USC baseball coach Ray Tanner isn’t looking back at what might have been in the SEC tournament. And he certainly isn’t looking ahead to a potential NCAA super regional matchup against North Carolina.
He’s looking at one thing — George Mason.
That would be the baseball team from the Fairfax, Va.-based university, not the founding father.
“We’re not going to look ahead at all,” Tanner said.
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Not even to top-seeded East Carolina, the host team in the four-team, double-elimination NCAA regional in Greenville, N.C. The second-seeded Gamecocks (38-21) play the third-seeded Patriots (42-12) at 3 p.m. Friday in the first game, with the Pirates (42-17) playing No. 4 seed Binghamton (29-20) at 7.
Both USC and George Mason are at-large picks in the 64-team field, with the Gamecocks earning a bid after a second-place finish in the SEC East. The Patriots were the regular-season champions in the Colonial Athletic Association.
Tanner doesn’t believe in favorites in postseason baseball, when games can turn on the quality of a team’s starting pitcher.
“We’re even again,” he said. “Everybody starts 0-0, and it’s about who plays great baseball.”
Center fielder Whit Merrifield said the team will not take any opponent for granted, especially not one good enough to earn an at-large bid.
“I saw they had 40-some wins, so they’ll be a good team,” Merrifield said. “We’re not looking past George Mason. There will be no cakewalks this time of year.”
But Merrifield is convinced the Gamecocks, who won 11 of their last 14 games, are battle-tested by playing in the toughest conference in the nation, which placed eight teams (a number matched by the Big 12) in the NCAA tournament.
“We’re pretty confident on the road,” Merrifield said. “We’ve played in a bunch of tough environments.”
USC enters the playoffs having lost close games to Vanderbilt and LSU — both NCAA tournament teams — in the SEC tournament. Both losses could have had a different result with a clutch hit in the ninth inning. USC beat Alabama, another NCAA entrant, in the tourney opener.
“We’re a little upset we didn’t do better,” Merrifield said. “We could have won all three of those games.”
The players insist there will be no carryover from those losses.
“When we’re playing well — pitching, defense and hitting — we can compete with anybody,” said pitcher Jay Brown, who learned Monday he was granted a sixth season of eligibility by the NCAA. He has lost almost two full seasons to arm problems.
The Patriots feature a trio of power bats in Scott Krieger (.378, 20 HRs, 80 RBIs), Justin Bour (.336, 17, 65) and Chris Henderson (.416, 14, 54), as well as an ace left-hander in Mike Modica (11-1, 4.17 ERA).
The Gamecocks also have relied on a potent offense, with DeAngelo Mack (.366, 14, 59), Nick Ebert (.332, 22, 71) and Merrifield (.337, 11, 45). Potential first-round draft pick Sam Dyson (8-4, 5.31) leads the pitching staff.
One factor in USC’s favor is postseason experience. The Gamecocks have made 10 consecutive appearances in the NCAA tournament under Tanner, including seven trips to the Super Regionals and three to the College World Series.
USC doesn’t care which teams it must face to get to Omaha again.
“The East Carolina regional is going to be a good one for us,” freshman left-hander Nolan Belcher said. “You’re going to have to beat good teams eventually to get to Omaha.”
Tanner is convinced a CWS trip is possible, especially after watching his club rally from a 27-18 record to a No. 2 seed.
“If you play well at the right time,” he said, “anything can happen.”