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January 25, 2012

Cloninger: Not No. 1 not a problem



"Two is not a winner,
And three, nobody remembers."
------------------------------- NELLY

Ah, South Carolina fans. Back in the familiar Us Vs. Everybody phase.

Lot of days and a lot of years on this beat, and still can't quite figure out why USC fans always seem to be shackled to the Little Brother Syndrome. I'm a little brother myself, and sure, I had to live in the shadow of my older brother for a while - until he made his mark and I made mine, and I was quite content with mine.

The Gamecocks are experiencing unprecedented athletic success right now, and yet some still leap upon every perceived slight as a chance to whine and moan about how nobody loves them, everybody hates them, think they'll go eat some worms. The latest, I found out on Tuesday, was when Baseball America's preseason Top 25 was released, and shockingly, USC was ranked third.

Third out of the Top 25, and third out of the 300-some-odd baseball programs in the country. I should have such problems when it comes to ranking sports columnists (although I'm Top 50, easy, higher if you ask the population of Lincoln County, N.C.)

No, the problem here seems to be USC being ranked behind Florida in the "major" polls (college baseball has around five polls that are considered "major," with Baseball America and Collegiate Baseball being the two that most of the media cite). The Gamecocks checked in at No. 2 behind the Gators in Collegiate Baseball as well, and behind No. 1 Florida and No. 2 Stanford in Baseball America.

"Why," did the fans complain as the violins played, "aren't we ranked No. 1? We're defending national champions and beat Florida!"

That's all very true. USC is the two-time defending national champ and the last time it played those No. 1 Gators, it won. Ditto for the time before that, the time before that, and the time two times before that. I was fortunate enough to be there for all of those games, even that one in the middle where the Gamecocks lost. USC played Florida five times and won four games, including the two where it mattered most - the national championship series.

Impressive, no doubt. Florida was the more talented team all of last year. It was more talented than USC when it finished second at the College World Series.

But USC had more than talent when it finished first by beating those same Gators. It had the mentality and the ability to shun every expert's opinion that said it should lose to Florida when the biggest prize in the game was sitting right there for the taking.

I've mentioned several times that when I was in Gainesville covering the regular-season series last year, I mentioned to one of the Florida scribes how massively talented the Gators were. He agreed, but having written a critique or two of a few pieces of the team's play thus far, he pointed something out to me.

He told me that after he had written a piece explaining how the Gators had committed quite a few base-running gaffes in what turned out to be a romp of a win, he had fielded a phone call. The call was from coach Kevin O' Sullivan, who ripped him for questioning his team's ability.

The writer then heard from a few players about how he supposedly didn't know what he was talking about, which gave the writer all he needed to know. Like he told me then, the Gators were very, very talented - but the mental part crucial to survival in May and June was clearly not there.

I couldn't help but think - and mention - my friend in June, when the Gamecocks beat the Gators for the whole shebang, and the first game was a direct representation of what he had said. SEC Player of the Year Mike Zunino rifling a ball into center field? Cody Dent sliding inside, right into a tag at the plate, when he could have gone outside and won the game?

It was a case of the Gators thinking they could win the game, and the Gamecocks knowing they would. That's the kind of confidence borne from winning, and after 11 straight wins in Omaha, there's nobody who will bet against USC if it advances to its third straight CWS.

I feel bad for Florida, I do. It returns its entire team, just about. I mean, everybody, every key player, is back.

But with that comes severe expectations. The Gators have been to two straight College World Series and not won. This year, if they don't win the national championship, the season is a disappointment. Think about that.

Fifty-six games, the SEC tournament, regionals and super regionals, and it still might not be enough. Florida has to get to Omaha and win it, or else the season is a failure.

USC knew that the question of repeating had to be raised last year, because it had won the title in 2010. I don't think there were many that expected the Gamecocks to win it again - maybe they expected to get back to Omaha, but after losing a lot of the pitching staff that had won in 2010, expect to win again? No way.

After winning two straight and returning the pitching staff from 2011, some may expect USC to win a third time. But the Gamecocks know how to cope with pressure, playing so loose and carefree down the stretch last season that it was often stunning to watch. If Florida knows how to do that, it must have learned over the offseason, because it sure didn't happen the last time it took the field.

Florida is ranked No. 1 preseason, deservedly. It's not that big of a deal. USC fans, especially after the past two seasons, ought to know more than any other college baseball fan not to take that too seriously.

It's not where a team starts, it's where it finishes. And miffed or not about preseason rankings, would you rather trade the last two finishes for a No. 1 ranking in the last two preseasons?

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