AAC baseball tournament has wide-open feel _lowres

Advocate staff photo by RUSTY COSTANZA -- Tulane's Garrett Deschamp, left, is congratulated by teammate, Hunter Hope, after Deschamp scored in the bottom of the third inning during a baseball game at Turchin Stadium in New Orleans on Sunday, March 29, 2015.

The American Athletic Conference free-for-all starts Tuesday morning at Bright House Field in Clearwater, Florida.

OK, it’s actually the AAC baseball tournament, but it’s been hard to tell the difference in Tulane’s new league for most of the year. Six of the AAC’s eight teams entered the final weekend of the regular season within two games of the lead. On the first day of May, there was a five-way tie for first place.

UCF, the No. 7 seed, was ranked in the nation’s top 25 as recently as the midpoint of the conference schedule.

This time, when coaches say all eight teams have an opportunity to win the tournament — a standard line —they are not exaggerating by much. Eighth-seeded Cincinnati (15-39, 6-18 AAC) would be a stunner. Anyone else hardly would qualify as a surprise in the nation’s third-toughest league, according to the RPI.

The tournament has a double-elimination format and two brackets of four teams, with the winner of each bracket meeting for the championship on Sunday.

“The league is as good as any I’ve been in, even back to my days at Houston and Rice (as an assistant),” said Tulane coach David Pierce, whose third-seeded Green Wave opens 2 p.m. Wednesday against No. 6 seed Connecticut. “You have to come to play every day, and if you don’t, you’re are going to get beat.”

Tulane and Memphis are perfect examples of the AAC’s unpredictability. Before taking two of three from the Tigers this past weekend, Tulane had won series against Cincinnati, Central Florida and South Florida while losing to Houston (twice), Connecticut and East Carolina. Memphis was almost the polar opposite, winning series against Houston, East Carolina, UConn and USF while losing to Cincinnati (twice) and UCF.

Eliminate Cincinnati from the equation, and the AAC had only two sweeps in 24 series — when East Carolina beat UCF by one run in three straight games and Houston beat UConn by one run twice and two runs once.

Top-seeded Houston (37-17, 16-8) plays Cincinnati on Tuesday, while No. 4 seed South Florida (32-22-1, 13-11) faces No. 5 Memphis (35-19, 12-12).

Tulane (33-21, 13-11) and UConn (33-23, 11-13) play Wednesday after No. 2 seed East Carolina (36-20, 15-9) meets UCF (31-25, 10-14).

With only Houston assured of an NCAA at-large bid if it goes 0-2 in Clearwater, the intensity will be sky high as teams vie for what could be four regional spots.

“Whoever comes to play this week is going to be the team to win it,” Tulane senior first baseman Garrett Deschamp said. “We’re in a really good league.”

Pierce cited big-time pitching for the AAC’s balance. In its opener, Tulane could face UConn’s Carson Cross, who went 5-1 with a 2.50 ERA in conference play and shut out the Wave through seven innings when the Huskies won 6-0 on March 27 at Turchin Stadium.

“He didn’t have overwhelming stuff, but every pitch he threw was exactly where he wanted it to be,” Deschamp said. “In college baseball, that’s deadly. His numbers speak for themselves.”

Other top pitchers in the tournament include UCF’s Zach Rogers (10-0, 2.18 ERA), Tulane’s Corey Merrill (4-5, 2.13), Houston’s Seth Romero (7-3, 1.73), East Carolina’s Reid Love (7-3, 2.79) and South Florida’s Jimmy Herget (8-3, 2.64).