By Parrish Alford/NEMS Daily Journal
OXFORD – Had a conversation a few weeks back with a retired college baseball coach, a veteran of trying to get into an eight-team conference tournament field.
For what it’s worth, he says the magic number is 14.
Fourteen conference wins, and you’re in the field. He had no scientific reasoning, no results from a study financed by the NCAA, just his own experience, which is probably worth more anyway.
In his first 10 seasons as Ole Miss baseball coach, eight of Mike Bianco’s teams finished plus-.500 in the SEC regular season. Only one failed to reach .500.
That 2002 team, Bianco’s second, went 14-16 in SEC play but went 2-10 in its last 12 games including six straight conference losses to end the regular season.
The 2008 team qualified for the SEC tournament by winning at Kentucky on the final day of the regular season.
Unless Georgia, at 11-7, completely evaporates, it appears that five Western Division teams will battle for four SEC tournament spots. LSU is not mathematically eliminated, but with four wins would have to go 8-4 in its last 12 just to reach 14. In the East, Tennessee has five wins, Kentucky four.
Ole Miss is 9-9 in the league and tied for first in the West with Arkansas and Auburn. That’s the good news. The bad news for the Rebels is that the most difficult part of their schedule remains, beginning the next two weekends against top five opponents Florida and South Carolina.
Coaches, on record at least, see this sort of thing as opportunity.
I haven’t seen the Rebels do well enough with opportunities already presented, so I tend to approach it from the back end.
What does Ole Miss have to do to reach the SEC tournament? Just getting there would have them in solid position for an NCAA tournament berth. The Rebels’ RPI, at 41, is slipping into the danger zone, but that figure will adjust itself if Ole Miss does what needs to be done. Every remaining SEC game will be against a team with a higher RPI.
The trick is will be getting to 14 SEC wins or beyond.
While offense has come around in Oxford, Ole Miss – 2-7 in its last nine SEC regular season series dating back to this time a year ago — hasn’t shown itself capable enough defensively or in the bullpen to predict a strong run to the finish.
Injuries could play a part in this stretch as well. Ole Miss could be stronger in the bullpen if in fact Jake Morgan returns and returns to the form he showed prior to his shoulder injury on the opening weekend of SEC play.
Also, the immediate future is uncertain for South Carolina’s All-SEC outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr., the MVP of last year’s College World Series. The Gamecocks may be without Bradley in Oxford.
Set for May 12-14 in Oxford, the Ole Miss-MSU series, never short on intensity anyway, could go along way toward setting the field for the SEC tournament.
For the Rebels to get to Hoover and beyond they need to avoid being swept and win a series somewhere along the way. That would take care of the RPI and get them to at least 14 wins.
It’s not the preferred path to postseason, but if there’s indeed magic in the number “14” it will be the Rebels’ base requirement.
Parrish Alford (firstname.lastname@example.org) covers Ole Miss for the Daily Journal. He blogs daily about Ole Miss athletics at NEMS360.com.