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May 21, 2014

National seed at stake for USC?

In years past, South Carolina didn't have to deal with the possible perils of losing in Hoover.

When the Gamecocks won the national championship in 2010, they quickly exited Hoover Metropolitan Stadium after two losses in which they score one run in 21 innings.

The following year, USC beat Auburn in its tournament opener before falling to Vanderbilt and Georgia. A month later, the Gamecocks were celebrating their second consecutive national championship.

Two years ago, USC sandwiched a win over Auburn between losses to Vanderbilt and Florida, then advanced all the way to the national championship series against Arizona.

Last year, they went two-and-out in Hoover again, but reached the Super Regionals and fell one run short at North Carolina in the quest to reach Omaha for the fourth straight year.

Thus, recent history teaches us that how USC fares in the SEC Tournament typically has little correlation to how the Gamecocks perform in the NCAA Tournament because USC usually has a good feel on where it fits into the national picture.

This year, though, the circumstances are different. USC is No. 8 in the official NCAA Baseball RPI, putting it on the cusp of earning a coveted national seed, a distinction that would assure the Gamecocks of staying home at Carolina Stadium for the NCAA Regional and, should they advance, the Super Regionals.

"Hopefully, we can stay more than two days," USC coach Chad Holbrook said Monday before the team's departure for Hoover. "We haven't historically played our best baseball down at Hoover. We're going to try our best this week to change that. It will be a tall order with who we have to play. But we're excited about going down there and playing."

Considering USC has never won a Super Regional outside the Palmetto State, playing the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament in Columbia could make or break its hopes of getting to Omaha.

The outcome of tonight's matchup against Mississippi State could have an integral role in determining if the Gamecocks secure a national seed. The Bulldogs, which lost out on a top four seed in the SEC Tournament on the final day of the regular season, began the week at No. 30 in the RPI and are battling many other schools for the right to host an NCAA Regional.

Many Mississippi State players were on last year's team that surprised many analysts - and delighted their fans - by reaching the national championship series against UCLA, so experience won't be lacking for the Bulldogs.

Holbrook hopes the momentum of last week's crucial series win at Vanderbilt carries over into the SEC Tournament for the fourth-seeded Gamecocks.

"We have a little bit of momentum going with the way we performed over the weekend and hopefully we can carry that into our play starting on Wednesday," Holbrook said. "Looking at their pitching numbers, Mississippi State is terrific. They have experienced players that have played in the College World Series and played for a national championship."

Holbrook is proud USC (42-14) was able to overcome a rash of injuries to multiple positional players (Max Schrock, Connor Bright, Elliott Caldwell, etc.) to garner 40 or more wins for the 15th straight year, the longest streak in the SEC.

"We have a group of guys that can handle some adversity," Holbrook said. "We can handle some challenges. We play in the toughest league in the country and we won more regular season games than anybody in our league. I know we're the four seed. There are some really good teams behind us and some really good teams in front of us. I'm extremely proud. I would have been proud of our team being in this situation had we not had the injuries."

"If somebody had asked me before the year if I would have taken 42-14, a top four seed in the SEC and RPI in the top 10, I would have signed up right then. We went through a difficult schedule in a great league and we're still standing. We're excited about getting that adrenaline shot called the post-season."

Holbrook acknowledged in years past USC has entered the SEC Tournament with one eye on Hoover and another on the NCAA Tournament. In short, the Gamecocks weren't completely focused on the task at hand - winning the conference tournament.

This year, though, the Hoover stakes are higher for the Gamecocks. Unlike previous years, a two-and-out freefall could irreparably damage their prospects of earning a top eight seed.

"Maybe we had one side of our brain focused on 10 days from now (start of NCAA Tournament)," Holbrook said. "But we don't have that this year. We're going down there to try to win our first game. We have a lot to play for and it's important we play well. We're going to try our best to do that."

The importance of tonight's game made Holbrook's decision on who to start on the mound an easy one - Friday night starter Jordan Montgomery gets the call rather than weeknight starter/long reliever Reed Scott even though Montgomery will be toiling on five day's rest, one less than usual.

"I'm going to treat Wednesday night like Coach (Ray) Tanner used to treat Omaha with Michael Roth," Holbrook insisted. "If our best guy is healthy and ready to pitch, we're going to pitch them. It's that important of a game. Jordan has been our best pitcher for the last two years. We'll give him the ball even though he is being pushed up a day."

Game 5 - #3 LSU vs. Vanderbilt - 10:30 a.m.
Game 6 - #2 Ole Miss vs. Arkansas - TBD
Game 7 - #1 Florida vs. Kentucky - 5:30 p.m.
Game 8 - #4 South Carolina vs. Mississippi State - TBD
(All Times Eastern)


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