As was mentioned in today’s print edition story, this weekend’s regular season finale series at Mississippi State is a big one for South Carolina.
In short, the Gamecocks could return from Starkville feeling better about their chances of getting a top eight national seed in the NCAA tournament, or they could feel nervous about even hosting a Regional. USC has hosted a Regional the past three years, after losing road Regionals at North Carolina State and East Carolina in 2008 and 2009.
Why does this all matter?
Well, historically, USC has been very good at home in the NCAA tournament, and not so good on the road. In 20 home tournament roads, USC has advanced 18 times. In 18 road tournament rounds, USC has advanced three times. USC’s record in home NCAA tournament games is 55-8, including a current streak of 24 victories. In road games, USC is 35-31.
Of course, that is all history, and most of those games were played before USC’s current players were on the roster.
As for this season, there are two estimable college baseball writers who spend hours projecting the NCAA tournament field. One is Baseball America’s Aaron Fitt, who was quoted in today’s story. The other is Perfect Game’s Kendall Rogers, who will be quoted extensively in this entry.
If USC goes 1-2 or 2-1 at Mississippi State and doesn’t suffer a bad one-and-done loss in the Southeastern Conference tournament, then the Gamecocks will most likely stay where they are right now – hosting a Regional, but not getting a national seed. That doesn’t mean they won’t host a Super Regional if they advance that far. If the national seed in USC’s part of the bracket loses in its Regional, then the Gamecocks could certainly host a Super Regional.
USC is currently 4-7 against the top 25 of the Ratings Percentage Index and 10-10 against the top 50.
“That’s not a slam-dunk (Regional) hosting resume,” said Fitt, who currently has USC hosting a Regional, but on the positive side of the bubble to do so. Fitt notes that USC is “a little bit lacking” in terms of top 50 wins.
Not surprisingly, USC coach Chad Holbrook sees things differently. He understands that this weekend’s series in Starkville is a big one. But, he said Tuesday, “As I sit here right now, I feel we’re a (Regional) host. I feel our body of work deserves to be one of the 16 host sites, regardless of what happens this weekend.”
Said Rogers: “I don’t think that.”
Holbrook, Fitt and Rogers certainly all know a great deal about the college baseball landscape, but Rogers isn’t on board with Holbrook’s assertion that USC is a lock right now to host a Regional. Ditto for Fitt, who mentioned that being swept at Mississippi State could put the Gamecocks in a precarious position in the Regional hosting candidate pool.
“I think if they won one on the road this weekend and won a couple games in Hoover (at the SEC tournament), they’d probably still host,” Rogers said.
Rogers mentioned there are a couple teams – South Alabama and Kansas State – who are right there in the mix if a Regional hosting bubble team like USC falters. The interesting thing about South Alabama is that the Jaguars are led by former USC pitching coach Mark Calvi, who spent six seasons in Columbia before going to South Alabama for the 2010 season. He spent one year as the coach-in-waiting before taking over the program in 2012.
Rogers said South Alabama or Kansas State “could move in (as a Regional host) pretty easily if somebody slips up. I think right now, South Carolina is safe at this point (to host a Regional). If they get swept and don’t do well in Hoover, it could be a different story. They’re going have to do something in Hoover (if they get swept in Starkville).”
But, Rogers said, “I think they’re a series win away and a big run in Hoover away from potentially being a national seed. I don’t think it’s likely.”
Right now, Rogers has Oregon and Florida State as his final two national seeds, with North Carolina State at No. 9, USC at No. 10 and Clemson at No. 11.
“Clemson’s resume is not that impressive right now,” Rogers said. “But if they get a road series win over Florida State (this weekend), that’s a game-changer.”
Of course, there is a chance that nothing changes with the eight national seeds that Rogers currently projects – Vanderbilt, North Carolina, LSU, Oregon State, Virginia, Cal State Fullerton, Oregon and Florida State. That’s the order he has them in right now, and the order could certainly change, but the composition of the group is less likely to change.
“As long as Florida State doesn’t get swept this weekend or play horrible in their conference tournament, and same with N.C. State and Oregon, if they don’t get swept this weekend, I think (the national seeds) are pretty much all set,” Rogers said. “I think six spots are pretty much set in stone.”
The two teams who could stumble from the national seeds are Florida State and Oregon. While the Seminoles host Clemson this weekend, the Ducks play four games against Oregon State – three in Eugene and one in Corvallis. That’s a big series for Oregon, which has made just four NCAA tournaments (1954, 1964, 2010 and 2012) and one College World Series (1954).
George Horton is in his fifth year as Oregon’s coach after coaching Cal State Fullerton from 1997-07 – a tenure that included six trips to Omaha and the 2004 national title. Oregon was the No. 5 national seed last year, but fell to Kent State in three games in the Eugene Super Regional.
(While we’re off on a quick tangent about Oregon, let’s make a note about the success of national seeds. The national seed format began in 1999. Since then, 61.6 percent have made the College World Series. But in those 14 years, just seven national seeds have won it all. Five were in the first five years of the format. So in the past nine years, just two national seeds have won the title – LSU in 2009 and USC in 2011. Just one overall No. 1 national seed has ever won the title – Miami in 1999. And four times in the 14 years of national seeds, the overall No. 1 hasn’t even made it to Omaha, including USC’s Super Regional loss to Louisiana-Lafayette in 2000.)
OK, back to the present. In the coming days, USC wants Florida State and Oregon to stumble, though the fact that Florida State is playing Clemson (another national seed bubble team) is a mitigating factor. Of course, even if USC does what it needs to do in Starkville in order to stay in the national seed hunt, the Gamecocks should still remain where they are, ahead of Clemson in the national seed pecking order, even if the Tigers help USC by doing damage at Florida State.
The fact that the Gamecocks beat Clemson in two of three games earlier this season will work in their favor. But USC’s resume could use a boost, in terms of its number of quality wins. Rogers noted that the NCAA baseball tournament’s selection committee strongly considers the metrics of a resume, as opposed to the eye test. Baseball committee members don’t see nearly as many games – in person or on television – as basketball committee members do, Rogers said.
“Baseball, it’s all numbers,” he said. “Basketball, their committee members can sit down and watch pretty much every game if they want to.”
Another team that needs a strong finish is Arkansas. Like USC, the Razorbacks are on the positive side of the bubble for Regional hosting, based on Fitt’s and Rogers’ projections. While USC is No. 11 in the RPI, Arkansas, which swept USC, is No. 41. Arkansas is currently 17-9 in the SEC and closes the season at Auburn this weekend. What hurts Arkansas are two early season losses to Western Illinois and Pacific, who are No. 240 and 247 in the RPI.
“I can’t imagine if Arkansas wins two out of three (at Auburn), I don’t care what their RPI is, I can’t imagine the third place SEC team with a 19-10 conference record not getting a host,” Rogers said.
But again, if Arkansas and USC take care of business this weekend and win their series, they will almost certainly retain their status as Regional hosts, at least based on what Fitt and Rogers are projecting right now.
As for whether USC can climb into the national seed conversation, “I think the bigger question is what do those other teams (Oregon and Florida State) do? I think (the Gamecocks) need those other teams to scuffle. I don’t think they control their own destiny.”
Even if USC won two of three at Mississippi State (No. 10 in the RPI) this weekend, the Gamecocks would still be 6-8 against the RPI top 25. Rogers doesn’t think that is necessarily national seed resume material.
“They need those two teams (Oregon and Florida State) to play horrible these next two weeks,” Rogers said. “I don’t think they’re going to take (a national seed) from anybody (without help).”
But if USC sweeps Mississippi State and advances to the SEC tournament championship game, “that changes the game,” in terms of USC’s chances of getting a national seed, Rogers said.
If USC doesn’t get a national seed and has to travel for a Super Regional, Rogers expects the Gamecocks to be slotted in N.C. State’s part of the bracket, which would mean a Super Regional trip to Raleigh. USC is 1-3 all time in road Super Regionals, in terms of advancing or not, with the only win coming in 2010 in Myrtle Beach – not exactly a stern road test.
Either way, with the tournament set to begin two weeks from Friday, Rogers doesn’t expect to see the Gamecocks in Omaha for the fourth straight year (which would be the first time in school history that USC has made the College World Series in four consecutive seasons).
“If they get to Omaha with this group, I’ll be floored with the job that Chad did,” Rogers said. “It’s by far the least talented team they’ve had.”
But Rogers isn’t going to discount what USC did the past three seasons – national title, national title, national runner-up. And he is quick to give the Gamecocks credit for what they have accomplished this season, including a series win at LSU
“There’s always that whole South Carolina mystique now that comes into play in the postseason,” Rogers said. “If you can take two of three from LSU on the road, you can take two of three from anybody.”