Gamecocks host St. Louis not Clemson in NCAA opener

(4) ST. LOUIS (41-19) at (1) NO. 18 SOUTH CAROLINA (39-18)
What: Game 2, NCAA Columbia Regional
When: 7 p.m. today
Where: Carolina Stadium, Columbia
Tickets: Limited numbers remaining
Probable starting pitchers: St. Louis - RHP Clay Smith (8-2, 3.76 ERA). South Carolina -- LHP Nolan Belcher (7-5, 2.30)
Notes: South Carolina begins its NCAA tournament tenure hoping that the home magic continues. The Gamecocks have won their past 24 straight home postseason games and are 44-5 all-time in NCAA Regionals held in Columbia. … It is the 15th NCAA Regional for Columbia, and Clemson and Liberty have each visited before. … St. Louis has never played any team in the regional. … The Billikens are champions of the Atlantic 10 regular season and tournament. … SLU has won five straight games while USC has lost three straight and four of five. … Second baseman Max Schrock is ready to play after suffering a concussion during the SEC tournament. … Coach Chad Holbrook begins his first postseason as a head coach. He has reached the College World Series in six of the previous seven years.
Next up: The winner plays the No. 22 Clemson-Liberty winner at 8 p.m. on Saturday. The loser plays the No. 22 Clemson-Liberty loser at 1 p.m. on Saturday in an elimination game.
VIDEO: St. Louis press conference
"Yeah, we've heard of it," St. Louis outfielder Alex Kelly said on Thursday. "We watch ESPN. We see it, we're excited to be a part of it, and I'm glad to be here, honestly."
"It" is the underlying topic of the Columbia NCAA Regional, the same that flowed under the four-team pod in 2012. How are St. Louis and Liberty, the two interlopers in the field, supposed to concentrate on their games with everybody talking about the matchup that they, their neighbors, the entire state and the TV networks want to see?
The problem is, South Carolina and Clemson do not play each other today. They may play each other on Saturday, or on Sunday, or perhaps not at all. Having been through this just last year, the Gamecocks' older players know how to approach tonight's NCAA tournament-opening game against the Billikens (41-19).
That is, don't worry about the other side of the bracket until they get to the next piece of the bracket. Win or lose, only look at the opponent after tonight's game.
"Our players get excited about playing Clemson," coach Chad Holbrook said on Monday. "But we don't play Clemson Game 1. And there's no guarantee that we'll play Clemson. If we're worried about Clemson, St. Louis is going to beat our tail."
Thursday's practice/press conference day was mostly spent asking all coaches and players what they thought about the USC-Clemson rivalry. Liberty coach Jim Toman, a former USC assistant who is steeped in the rivalry and who leads his Flames against the No. 22 Tigers at 1 p.m. today, took it in good humor. He said that he hoped he would have Michael Roth pitching, Scott Wingo playing second base and Matt Price ready in the bullpen during his game.
Clemson, naturally, shoved aside talk of it. The Gamecocks (39-18) did the same, stressing that they were only concerned with St. Louis.
"If you look at their numbers, they're the only team in the regional with over 40 wins, they've hit 40 home runs and from an offensive standpoint, it's impressive," first baseman LB Dantzler said. "Pitching-wise, it's the same deal, if you look at their numbers they've had three solid starters, a good bullpen and they're an older team. (Tonight) is going to be a challenge, that's for sure."
USC beat Clemson 2-1 in the regular-season series, Nolan Belcher and Jordan Montgomery each contributing to shutouts and the Gamecocks out-scoring the Tigers 14-0 in the two wins. They're familiar with them, and that could come in handy.
If the matchup happens. Preparation since the NCAA bracket was announced on Monday has only been about St. Louis.
Holbrook didn't waste time labeling Belcher, his Friday starter for the majority of the year, as his pitcher against the Billikens. Last year, Ray Tanner gambled by pitching third starter Colby Holmes in the NCAA opener to save Roth for Game 2. That worked as Roth started against Clemson, the team that began his reputation as a dominant starter.
This year, USC hasn't hit the ball consistently enough to try and gamble, and the Billikens are enough of an unknown commodity that Holbrook wasn't going to take a chance. Montgomery will pitch the Gamecocks' second game against Liberty or Clemson, while he'll send his staff ace to the hill in Game 1.
"It feels very similar," Belcher said. "We've been in this position before, we do have a new head coach, but coach Holbrook has done a great job and for the most part, he does pretty similar stuff that coach Tanner did. It's got a familiar feel to it, we're in a regional again, we're hosting again, and we're just excited and looking forward to it."
St. Louis is feeling the most pressure-free, because it has no outside interferences hanging over it. As the regional's fourth seed, any wins it gets are gravy; lose, and they were supposed to lose.
The Billikens will send their rubber-armed ace Clay Smith to the hill and hope that they can tee off on Belcher's offerings. They may face a bit of culture shock - St. Louis played in front of an average of 137 fans at home this year, while Carolina Stadium is expected to have a sellout-plus tonight - but that can also serve as motivation, not a distraction.
"You don't need to talk about us because regardless, we're going to go out there and play and bring our best effort," catcher Grant Nelson said. "We know what we can do and how to win games, so you can put your attention aside if you like or can focus on us. Either way we're going to go out there and bring it."
The Gamecocks have not lost a home postseason game since the 2002 Super Regional, winning 24 straight, but have fought a label of not being as confident as their predecessors. While true that there is no Roth or Price or Wingo around to keep the looseness going, USC has several other veterans on the team, and several more who cut their teeth last year in getting to the national championship series. What's more, that 24-game winning streak didn't start with those national championship teams.
USC is at home to start the NCAA tournament. The Gamecocks again come in having not played particularly well lately. They're hoping the magic returns and know that they're in the best possible place for it to return.
The intimidation still counts for something.
"That's probably the one thing that stuck out in my mind when I walked into the hallway today," said St. Louis coach Darin Hendrickson, who saw the wall-to-wall photos of the national championship years. "I remember watching them because obviously, you're a coach, but you're a fan as well. Their toughness even down to the last out, they just played their hearts out and played against some really good UCLA pitchers, if I recall, and some guys that are in the big leagues now.
"To me, they just epitomized the word 'tough' and people throw that word around, but I think that that is the way I would describe this group."
USC has been tough against Clemson in the postseason, but Clemson is not on today's docket. St. Louis is.
Toughness is needed there, too.