Grizzlies (the Houston Astros’ AAA club) outfielder Derek Fisher, who tweeted …

There was baseball writer Keith Law, who, like Fisher, didn’t mince words …

And there was Cavalier junior first baseman Pavin Smith, who tweeted, “Ridiculous,” shortly after the 16 hosts were announced. Smith later denied that this was a reaction to the snub, insisting with a smile that he was reacting to Chipotle running out of steak, but the point remains … UVA enters this year’s NCAA tournament with something to prove.

“The message was sent that we were not worthy of being one of those number one seeds,” O’Connor said.

O’Connor, who noted the Cavaliers’ play down the stretch and outright fourth place finish in a tough Atlantic Coast Conference as reasons why he felt his team deserved a host bid, acknowledged the disappointment of not hosting while examining the challenge that lies ahead in the Fort Worth (TX) regional hosted by national No. 6 seed TCU. The Cavaliers, seeded No. 2 in this regional, take on No. 3 seed Dallas Baptist tomorrow, June 2. The game has a scheduled start time of 4 p.m. EST and will be televised by ESPNU.

“Certainly, when you have worked hard for something, when you believe you’ve put yourself in position to do something and it doesn’t happen for you, there’s going to be disappointment and disbelief,” O’Connor said. “We had a team meeting and we talked about all the great things that the young men who wear our uniform have going for them in this program and the great opportunities we have for wherever the NCAA sends us. We’re excited.”

In 14 years with O’Connor at the helm, Virginia baseball has risen to elite status. The Cavaliers have reached the NCAA tournament in all 14 seasons, earned four College World Series berths, and captured a national title in 2015. This year’s Cavalier squad is led by seniors including Robbie Coman and Alec Bettinger and a junior class featuring Smith, Adam Haseley, Tommy Doyle, and Ernie Clement, all of whom were on the Cavaliers’ 2015 National Championship team. They know what’s at stake and how to handle themselves in postseason play.

Citing the expectations of this program and the character within this team, O’Connor downplayed the notion that being a regional host snub could provide extra motivation.

“I don’t believe we need to have added motivation,” he said.

Virginia’s highly successful skipper has a point. However, an extra edge could be a plus for this UVA team. There is no question that the Hoos played well down the stretch. Since dropping the series to national seed Louisville in late March/early April, the Hoos have gone 21-6 and won their final six ACC series. Slow starts have been a common theme over the course of the final month, though, as Virginia dropped the first game in each of the last three ACC series and then lost to Duke in the first game of ACC tournament pool play.

In the final series of the regular season, UVA looked sloppy, allowing unearned runs on three errors in a 14-7 drubbing at the hands of Georgia Tech. Against Duke last week, Virginia lost by only one run (4-3) but O’Connor was not pleased with the effort.

“We didn’t play good defense. We walked a few too many guys, and we didn’t execute,” O’Connor said after the Duke game. “For whatever reason, I accept responsibility for it, I thought the way we played was very, very soft. That said, that doesn’t take anything away from Duke. I think their starting pitcher (Ryan Day) did a tremendous job. They got some big, clutch hits, especially in the sixth inning where they scored three runs, but we’re consumed right now with the way that we play the game, and I’m very, very disappointed, not in the loss, but the way that we played the baseball game, and that is not Virginia baseball, and those players know it, and we’ve got to make an adjustment moving forward.”

The Cavaliers have responded well, most recently winning the final two games at Georgia Tech and then issuing a beatdown of Clemson in its second and final game of the ACC tournament. But sluggish starts in the NCAA tournament could prove costly and Virginia needs to play well from the jump. The snub could be the spark this team needs to kick off tournament play the right way.

“We’re going to play really loose, have a lot of fun, we’re going to compete and we don’t have any pressure on us,” O’Connor said.

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