By David Brandt/The Associated Press
It didn’t take long for LSU to jump back on top of the Southeastern Conference.
The Tigers are the No. 1 seed in this week’s SEC tournament — just one year after missing the field entirely — and hope to win an expanded version of the event, which begins on Tuesday at Regions Park in Hoover, Ala.
Though LSU (42-14 overall, 19-11 SEC) will almost certainly earn one of the top eight national seeds in the NCAA tournament field no matter its performance this week, coach Paul Mainieri said his team’s return to the SEC postseason after a disappointing 2011 is reason to celebrate.
“Going to Hoover is not anything you ever take for granted,” Mainieri said.
The SEC tournament field has expanded to 10 teams from the usual eight, a move made in advance of the league’s expansion to 14 teams next season. But the coaches hope there’s another added benefit — more teams making the NCAA tournament.
The SEC has won three straight national titles and is regarded as one of the best overall leagues in college baseball. But that depth has sometimes been a detriment for teams on the NCAA bubble because programs that didn’t finish in the top eight didn’t make it to Hoover. Though teams that have missed the SEC tournament have occasionally made the NCAA tournament in the past, it’s been rare.
LSU and Mississippi were left out of the NCAA tournament field last season after missing the SEC tournament, despite having RPI numbers that would normally garner NCAA consideration.
“Having 10 teams is definitely the way to go,” Mississippi State coach John Cohen said. “If you look at the nine and 10 seeds, they can get on a roll and into the NCAA tournament. It’s about giving opportunities to go deep into the postseason and certainly we have more teams capable than any other league in America … Long term, it makes so much sense for every program in this league.”
If there is a downside to the new format, it’s that an already grueling tournament becomes a day longer. The top two seeds get a first-round bye and could possibly win the tournament in four games, but every other team will need to win five games to take home the title. The earlier start has also juggled pitching rotations, as some teams have opted to use their ace on a day’s less rest, while others will go with lesser pitchers who are fresh.
But you won’t hear the league’s coaches complaining. Praise for the new format has been overwhelming.
“We’re all out of school,” Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said. “We’d rather be playing baseball than sitting around.”
LSU didn’t need an expanded tournament to make the field this year. The Tigers have one of the league’s best pitchers in right-hander Kevin Gausman, who has a 9-1 record, 2.86 ERA and 118 strikeouts. They also have Raph Rhymes, who leads the SEC with a .469 batting average after flirting with .500 through much of the regular season.
The Tigers won the SEC’s regular-season championship by taking two of three games from South Carolina last weekend. The Gamecocks (39-15, 18-11) — who have won two straight national championships — are the tournament’s No. 2 seed.
LSU and South Carolina will rest on Tuesday while four games will be played: No. 3 Florida faces No. 10 Auburn, No. 4 Kentucky plays No. 9 Ole Miss, No. 5 Vanderbilt faces No. 8 Georgia and No. 6 Arkansas plays No. 7 Mississippi State.
LSU, South Carolina, Florida and Kentucky all hope a strong showing at Hoover will be enough to garner one of eight national seeds in the NCAA tournament. Those teams will host all of their postseason games until the College World Series in Omaha, Neb.
The rest of the field is still trying to solidify a place in the NCAA tournament field. The Commodores might have the most intriguing resume in the league after recovering from a dreadful start to win 10 of 12 games down the stretch.
Ole Miss and Auburn are the two teams that get to take advantage of the SEC’s tournament expanded format. Rebels’ coach Mike Bianco hopes his team will have a good week after an inconsistent regular season. With only two games separating the league’s 5th place and 9th place teams in the SEC regular-season standings, every win in the tournament could be important when it comes to the NCAA tournament selection process.
“The better you can do (in Hoover), the better your resume is for the postseason,” Bianco said.