Brenner: When the rivalry is irresistible, these Clemson-USC regionals result

BY AARON BRENNER | abrenner@postandcourier.com
@Aaron_Brenner

CLEMSON – It’s understandable, the mutually forced position of Clemson coach Jack Leggett and South Carolina coach Chad Holbrook.

Better to bite their tongues than bite the hand that feeds them.

You get the feeling their teams view this Palmetto State postseason party far less favorably than the fans. Carolina Stadium should be buzzing if and when the Tigers and Gamecocks share the diamond this weekend, but had Clemson not turned in an uncharacteristic “welp” performance in Durham, each squad would’ve hosted its own NCAA regional and everybody would’ve gone home happy.

Instead, only one can advance. Maybe none (technically, Liberty and Saint Louis are  also on the premises.) But definitely not two. Same story as in 2012, when Clemson was sent to Columbia against the two-time defending national champions and eventual College World Series finalist.

Controversy alert: What if the NCAA committee of bracket-makers, to which Leggett used to contribute, have intentionally pitted Clemson at USC for television exposure?

“I would honestly just hope that’s not the case,” Leggett said. “Because this tournament is supposed to be ten people sitting in a room, figuring out what the fairest way to find out who the national champ would be.

“If that were the case, then I’d be disappointed in what the committee should stand for.”

Eyeballs over everything else. That’s the business mantra, certainly in the NCAA. And while we’ll always watch college football and basketball regardless, sports like baseball, hockey and volleyball which aren’t far above niche status need exposure to thrive.

College baseball means so much to this state. Not to incite debates on a different topic, but Clemson-Carolina is probably the best non-conference rivalry the sport has to offer (really, only Florida-Florida State and maaaaaybe Rice-Texas could object.) South Carolina’s a fixture in the nation’s top five for average attendance, while Clemson’s regularly in the top ten.

If Leggett and Holbrook like having their sport promoted by ESPN, ESPN has to have a little sumthin’-sumthin’. And if highlight matchups in the tournament’s early rounds – even if on paper, this is more of a Sweet 16-type showdown – placate the bean counters, well, then, it is what it is.

“I hope it hasn’t come to that,” Leggett said. “I would trust that’s not the case. I can see how you’d be thinking things like that, but I’m hoping that’s not the case.”

Is it a little odd the Gators and Seminoles haven’t seen each other much in an NCAA regional? (Just once in 25 years, in 2008.) How about LSU and Arkansas? (Not one NCAA playoff meeting outside Omaha.) Mississippi State and Ole Miss? (Never in the postseason.) It’s probably more circumstance than anything else.

Look at last year’s bracket. Nearly half the regions pitted in-state 2 seed vs. 1 seed matchups: Clemson at South Carolina, Dallas Baptist at Baylor, San Diego at UCLA, TCU at Texas A&M, UCF at Miami, East Carolina at North Carolina, and Pepperdine at Stanford.

There were six such situations in 2011. You get the picture: both in the name of fan interest and geography, rivalries are renewed early in the playoffs.

Fans will love to see Clemson and South Carolina play ball. Somewhere tucked in the competitive spirit of Holbrook and Leggett, maybe they will too, even while grinding their teeth.

E-mail Aaron Brenner at abrenner@postandcourier.com, and follow on Twitter @Aaron_Brenner.

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