May 28, 2012
I've always wondered when the NCAA baseball tournament selection committee would pull the trigger.
This time, they finally did.
Annually, one of the most often asked and debated questions around the Palmetto State in late May is whether South Carolina and Clemson would ever be put into the same regional.
Now they have.
Granted, the Gamecocks (Fri v. Manhattan, 4 p.m.) and Tigers (Fri. v. Coastal Carolina, noon) have different opening game opponents, but the minds of many fans have already moved ahead to Saturday at 4 p.m. when the winner's bracket game is scheduled to get underway.
But as we have seen over and over in college sports, you commit a serious mistake when you assume things. While the Gamecocks should dispose of Manhattan in their opening tourney game (recall that two years ago USC trailed Bucknell, 5-1, in the opening tourney game), the Tigers will have their hands full with Coastal.
The Chanticleers are expected to start Tyler Herb on the mound Friday. In case you haven't noticed, he has been one of the top college pitchers in the Palmetto State this season with an 8-2 record and 2.87 ERA with 76 hits allowed in 87.2 innings pitched.
In addition, one CCU hitter (Daniel Bowman) is hovering above the .400 mark, an impressive feat this late in the season, while another (Rich Witten) is batting .350.
Sure, Coastal might not be as talented as the 2010 team that earned a national seed before falling to USC in the Super Regional, but the Chants are coming to Columbia with the intent of knocking off the top two schools in the state and winning one for the little guys.
Moreover, CCU beat Clemson. 10-7, in the Upstate on April 24. But that was a midweek game and the Tigers didn't throw their best pitcher. Obviously, they will in this one.
Even though Coastal plays in a one-bid league (Big South), that shouldn't taint your thinking of the Chants. They are very capable of upending the Tigers, and don't be surprised if they pull off the so-called upset.
How does Clemson get the No. 2 seed and Coastal the No. 3 seed despite the fact the Chants have eight more wins and nine fewer losses than the Tigers? Easy. The strength of their respective leagues. The Big South has rarely gotten more than one team into the tournament — a sure sign of lack of respect - and the league's RPI is far below the 'big boy' conferences.
While a USC-Clemson winner's bracket battle Saturday afternoon isn't guaranteed, at least the NCAA selection committee wasn't afraid to put the two rivals in the same regional.
Is it a coincidence Clemson and USC will finally participate in the same regional in Gamecock AD Eric Hyman's first year as a member of the NCAA selection committee? Doubtful.
In fact, I think Hyman's presence had a lot to do with it. Since USC won the SEC East and Clemson was the fifths seed in the ACC Tourney and unlikely to host, the timing was right to finally match them.
Hyman, I'm sure, had to twist a few arms to get USC and Clemson placed into the same regional. When similar circumstances existed in the past, the NCAA displayed a puzzling reluctance to put them at the same location.
Now they have.
They took baby steps a year ago when, for the first time, the four-team regionals at USC and Clemson were matched up in the Super Regional round. The excitement at both sites was off the charts as Gamecock and Tiger fans anticipated an epic showdown for the right to go to Omaha.
But Connecticut and their talented roster (two first-rounders in MLB Draft) routed Clemson in the championship game of that regional to extinguish the flames of hope for the Palmetto State battle.
This time, Coastal Carolina stands in the way.
The selection committee loves to matchup SEC and ACC teams in the NCAA Tourney, and this year is no different. Besides USC-Clemson, you have Florida-Georgia Tech, NC State-Vanderbilt and Florida State-Miss. State matched up in the same regionals.
Thus, next weekend will serve as a litmus test/report card for the two major conferences. Two SEC schools (USC, Florida) are hosting and two ACC teams are hosting (NC State, Florida State), so everything is balanced.
With three Palmetto State schools slugging it out in Columbia this coming weekend, will there be a better atmosphere for college baseball anywhere in the country than Carolina Stadium? Doubtful.
USC pitcher Michael Roth said it best on Friday: "You're not going to find a better atmosphere anywhere than here this weekend."
Are the Gamecock players nervous that Clemson potentially blocks their progress on the Road to Omaha?
Roth on the moment when the USC players first realized Clemson was coming to the Capital City: "It was just jubilation in the room."
Just the way it should be.