Thrill of Victory

No shortage of storylines in Hoover

Everyone knows how tough the Southeastern Conference is in football, but guess what? The league might even be just as competitive in baseball. The last three national champions have come from the conference, and last year, three of the College World Series’ final four teams were from the SEC. Things will get even tougher next year when Texas A&M and Missouri join the league.

The SEC decided to get the jump on expansion by expanding the tournament to 10 teams from eight this year, which makes not only for a complicated bracket, but also some interesting storylines. Here are the things to watch as the tournament kicks off tomorrow in Hoover, Ala.:

Who gets an NCAA national seed?
The NCAA awards eight national seeds every year, which means that teams earning them get a home-field advantage all the way to the College World Series should they continue winning. How important can that be? Last year, Florida, South Carolina and Vanderbilt all got national seeds, and all three teams also wound up in Omaha.

This year, four teams – Florida, Kentucky, LSU and South Carolina – all have a crack at a national seed. Because the NCAA weighs the RPI heavily – that’s a computer ranking that considers not only your record, but the strength of your opponents – Florida appears to be safe for a national seed because of its No. 1 ranking (according to BoydsWorld.com) there.

Next in the RPI comes LSU at No. 7. Certainly, the Tigers didn’t hurt themselves by winning a series at No. 9 RPI South Carolina, which also gave the Tigers the SEC title. The selection committee seems to place a lot of weight on conference finish, and coming out on top after 30 SEC games is a huge accomplishment.

Carolina is more of a question. The Gamecocks finished a half-game out in the league’s regular-season race at 18-11 after a 1-5 start. Momentum is squarely on USC’s side, and although the NCAA isn’t supposed to consider your history, winning the last two national titles certainly can’t hurt.

The team with the most to play for in this regard is UK. The Wildcats did the opposite of Carolina, winning their first 22 games and 29 of their first 31. However, Kentucky’s RPI is in the high-teens because it played a soft non-conference schedule, and it also lost its last four games. Barring a great run in Hoover, UK probably won’t get a national seed.

Can Mississippi State or Arkansas play its way into hosting?
In addition to eight national seeds, eight other teams also get to host four-team Regionals in the first weekend of NCAA play. Mississippi State has never really been in the discussion for that, but after sweeping Kentucky this weekend and winning four of its last five conference series, ‘State could make an argument for a hosting spot if it would win the crown in Hoover and some other teams stumble.

One thing that makes a case for a hosting spot is MSU’s Dudy Noble Field, which set the national on-campus record for attendance for a 1989 game with Florida and has attracted crowds of 10,000 or more on 25 occasions.

Arkansas, which ranked third in the nation in attendance last year, has a similar appeal.With a 17 RPI (about a dozen spots higher than MSU’s) and an identical 16-14 conference mark, the Razorbacks probably have the best argument of the two teams.

Should teams like NC State or Purdue struggle in conference tournaments, perhaps one of the two could sneak in a bid, though probably not both.

Can Vanderbilt become a two-seed?
We’ve chronicled Vandy’s incredible last month of the season quite a bit here at The Thrill of Victory in the last couple of weeks. Well, guess what? VU’s story continues to be a fascinating one to follow.

The Commodores swept Ole Miss over the weekend, which now removes just about any question as to whether VU will be in the NCAA’s field of 64 when it’s announced a month from today.Right now, SEBaseball.com’s Mark Etheridge, one of the best in the business at playing the NCAA Tournament guessing game, has the Commodores as a Regional three-seed.

But, let’s say the Commodores make it to Sunday’s title game – something they’ve done under coach Tim Corbin in 2003, 2006, 2007, 2009 and 2011. That kind of run would probably make it hard for the NCAA to deny Vandy a two – and it might not take more than another win or two as-is.

Can Auburn and Georgia make the NCAAs, period?
Auburn and Georgia both went to Hoover last year with a chance to play its respective ways into the NCAAs by finishing a game over .500 overall. After losing in the first round to Vanderbilt, Georgia had to win three in a row just to insure it met the qualification – which it improbably did by beating Auburn, South Carolina and Florida. Auburn, meanwhile, dropped to .500 on the nose after the Georgia loss, which eliminated the Tigers from NCAA consideration.

One year later, both teams will meet the above-.500 qualifications to be eligible for the NCAAs, no matter what happens in Hoover. The problem is that each team has an RPI in the 50s, and as of today, Etheridge has each team just missing the field of 64. However, each team has a chance to make the NCAAs with a good run in Hoover.