COLUMBIA - Chad Holbrook didn't need to be convinced Alabama's baseball team was a legitimate contender this spring, but he was reassured anyway.
Scouting his team's next opponent, the Gamecocks baseball coach reached out to friend and Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn. Maybe he was a biased source. The Crimson Tide crushed the Razorbacks in their own stadium 17-9 last month, their worst loss of the season.
Arkansas squeaked out the series with a pair of one-run wins, but Alabama left an impression.
"He said, 'Without question they're the best team we've played. Without a doubt,'" Holbrook said, without mentioning South Carolina also has played Arkansas this spring. "I haven't seen them firsthand, but when you watch them (on tape) that's the feeling I get too."
No. 11 South Carolina hosts No. 8 Alabama for a three-game series beginning 7 p.m. Friday at Carolina Stadium. ESPN will televise the final two games of the series, starting 2 p.m. Saturday and 1 p.m. Sunday.
The Gamecocks (32-10, 10-8 SEC) enter the weekend with a four-game winning streak and two games out of first place in the East Division. The Crimson Tide (28-13, 12-6 SEC) is the highest-ranked SEC team in national polls and has a 1 1/2-game lead in the West Division.
Alabama, a traditional football power, isn't known for baseball dominance. Despite being ranked No. 21 in Baseball America's preseason poll, few thought Alabama would sit atop the SEC standings entering April's final weekend. Four SEC teams - including South Carolina - were ranked higher than Alabama in the preseason poll.
One day before the series, Alabama received nothing but respect from South Carolina players and coaches.
"I don't know if surprise is the right word," Gamecocks first baseman Kyle Martin said. "They've always been a good, powerhouse team and this year they've really come together well."
Holbrook said Alabama reminds him of some of the great SEC opponents that have traveled to Carolina Stadium in recent years. He put them in the same breath as 2009 national champion LSU and 2011 College World Series participant Vanderbilt.
"They're a terrific team," Holbrook said. "They're in the hunt for not only a regular-season SEC championship, but they're going to be in the hunt to host a regional and be a national seed and all those things. They're that good.
"Speaking with a lot of coaches around the league, the feedback I get is they're the most talented team in the league," Holbrook said. "So we're going to have our hands full."
With almost four weeks until the SEC baseball tournament begins, Holbrook said it's premature to think about postseason implications. Still, this week, it's unavoidable.
South Carolina and Alabama are both in the hunt for national seeds in the NCAA tournament. The winner would still have work left, but a series victory would be an impressive addition to a postseason resume.
"If we lose the series, I don't think we're necessarily out of the national seed hunt. If we win the series, I don't think that solidifies us," Holbrook said. "It's just an important series. ... I can sit over here and look and say we've got 14 left, and they're 14 important games."
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