COLUMBIA — Clemson coach Jack Leggett had from 9 p.m. Sunday until noon Monday to think about where the Tigers might get sent for their NCAA tournament regional.
The 16 regional hosts were announced Sunday night, and there seemed to be several possible nearby destinations for Clemson, which played its way out of hosting contention by finishing the season 0-5. Maybe the tournament’s selection committee would send the Tigers to Louisville or Mississippi State.
Going to Vanderbilt wasn’t going to happen because the Commodores on Monday afternoon received one of the eight national seeds, so their regional was filled with teams who had weaker resumes than Clemson’s.
But what about South Carolina’s regional? Would the committee send Clemson to play in its rival’s ballpark for the second straight year? Yes it would, as it turned out.
While Leggett and USC coach Chad Holbrook did not sound overly pleased Monday about the arrangement, don’t count Leggett among those who were surprised it happened.
“I’m never surprised anymore about anything,” he said. “Obviously, you’d love to be playing at home, but didn’t make it work. I was on the committee for six years, and we kind of thought a little bit differently back then. I don’t know what the factors are now that send people where they go.”
Clemson is the regional’s No. 2 seed and will play No. 3 seed Liberty, which is coached by former USC assistant Jim Toman, at 1 p.m. Friday. USC will play No. 4 seed Saint Louis at 7 p.m. Last year, USC and Clemson both won their regional openers. Then USC beat Clemson twice, in the winners’ bracket game and regional championship, and wound up finishing as the national runner-up.
On the first three days of March, USC took two of three games from Clemson for the third straight season. The Gamecocks are 10-3 against the Tigers since the beginning of the 2010 College World Series, where USC went 2-0 against Clemson on its way to its first of two straight national titles.
The rivals have met in the NCAA tournament nine times. Clemson won the first three meetings, in 1976 and 1980. USC won the next six, in the 2002 College World Series, 2010 and last year.
The tournament selection committee’s chairman, Big West Conference commissioner Dennis Farrell, said the committee is strongly encouraged by the NCAA to fill regionals based on proximity, even if it creates potential rematches for teams like USC and Clemson.
“Unfortunately, it is something that we’re told to take under consideration and stick to, as a result of a directive from the NCAA championship cabinet,” Farrell said. “We tried to spread it around as much as possible. We obviously looked at South Carolina and Clemson’s situation.”
Farrell said the committee researched how often USC and Clemson played in regionals since 1999, when it expanded to 64 teams. The one USC-Clemson meeting, albeit last year, was less frequent than other pairings, like Arizona State and Cal State Fullerton, who are in the same regional this year for the third time since the field expanded. So another USC-Clemson pairing was not going to be egregiously abnormal, from the committee’s perspective.
Of course, the Gamecocks and Tigers are not guaranteed to meet in this regional. If Clemson stumbles in its first game, USC will get a rematch with Liberty, which went 1-2 in Columbia in this season’s opening series.
Whoever they play, the Gamecocks are happy to do it at home, where they are 55-8 all-time in the NCAA tournament, including 24 straight wins since 2002, and have advanced in 18 of the 20 NCAA tournament rounds they’ve hosted. The exceptions are the 2000 super regional against Louisiana-Lafayette and the 1976 regional, which Clemson won over Furman after beating USC.
“In a perfect world, selfishly, I would love to play teams that we haven’t played yet,” Holbrook said. “I can’t really pick and choose who I want to come here. Would we rather play somebody else? All I know is I just wanted to play at home. I don’t care who you send here. If we get to play at home, we’ll take our chances based on how we’ve played here.”