"Just take five, just take five."
------------------------- AL JARREAU
It's the best and worst time of the season. Best because every aspect of every game becomes the most important play of the year, worst because even great teams can sometimes stumble and in the puff of a ball skipping just to the side of the chalk, fail to continue being great.
The goal for each of the 64 teams that were announced as part of the 2011 NCAA tournament on Monday is the same - win five games. After playing as many as 56 games in the regular season, then a handful of others in the conference tournament, the year becomes a case of winning five games.
Five wins without a loss gets a team to the College World Series. Some teams will start the NCAA Regionals on Friday with close to 50 wins already, yet none of them mean anything without five more.
If it helps, picture the next two weeks as several series of games with one letter being the result of a win. Eight teams will each spell out O-M-A-H-A and then get to go.
South Carolina aims to be one of those teams.
"It's a tough regional, but nobody said the road to Omaha was easy. It wasn't easy for us last year," Michael Roth said on Monday. "We've just got to go on a five-game win streak."
The Gamecocks (45-14) guided themselves through a stormy sea of adversity to land in a desirable position. USC gets to play its postseason journey at Carolina Stadium - as long as it wins this week. No matter what happens, it's been a phenomenal year - USC could have quit and started offering excuses long before this and played out a "We're hurt" season, but didn't.
Now that the Gamecocks have navigated the storm, though, they want to keep sailing. As coach Ray Tanner pointed out, a fine regular season rewards teams by getting to stay at home for the postseason, but after winning so much in order to get the home field, no one wants to be satisfied with simply being at home.
Everybody wants to win, to be one of those final eight that advances to see the bright lights of Omaha. The eight that do won't necessarily be the most talented eight, or the eight judged the national seeds, or the eight that have the most professional potential among their roster.
It will be the eight that refuse to lose and play their best when the pressure is at its peak.
USC has proven to be masterful in that regard, not only this year but in recent history. The Gamecocks are in a formula under Tanner - have a magnificent regular season, challenge for the league crown, don't do so well at the SEC tournament, then turn around and have a deep run in the NCAA tournament.
In Tanner's previous 14 seasons, USC has been to 12 NCAA Regionals, and since the Super Regional round was created in 2000, USC has been to eight of those. The Gamecocks have advanced to four College World Series and stuck around once they've gotten there - Tanner's record in Omaha is 14-7.
The Gamecocks know how to win in the most important part of the year. Don't underestimate the historical significance of that - while teams are different year to year and will always say it plays no part in the next season, it's amazing to watch great programs buckle year after year in the postseason.
USC hasn't. It enters Friday's regional having won a ridiculous 14 straight postseason games played in Columbia, its last loss coming in the second game of the 2002 Super Regional (the Gamecocks beat Miami the next day to advance to their first CWS under Tanner). USC is what a select few teams desire to be - great in the regular season, consistently greater in the postseason.
They get the chance to prove it one more time, beginning on Friday.
"It's the postseason," first baseman Christian Walker said. "I feel like everyone has another gear to kick into when it comes to the postseason."
USC's gear has been running smoothly for a long while. It's very capable of handling another rough road.
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