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May 20, 2014

This year, Hoover matters

The idea that in the big picture the SEC Tournament in Hoover doesn't mean very much has been long-held in Columbia, if rarely uttered aloud by the men in charge of the juggernaut that is South Carolina baseball.

Around here, people talk about Omaha, not Hoover, and for good reason.

No one remembers what you did in Hoover. The world remembers what you did in Omaha.

Under former coach Ray Tanner, the Gamecocks went 22-29 at the SEC Tournament, a winning percentage of .431. Tanner's 2004 team won the tournament with a 4-0 record. Remove that year, and Tanner's percentage slips to .383.

And who cares?

Tanner's unprecedented success in the NCAA Tournament means his legacy is safely assured as the greatest men's coach in University of South Carolina history.

Since joining the SEC, the Gamecocks are a combined 25-39 (.391) in the SEC Tournament, which includes former coach June Raines' 3-11 (.272) mark.

And who cares? In the stretch of three years when the Gamecocks won two national championships and played for a third, they went 2-6 in Hoover.

So who cares?

This year, USC should.

It's widely assumed that three teams - Ole Miss, South Carolina and Vanderbilt - are vying for one national seed. South Carolina holds the edge in terms of having taken series from both and having a better record than both, but Vanderbilt (No. 6) holds the RPI edge over the Gamecocks (No. 8).

This is important because while South Carolina has proven it's not impossible to get to Omaha from another team's home field - it did so in 2003 (3-0 in the Atlanta regional before hosting the Super Regional in Columbia) and 2010 (2-0 in the Coastal Super Regional), but more often than not playing in Columbia is the difference between going to Omaha or going home for the summer.

Since 1997, South Carolina has played in the NCAA Tournament 15 times, including every year since 2000. In those 15 appearances, the Gamecocks reached Omaha six times, five of which were launched from a Super Regional in Columbia.

In the nine times, then, that USC's season ended short of Omaha in either regional or Super Regional play, eight times USC was on the road. Only once, against Louisiana-Lafayette in 2000, have the Gamecocks failed to make Omaha when they play a Super Regional at home.

To recap, USC is 5-1 making it to Omaha from Columbia since 1997, 1-8 when trying to get there from somewhere else.

That's a remarkable degree of success at home, and what's even more remarkable is USC's NCAA record at the new Carolina Stadium: 16-0.

USC coach Chad Holbrook only has to look to last year, his first, when the Gamecocks went on the road for a Super Regional and came up short in Chapel Hill.

Playing at home is the key to Omaha, period, and getting a national seed to ensure a Super Regional is the closest thing to an Omaha guarantee as there is. If the Gamecocks want to see Nebraska this year getting that seed is the best way to do it, which means USC needs to take Hoover more seriously this year than perhaps any other because of the competition for that last SEC national seed.

"I'll be the first to say there have been years when going down there, we had maybe one side of our brain focused on 10 days from now, so to speak," Holbrook said. "We don't have that this year.

"We're going to try to win our first game. We have a lot to play for, it's important to play well and we're going to try to do that."

The last time the Gamecocks won more than one game in Hoover was 2007. The last time they won three was 2004. In 21 conference tournament appearances since 1992, the Gamecocks have gone winless eight times and won just one game seven times.

Just last year, Holbrook's first team went 0-2 in Alabama (Tanner, for the record, went winless in his first three trips to Hoover), losing to Mississippi State and Vanderbilt. One of those teams made it to Omaha and finished No. 2 nationally (Mississippi State). The other was a No. 2 national seed.

"It's exciting to go play in an incredible tournament against the best teams in the country," Holbrook said. "Our conference (tournament) championship is at stake this week, so it's something that we really want to play well for and try to win, but it's also, there's some other things behind that, probably the most important things."

Holbrook said he thinks the Gamecocks (42-14, 18-12) have done enough to earn a national seed regardless of how they play in the SEC Tournament.

"I think our team has done everything you can possibly do under the circumstances to be a national seed," Holbrook said. "I think we're deserving, but here at the same time we have games to play.

"We have work to do. Let's go down to Hoover and play our best baseball."

INJURY UPDATE: Holbrook said he hopes to play both Max Schrock (back) and Connor Bright (elbow) in Hoover. Bright practiced Monday, Holbrook said, but as for whether either will be able to play in Wednesday night's game is still a mystery.

"I won't know that til I know how they're feeling on Wednesday, probably," Holbrook said. "I would love to play them.

"I'm going to be a little more careful with Schrock, because he's seen some live at-bats and been involved recently here and isn't too much out of the rhythm of the game, so to speak.

"Connor, I'd like to get him in there some in the SEC Tournament if I can so I can get him some live at-bats before the NCAA Tournament."

As for Schrock, he said on Monday afternoon that his back tells him when he can play and when he can't.

"Right now I feel pretty good," Shrock said. "I'm taking it day-to-day at this point. Like I've said before, sometimes I wake up and it feels good, sometimes I wake up and it doesn't. I just try to manage it and get my treatments and see what I can do."

Like Holbrook, Schrock knows what's on the line this time in Hoover.

"Last year, we went down there and lost two games straight," he said. "This year, we have something to play for. Hopefully we can go down there and play some good baseball and win some games."

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