Ron Morris

Morris: Home destiny for USC remains in play

rmorris@thestate.comMay 6, 2013 

USC players Max Schrock, rear, and Forrest Koumas sign autographs during the rain delay before the game between South Carolina and Vanderbilt.

JEFF BLAKE — jblake@thestate.com

— SOUTH CAROLINA dropped a couple of games to Vanderbilt, missed an opportunity Sunday to gain a win against a highly ranked team, and probably fell out of contention for a national seed in the NCAA tournament.

Yet all was not lost over the windy, rainy weekend at Carolina Stadium. USC still is very much a contender to make a rare fourth consecutive trip to the College World Series.

Barring a total collapse over the final two weekends of the regular season, USC remains a virtual lock to make the NCAA tournament. Also, a strong showing at home against Georgia and on the road against Mississippi State over the final two weekends of the regular season will position the Gamecocks nicely to host an NCAA regional tournament.

“We kind of control our own destiny, so to speak,” USC coach Chad Holbrook said following Sunday’s rainout. “That being said, the challenges in front of us are very big.”

Gaining a national seed, which assures a team of hosting both a regional and Super Regional, is remote. With a 13-10 conference record and 33-14 overall mark, USC likely would have to sweep Georgia and Mississippi State and win a game or two in the SEC tournament to be among the nation’s top-eight ranked teams.

Vanderbilt, LSU, North Carolina and Cal State Fullerton appear to be locks for national seeds. Then there is a group that includes Arizona State, Florida State, Louisville, N.C. State, Oklahoma, Oregon, Oregon State and UCLA vying for the remaining four seeds.

As Holbrook pointed out, it is not imperative to be a national seed for his team to be playing in Omaha in June. Of the six times USC has played in the College World Series since national seeding began in 1999, twice the Gamecocks were not a national seed. That happened first in 2003, then in 2010 when USC won the first of consecutive national titles.

Your odds of reaching the College World Series decrease dramatically if you do not host a regional tournament, because it is increasingly difficult in college baseball to win back-to-back weekends on the road in the postseason.

Beyond the top four teams that are locks for national seeds, USC appears to be among another 20 or so clubs bidding for regional host sites. USC can virtually assure itself of one of those spots by finishing among the top four teams in the final SEC regular season standings.

It stands to reason that the best baseball conference in the country will gain two national seeds and at least two other regional host sites. Vanderbilt (21-2), LSU (19-5) and Arkansas (16-8) are in excellent shape to secure three of the top four finishes in the SEC and, with it, a first-round bye in the league tournament.

No fewer than five teams are jockeying for that fourth spot. In addition to USC (13-10), there is Alabama (12-10), Florida (12-12), Mississippi (12-12) and Mississippi State (12-12). Interestingly enough, Sunday’s cancelled game could play in USC’s favor like it did a year ago when a lost game at Georgia allowed the Gamecocks to win the SEC East Division by a half-game.

“You want to be in the postseason, if your RPI is in the top 15 or so, you want to be in position to host,” said Holbrook, whose club entered the weekend with an RPI of 12. “That’s certainly very, very important. It’s not easy to come (to Carolina Stadium) and win. I know Arkansas and Vandy kind of made it look easy (this season), but historically it’s not.

“We certainly like our chances when we’re playing at home, and we’re going to try like crazy to play our best to be in that position.”

Of course, USC’s expectations — and those of its fans — are to reach the College World Series every season. With six trips to Omaha over the past 11 seasons, USC fans have become accustomed to seeing the Gamecocks contend for the national championship.

Because of that, those same fans can sometimes forget just how difficult it is to reach the College World Series in any season. Should USC get there this year, it would put the Gamecocks in rare company. Only 13 teams have ever appeared in the College World Series four consecutive years. The latest teams to do it were North Carolina (2006-09) and Texas (2002-05).

Even so, Holbrook is OK with those expectations.

“We’re the University of South Carolina. That’s why our kids come to play here,” Holbrook said. “When people get mad at us for losing a series and complain, great. You hate people are mad at you, but it’s great that people care. ... We like for people to care. We are thankful that we have a passionate fan base that gives us expectations.”

That is why the expectations for this USC baseball team remain the same, despite what appeared to be a lost weekend.

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