COLUMBIA — In the end, but just as college baseball’s real fun begins, South Carolina did enough to open the NCAA tournament at home, while Clemson couldn’t overcome its late struggles and series loss against the Gamecocks.
The tournament’s 16 regional host sites were announced Sunday night. For the fourth straight year, USC received one. For the second straight year, Clemson did not.
Only the regional hosts were announced Sunday. Unveiled at noon today on ESPNU will be the top eight national seeds — teams assured of hosting a super regional if they advance that far — and the rest of the 64-team tournament’s field. The tournament starts Friday.
Last year, Memorial Day Monday brought the revelation that Clemson would play in USC’s regional. The Gamecocks wound up beating Clemson twice to win the regional. Could today bring similar news of the rivalry renewed on a grand stage?
Entering Sunday, most observers believed the final two regional host sites were up for grabs between USC, Virginia Tech and Arkansas, and that Clemson had played its way out of hosting by losing its final five games, including three in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament.
Both Baseball America’s Aaron Fitt and Perfect Game’s Kendall Rogers correctly projected USC and Virginia Tech to host entering Sunday, and Arkansas to be left out. One big reason, according to Fitt, is that this year’s tournament selection committee highly valued a team’s position in the Ratings Percentage Index. Virginia Tech was 11th, USC 12th, Clemson 14th and Arkansas 31st.
Virginia Tech closed the season 16-3, and despite losing in the ACC tournament final to North Carolina, the Hokies were 13-15 against the RPI’s top 50 and 23-16 versus the top 100. USC was 11-14 and 17-15, Clemson 13-17 and 20-18, and Arkansas 17-16 and 21-16.
USC had the head-to-head advantage over Clemson, because the Gamecocks went 2-1 against the Tigers. Clemson botched chances for quality wins in the ACC tournament, falling to North Carolina State, North Carolina and Miami — Nos. 8, 1 and 20 in the RPI. On Friday night, Clemson led North Carolina 7-2, then gave up five runs and lost 12-7 in 14 innings.
In several ways, Arkansas had a stronger resume than USC. The Razorbacks swept USC in Columbia. They finished 18-11 in Southeastern Conference play, compared to USC’s 17-12. And they had more quality wins. But Arkansas’ RPI was 19 spots worse than USC’s because the Razorbacks lost to Pacific and Western Illinois — Nos. 244 and 257 in the RPI.
USC entered the SEC tournament projected to host a regional, so long as it didn’t go 0-2 and Arkansas didn’t make a deep run. With one win in Hoover, Ala., USC probably could have felt comfortable about its hosting chances.
Sure enough, USC went 0-2 there. Arkansas went 2-1, falling in Saturday’s semifinals to No. 5 LSU, which it previously beat in the tournament. The Razorbacks would have played No. 2 Vanderbilt in the final. But without the second win over LSU and a chance to further improve their resume against Vanderbilt, the Razorbacks couldn’t make up enough ground in the RPI.
It seems five quality wins helped push USC into the regional hosting pool. Two were against Clemson. Two were at LSU. And one came in the regular season final series at Mississippi State (No. 10 in the RPI). Those were USC’s best wins of the year, in terms of opponents’ RPI.
The difference in the first LSU win was Tanner English’s ninth-inning, run-scoring triple, followed by him scoring on a balk. Those runs put USC up 4-2 — the final margin. The second LSU victory, 4-0, came courtesy of freshman Jack Wynkoop’s gem: seven innings, five hits and no runs. The decisive play in the 5-3 win at Mississippi State, which was USC’s only victory in its final five games? Grayson Greiner’s two-out, two-run home run in the 10th to break a 3-3 tie. USC will need more of those moments to quality for its fourth consecutive College World Series, which would be a school record. But for now, the Gamecocks are happy to start another push for Omaha at home, where they are 55-8 all-time in NCAA tournament games, compared to 35-31 on the road. They have won 24 straight tournament home games since 2002.
Just like 2010 and 2012, when they closed 1-4 and 2-5, USC skids into this tournament. But if this year ends like those two did — national title and national runner-up — the Gamecocks won’t mind, and probably won’t even remember, that they almost didn’t start the tournament at home.
The 16 regional sites, with host institutions and records are:
Baton Rouge, La., Alex Box Stadium, LSU (52-9)
Blacksburg, Va., English Field, Virginia Tech (38-20)
Bloomington, Ind., Bart Kaufman Field, Indiana (43-14)
Chapel Hill, N.C., Boshamer Stadium, North Carolina (52-8)
Charlottesville, Va., Davenport Field, Virginia (47-10)
Columbia, Carolina Stadium, South Carolina (39-18)
Corvallis, Ore., Goss Stadium, Oregon State (45-10)
Eugene, Ore., PK Park, Oregon (45-14)
Fullerton, Calif., Goodwin Field, Cal State Fullerton (48-8)
Los Angeles, Calif., Jackie Robinson Stadium, UCLA (39-17)
Louisville, Ky., Jim Patterson Stadium, Louisville (46-10)
Manhattan, Kan., Tointon Family Stadium, Kansas State (41-17)
Nashville, Tenn., Hawkins Field, Vanderbilt (51-9)
Raleigh, N.C., Doak Field, North Carolina State (44-14)
Starkville, Miss., Dudy Noble Field, Mississippi State (43-17)
Tallahassee, Fla., Dick Howser Stadium, Florida State (44-15)