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Morris: Panic button for USC baseball? Not yet

THIS IS NOT the time for South Carolina baseball fans to panic. It will all work out, and do not be surprised if the Gamecocks are playing in Omaha next month.

Forget for a moment what has transpired the past three weeks. Forget that USC stands fifth in the SEC East. Forget that USC has been swept in three SEC series for the first time. Forget that USC has not lived up to expectations.

All that really matters is the three-game series against Tennessee that begins Thursday at Sarge Frye Field. Two wins, and USC qualifies for the SEC tournament. Two wins, and USC gets into the NCAA tournament.

Will USC play host to a super regional? No chance. Will it play host to a regional? Not likely. Will USC be the most dangerous second-seeded team in any regional? Absolutely. Rest assured no top-seed will want the Gamecocks in its regional.

“The old proverbial backs against the wall, that’s where we are right now,” USC coach Ray Tanner says. “We’ve got to find our way out. But if we can get out, we can probably be very dangerous.

“We’ve been pretty good at times this year, a couple of different streaks where we’ve been pretty good. I think we could be dangerous if we could get into a regional, but we’ve got to get in it now.”

At this point in the season, it is not about whether a team has lived up to expectations or not. It is more about what that team will do the remainder of the way. With three potential first-round picks in June’s major-league draft and with a stable of pitching arms that have been consistently strong all season, I like USC’s prospects.

The NCAA tournament format also helps USC’s cause. With 16, four-team regionals, the field annually is watered down. In each of those regionals there are two automatic qualifiers who have little or no chance of advancing. Most regionals break down to two teams competing for the chance to reach the super regionals.

Once in a super regional, either team can win. This is baseball. The worst team in the major leagues can beat the very best team in a best-of-three series. If a team reaches the super regionals, it has a legitimate chance of advancing to the College World Series.

USC can look to the 2006 season as an example of how anything can happen in the postseason. That team finished 15-15 in the SEC during the regular season, then lost two of three games in the league tournament. It fattened its regular-season record with a 21-2 mark against the likes of Radford, Duquesne and Quinipiac.

Frankly, that team did not deserve an NCAA tournament bid. Yet it got in on its reputation, then received a break when host Virginia was eliminated early in the regional. The Gamecocks then took a far superior Georgia team to three games before losing in the super regional.

The current USC team is better and more deserving of the postseason than the 2006 squad. Two wins against Tennessee will again give USC a 15-15 SEC record. But this USC team will benefit from a non-conference schedule that was beefed up due to the prospect of USC playing in a new stadium.

Taking two of three games against East Carolina, two against College of Charleston and four against Clemson should help USC’s cause in NCAA tournament seeding. The latest Boyd’s World RPI has USC at No. 20 nationally.

“I say this every year, and it’s true,” Tanner said. “We’re battle-tested to a tremendous extent — playing on the road, playing in some difficult situations and facing adversity.

“That being said, you can only use those advantages if you get into position to do it. We’re still not there with four to play. We’re not there yet. If we can get in, the lessons we have learned could be beneficial to us.”

Once USC gets in, it will be facing teams in the NCAA tournament with the same kinds of problems. USC’s bottom third of its batting order has not hit well. The Gamecocks do not have a starter who can put them in position to win every time out, and USC lacks a closer. A top-seeded team in a regional will list similar areas of concern.

So, all USC needs to do is win two of three against a Tennessee team that carries a nine-game losing streak into tonight’s game at Furman. With a 24-7 home record, there is every reason to believe USC can get things straightened out against the Vols.

Then it will not really matter what USC does in the SEC tournament. It will be prepared to do some damage in the NCAA tournament and advance to the super regionals for the eighth time in the past nine seasons.

When that happens, all the disappointment of a regular season gone sour will be forgotten.

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