South Carolina coach Chad Holbrook wasn't agitated at all when the eight national seeds for the upcoming NCAA Tournament popped up on his TV screen early Tuesday afternoon and the Gamecocks were not among them.
Instead, the final two national seeds were awarded to Big 12 Tournament champion TCU (No. 7) and SEC tournament winner LSU (No. 8). The Gamecocks, Holbrook said, received consideration from the selection committee for a national seed, but fell short of the elite eight in the wake of a quick exit from the SEC Tournament in Hoover.
As a result, USC must settle for hosting a Regional for the fifth straight year and the 16th time in school history after winning 42 games during the regular season.
Even lacking the prestige of a national seed, Holbrook views the current regional streak as a significant achievement for the USC program considering the rugged terrain of the SEC and the amount of injuries the Gamecocks overcame this season.
"Being able to host a regional here in Columbia is no small feat," Holbrook said. "Some folks around here might take it for granted, but it's not an easy task in our league. What our players have accomplished is very significant in my eyes. Our players are excited to be playing at home. Hopefully, the atmosphere our great fans create will be the difference in helping us advance."
Should the Gamecocks survive this weekend's regional at Carolina Stadium involving No. 2 seed Maryland, No. 3 Old Dominion and No. 4 Campbell - and No. 3 national seed Virginia prevails in a NCAA Regional hosted by the Cavaliers - USC would travel to Charlottesville for the best-of-three Super Regional on the weekend of June 6-9.
"After Hoover, my expectation was we were in position to host (a regional)," Holbrook said Monday afternoon during a press conference following the NCAA Tournament selection show on ESPNU. "If a national seed was going to fall into our lap, somebody was going to have to lose. We had a great regular season, and certainly after 56 games we were in position (to garner a national seed)."
When LSU (won five of last seven SEC Tourneys) and TCU got hot and captured their respective conference tournaments, Holbrook realized the Gamecocks were fighting an uphill battle to attain a national seed.
In the end, he graciously stepped aside for TCU and LSU (blanked Florida, 2-0, in SEC Tournament championship game) based on what those teams achieved leading up to Selection Monday.
"I got news (Sunday) night that we were still on the board as one of the 10 or 11 teams left (being considered for a national seed), even though I didn't have much hope," Holbrook said. "Honestly, I don't think we deserved it at the end because of what the other teams did. What LSU did was incredible. TCU has won 28 of 31 (games) in the No. 2 RPI league in the country. I knew it was going to be a stretch for three SEC teams to be a national seed. I tip my cap to LSU. They are very deserving, and TCU is very deserving. Those teams played their way in.
"We played ourselves into the conversation based on our terrific regular season, but not playing well in Hoover hurt us, obviously. Ole Miss and Vanderbilt had valid cases too."
USC has won 27 straight NCAA Tournament games at home dating back to Game 3 of the 2002 Super Regional against Miami (Fla.). USC is 16-0 in postseason play at Carolina Stadium, 58-8 (.879) all-time in NCAA Regional or Super Regional games in Columbia since the current format was implemented in 1999.
"We have an incredible atmosphere, one that is very unique in college baseball," Holbrook said. "Sometimes when our backs are to the wall and things get dicey, our fans will us to win a game that maybe we shouldn't have won. Sometimes, the atmosphere creates seeds of doubt for the opponent. The passion really helps our team."
USC amassed a 32-5 home record during the regular season with the lone losses coming to Florida (2), Ole Miss, Alabama and Charleston Southern.
Most of the current players on the USC roster were seven or eight years old when the Gamecocks last lost at home in the NCAA Tournament.
"Our players are comfortable playing at home because we win more at home," Holbrook laughed. "This year's team doesn't know anything about last year or two years ago. Different players. The post-season streak doesn't put any pressure on our players. They just want to win Friday. The streak will be broken one day. It might be broken this weekend. When that happens, we'll look back and say we had a heckuva run. Right now, we're just trying to go 1-0."
ESPN analyst Kyle Peterson insisted during the tournament selection show that when the Gamecocks are fully healthy, they are capable of beating any team in the country. USC should get back second baseman Max Schrock and right fielder Connor Bright for the regional, although pushing aside Patrick Harrington, Gene Cone and/or Jordan Gore will be difficult, Holbrook said.
"They're both doing a lot better than I am," said Holbrook, noticeably battling a cold. "Schrock took BP today (Monday) and looked like a big leaguer out there. Hopefully, he'll be able to bounce back tomorrow. The whole key with Max is the next day. I didn't play him in the last game (at the SEC Tournament) against Florida because I felt rest was paramount for him."
Schrock did not practice over the last weekend following the team's return from Hoover, but was able to take some swings in the batting cage on Monday.
Bright has "slowly and steadily getting better" from a serious elbow injury, Holbrook said.
"Barring any unforeseen setbacks, I plan on playing those guys this weekend," Holbrook said. "We've had some good practices and gotten some good work in. If you look at the glass half full (after losing first two games in Hoover), you can get off your feet, you can rest your arms and legs and work on some fundamental things. Sometimes you have to find something good in a negative situation.
"We tried to create that with some very good practices, some rests and some healing. Connor and Max certainly needed some time. Hopefully, that will show on the field in the way we perform on Friday. We should be fresh and ready to go and have great enthusiasm and energy. I don't necessarily think we've played our best baseball yet. Hopefully, we can do that going forward. But we're going to have to be healthy to play our best."
Besides deciding whether to put Schrock and/or Bright in the lineup against Campbell on Friday night, Holbrook must also settle on the pitching rotation. Like most coaches of top-seeded team in the Regional round, should he toss No. 1 starter Jordan Montgomery (7-5, 3.52 ERA in team high 92.0 IP) on Friday night or gamble and hold him for the possible winner's bracket game on Saturday night against Maryland or Old Dominion?
Holbrook contended he is "nowhere close" to making a decision on the weekend rotation. However, he acknowledged that in a "perfect world," Montgomery would throw Saturday night in the winner's bracket game based on his big-game experience.
"But there are a lot of things to consider," Holbrook said. "You can't get to the winners' bracket on Saturday if you don't win Friday. Campbell has won 40 games and (Big South Tournament) championship. We're going to have to be very careful. We have to look at the stats, the numbers, the splits, all kinds of stuff before we make that call."
COLUMBIA REGIONAL SCHEDULE:
Friday, May 30:
Game 1: No. 2 Maryland vs. No. 3 Old Dominion - 1 p.m. (ESPN3)
Game 2: No. 1 South Carolina vs. No. 4 Campbell - 7 p.m. (ESPN3)
Saturday, May 31:
Game 3 - Loser of Game 1 vs. Loser of Game 2 - 1 p.m. (ESPN3)
Game 4 - Winner of Game 1 vs. Winner of Game 2 - 7 p.m. (ESPN3)
Sunday, June 1:
Game 5 - Winner of Game 3 vs. Loser of Game 4 - 1 p.m. (ESPN3)
Game 6 - Winner of Game 5 vs. Winner of Game 4 - 7 p.m. (ESPN3)
Monday, June 2:
Game 7 - Winner of Game 6 vs. Loser of Game 6 (If Necessary) - 7 p.m. (ESPN3)
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