COLUMBIA — It’s always been the asterisk to the gruesome death rattle that South Carolina has been shaking the last four weeks. Even with a 4-11 record after a 34-6 start, even with four straight series losses to end the regular season, even with a patchwork roster … there’s always been Hoover.
Nobody wanted to have to hinge hopes on it, but if the Gamecocks won a few games in the SEC Tournament, all of the misery of the last month would go away and they would easily be a host for the NCAA Regionals.
The asterisk has arrived, as USC begins tournament play at 10:30 a.m. on Tuesday.
It comes with two questions:
Do they truly need to win in Hoover to ensure a host spot?
And, wouldn’t a first-round loss and the ensuing nine days of rest before the regionals be better, in any case?
The second is easy. Any rest, any time off from the field, cannot possibly hurt the battered Gamecocks. Ace pitcher Will Sanders (foot) isn’t expected to pitch this week anyway but shortstop Braylen Wimmer and second baseman Will McGillis could use some time off, as could any other player who’s been riding the sinking ship the past month.
But the first: Coach Mark Kingston declared that the Gamecocks are already a regional host, no matter what happens in Hoover.
“Oh yeah, it’s a no-brainer. I don’t know what metric you wouldn’t measure us as one of the top 16 teams,” he said after splitting a doubleheader with Tennessee on Saturday. “I don’t want to give the resume and look needy up here, like we’re trying to build a case. I don’t think we need to build a case. Top-five RPI, (top-five) strength of schedule, Quad I wins … hard to beat that. If you can find 16 resumes who have those on them, then we’ll tip our cap.”
The Gamecocks’ RPI slightly dropped to 6 after Tennessee, but Kingston’s numbers were otherwise on target. It should be noted that the selection committee will look at the Gamecocks’ SEC schedule as well — nobody played a tougher league slate, as USC played everybody in the East and the three best teams in the West.
But losing four straight series will not go over well, especially as other teams are trying to polish their resumes this week in their respective tournaments. Kingston doesn’t think that will play a role, because it’s about judging the entire season.
“We needed to come out and win a game today, whether it was game one, game two,” Kingston said. “We wanted to win both but we knew we needed to win one to solidify a place in the SEC and to make it a slam-dunk host situation, in my opinion.”
Winning in Hoover can’t possibly hurt the Gamecocks, either, but there’s no telling how much they’d have to win and if it could be done. USC has been deplorable at the tournament since winning it in 2004, posting a record of 12-30 in Hoover with zero wins in its last three appearances.
Now, the Gamecocks didn’t have to win in many of those years. Their postseason picture was rosy with or without Hoover success.
And there were many years where a Hoover stinker didn’t affect them in the slightest, most notably 2010, where an 0-2 SEC Tournament showing was forgotten by winning the College World Series.
But from 2015-22 (there was no tournament in 2020), USC four times entered Hoover needing to win just to get to an NCAA Regional.
Four times it did not, including last season. Which gives the asterisk USC didn’t want to have to rely on a distinct glare now that the Gamecocks have realized a need to use it.
Kingston doesn’t think it’s necessary. The regional host sites will be announced on May 28. He’s confident (at least publicly) that USC will be named, with or without more wins.
The Gamecocks don’t appear capable of winning right now, but do they have to?