C-USA's Post-Season Tournament: Kind Of Pointless

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Meaningless exhibition games in the post-season? Great idea
​Conference USA has been making a big deal out of the fact that all six teams advancing to its postseason baseball tournament, starting today at Cougar Field, are guaranteed of playing three games. What conference officials fail to point out, but which the coaches haven't minded noting, is that that third game is worthless and meaningless.

Here's how it works. The six teams have been placed into two three-team pods. Each team plays the teams in its pod, then it plays one out-of-pod game. The winner of each pod advances to the C-USA championship game on Saturday night. And the winner of that game is guaranteed a trip to the NCAA Regionals, which begin next week. The winner of the pod is the team with the best overall record within the pod: the out-of-pod game doesn't matter.

"Here's a strange thing about that," Rice Owls coach Wayne Graham said on Saturday. "You could lose your first game and win the next two, and advance, for certain. Absolute certain you advance if you win the next two."

Take Rice, which is the number-one seed. They play East Carolina at 3 p.m. today in an out-of-pod game. This game is so insignificant that Rice will be using its least dependable starter, Taylor Wall, in the game, with the hopes that he can iron out his problems and be ready for the NCAA Regionals. All that matters to Rice is that they defeat the other teams in their pod, the University of Houston on Thursday night, and Marshall on Friday afternoon. Those wins would make Rice 2-0 inside the pod, giving them the pod title, and making Wednesday's game meaningless. (Rice's pod consists of Rice, UH, and Marshall.)

"Throwing away the first game is not near as important as ordinarily it would be. You would almost think...you would pitch your least reliable starter in the first game," Graham said on Saturday.   

This same is true for all of the other schools. They just need to win the games inside their pod. So what you're looking at are six teams stuck playing an entirely useless game that they don't care about winning. If the Houston Cougars can defeat Marshall on Wednesday and Rice on Thursday, then their Friday game out-of-pod game against Southern Mississippi is useless, and Rayner Noble can save the starter of that game, probably freshman Eric Brooks, for Saturday.

This out-of-pod game doesn't even matter in the tie-breaking scenarios. The pod winner is the team with the best record in the pod. If two teams are tied, then the winner of the game those two played is the pod winner. If all three teams in the pod tie, then it's the highest seed that advances. So why the third game?

Wayne Graham has decided to use Taylor Wall in the out-of-pod game against ECU on Wednesday. Graham wants Wall pitching in the non-important game for the chance that he can recover his mechanics and his confidence. The team's best starter, Mike Ojala, pitches on Thursday night against Houston. But if Rice advances to the title game on Saturday night, he's not going to be available -- in fact, it's probable that none of the six teams will be able to throw their best starter on Saturday night unless he so badly bombs on Wednesday and Thursday that he's available because he left first start really, really early.

The Cougars get a slight advantage in that Brooks, the team's third starter, has been their most reliable starter the past month, so if UH wins its pod games, he could pitch for the championship on Saturday even though, in reality, he's not the team's best pitcher. And Rice coach Graham said last week that he might have to go with Wall on Saturday should Rice make the game. (Rice has not named a Friday-night starter, so it's possible that Jared Rogers, the team's third starter, might get held to Saturday, though Rice will need the Friday win to make it to Saturday).

This third game, it's probably being argued, is being played because of money. More games means more fans, etc. But the games are being played in Houston, at the University of Houston, not a noted hotbed of college baseball fan support -- the argument might make slight sense if the games were being played at Rice.  

The tournament starts today, at Cougar Field, when Southern Miss takes on Memphis at 11 a.m.  Rice and ECU are supposed to go 3 p.m., and the Cougars face off against Marshall at 7 p.m.  Thursday's games are Southern Miss versus ECU at 11 a.m., Memphis against Marshall at 3 p.m., and UH versus Rice at 7 p.m. Friday's games are Memphis versus ECU at 11 a.m., Rice versus Marshall at 3 p.m., and the Coogs against Southern Miss at 7 p.m. The championship game will be Saturday night at 7 p.m..

Oh, plenty of tickets are still available.

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