COLUMBIA — For South Carolina, it comes down to this: three games against the No. 1 team in America, with the program’s decade-and-a-half-long streak of consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances at stake.
That’s the scenario facing the suddenly revived Gamecocks in the wake of last weekend, when USC outslugged then-No. 3 Texas A&M in College Station to claim just its third SEC series victory of the season. USC’s streak of 15 straight NCAA appearances seemed all but over a week ago, but the two wins over the Aggies lifted South Carolina’s RPI 17 spots, and gives it a chance to play for its postseason life this week at Carolina Stadium against top-ranked LSU.
“It’s a big win for us considering what we’ve been through and how good that team is over there and this environment,” USC head coach Chad Holbrook told reporters at Olsen Field after the Gamecocks’ series-clinching 8-7 victory Sunday. “It’s a special win.”
And in the big picture, a necessary one. The series victory — just USC’s third of the season — locked the Gamecocks (30-22, 12-15 SEC) into the league tournament in Hoover, Ala., and lifted their RPI from 74th to 57th. That alone isn’t enough to get South Carolina into the NCAA Tournament for the 16th straight season. But it certainly makes it a possibility with three more games against a highly ranked RPI-boosting opponent on deck.
“They definitely still have more work to do. I don’t think they have to sweep LSU, but they probably need to win two out of three to feel good about their chances going into the SEC tournament. And of course, that’s a lot easier said than done since LSU’s only lost one series all year,” said Jim Shonerd of Baseball America.
“Their RPI is No. 57, which isn’t in at-large territory yet, but should keep climbing this weekend almost regardless of the outcome. But if they were to lose two out of three and finish 13-17 in the league, they’re doubtful to get in the NCAAs without a deep run in Hoover. If they get swept, then their only hope is to win the tournament. A 12-18 team is extremely unlikely to get an at-large, so winning at least one game against LSU is a must to have any chance at all.”
South Carolina has a final mid-week game scheduled for Tuesday against USC Upstate (15-34), and the Gamecocks have struggled this season against smaller in-state programs. But barring a collapse against the Spartans, the stage is set for a potential season-saving showdown at Carolina Stadium beginning at 7 p.m. Thursday against LSU (43-8, 19-7). The Tigers’ lone loss in an SEC series this season was at home to Kentucky in late March.
But the Gamecocks have reason to hope. Sixteen SEC teams with under-.500 conference records have been selected to the NCAA Tournament over the past decade, although USC would likely need another significant RPI bump to join that club. Thanks in part to recent slides by Missouri and Kentucky, South Carolina now boasts the third-most overall victories in the SEC East. And a solid finish against two highly ranked opponents could help the NCAA selection committee look past some earlier struggles.
“The committee looks at a team’s record over its final 15 games as one of its data points,” Shonerd said, “so a strong finish does help you.”
USC was certainly buoyed by the presence of shortstop Marcus Mooney, who missed nearly a month due to a hamstring injury and returned to hit .700 against the Aggies and earn SEC Player of the Week honors. And if the Gamecocks are on the bubble on NCAA selection day, May 25 — well, who knows what role two recent national championships and the program’s winning reputation might have on those filling the final few slots.
“The committee would of course tell you that that stuff doesn’t matter,” Shonerd said, “but they’re human, so I’m sure it wouldn’t hurt South Carolina.”