SCOTT:Five SEC schools host regionals

Being the nation's best collegiate baseball conference should have its rewards, and it did for the Southeastern Conference on Sunday when the NCAA Division I Baseball Tournament selection committee awarded regional host sites to five SEC teams.

After lighting up the national RPI throughout the season, including all 12 teams in the national top 64 entering last week's SEC Tournament, the SEC led the nation with five host sites, compared to four for the ACC, three for the Big 12 and one for the Pac-10.

From the SEC, Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi and Kentucky will host regionals this week. The other regionals went to Nebraska, Texas and Oklahoma of the Big 12, Rice of Conference USA, Cal-Fullerton of the Big West Conference and Oregon State of the Pac-10 and Pepperdine of the West Coast Conference.

 

Awarding host sites to five SEC programs was among the many smart decisions made by the committee, although there's certain to be plenty of national consternation and cries of conspiracy because Mississippi State athletic director Larry Templeton is this year's committee chairman, especially after LSU was left out of the tournament and the Bulldogs backdoored their way in.

 

All whining and moaning aside, the committee's better decisions include:

 

 

* Five host sites for the SEC – The nation's best conference deserves the highest number of host sites and bids. Simple enough. Give the committee credit for following through and not playing political games.

 

"It came down to rewarding teams that were worthy based on their entire body of work during the season," Templeton said. "We had a long discussion about that. Florida State finished tied for sixth in the ACC regular season; Miami was fifth in the ACC regular season. There were some outstanding teams from the ACC and other parts of the country, and the committee felt we should put those sites someplace else."

 

 

* Go back to that phrase "entire body of work." It's why Georgia (41-19), Ole Miss (39-20) and Arkansas (39-19) find themselves hosting regionals despite mid-season slumps. The Bulldogs, Rebels and Razorbacks all played tough schedules and played reasonably well over the long haul. Then, with their postseason goals on the line, they finished strong in the regular season.

 

"Seven or eight weeks ago, the team was pretty beat up and we were just trying to figure out who could pitch and who we were going to play," Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said. "Then we got it going a little bit and won 10 of our last 15 games. I think that we learned a lot from (the losses in the SEC Tournament) and I think you will see a lot more intense team. They'll be focused and ready to go this coming Friday."

 

Ole Miss also celebrated the selection committee's Sunday announcement by beating Vanderbilt for the SEC Tournament title.

"Another well played game by the team. We played well all week and today was a well played game against a good Vanderbilt team," Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco said. "To win the biggest tournament besides the College World Series is a great accomplishment. ... We couldn't have done any better from a 13-11 start. As the SEC Champion knowing you'll host the regional, we've come a long way."

 

* Giving No. 7 Kentucky its first-ever opportunity to host a regional. The Wildcats did lose both of their SEC Tournament games as well as its past three games and four of its past five, but that's no disgrace in the SEC, especially for a team that carries a 42-15 record into the NCAA Tournament.

 

"I still think we're pretty deserving (of holding an NCAA Regional)," Kentucky coach John Cohen said before the selections were announced. "I can name four (SEC teams) off the top of my head that have gone two-and-out and hosted a regional."

 

Now Kentucky and the Lexington area must prove its worthy of an opportunity to host, as a city, an institution, an athletic department and a team.

 

"This weekend, I expect us to have a great crowd to really support not only our team, but also the NCAA Tournament in general," Cohen said. "Lexington is a great baseball town and I'm sure the baseball fans in the city will come out and provide a tremendous atmosphere for the entire weekend."

 

"This will be a good experience for us," Kentucky second baseman John Shelby said. "We'll see what kind of team we are."

 

* The same selection committee also broke with tradition by not granting a host site to LSU for the first time in 16 years. It would have been easy to concede a host site to LSU based on its outstanding tradition and its status among college baseball's annual attendance leaders, but it wouldn't have been fair to the other eight teams that will host.

 

"LSU did not have quite the year that they have had in the past," Templeton said. "There were a number of other teams, not only from the Southeastern Conference, but also from that area of the country that we looked at. They were eighth overall in the SEC and we just felt that there were some other more-deserving sites and we had some other opportunities in that region of the country."

 

In the end, though, it didn't matter. Although many believe the committee mad a huge mistake, the Tigers were left out of the NCAA Tournament field for the first time in 18 years, dating back to the 1988 season.

 

 

* At the same time it chose not to give LSU a host site, the selection committee then presented Pepperdine (39-19) with a chance to host for the first time. The Waves are annually among the nation's better baseball teams, but  Pepperdine's Eddy D. Field Stadium does not having any lights. That will present some scheduling challenges for Pepperdine, but the Waves appear to be worth the gamble.

 

"We spent a lot of time with that decision, and we have played sites in the past without lights," Templeton said. "At the end of the day, the committee felt that Pepperdine had earned that right to host, and we also felt that we needed a couple of sites out in the West."

 

 

* While the average LSU fan knows his Rices, Pepperdines and Cal State Fullertons from his big-name schools with average baseball programs, most casual college baseball "fans" will wonder why and how the Owls, Waves and Titans could play on an level field with NCAA Division I's major powers.

 

The committee showed its understanding of competitive parity and the national impact of 11.7 scholarships by spreading the wealth to Rice, Pepperdine and Cal State Fullerton when it would have been easier to go with the big names.

 

Meanwhile, there will be no regional host sites in the state of Florida for the first time since 1975. Florida failed to make the SEC tournament after reaching the College World Series championship game in 2005. Florida State, which has hosted 24 times, and Miami, which has played host 21 times, had to settle for at-large berths on the road.

 

"We just had a lot of tough decisions and we did our best to geographically put sites at different places," Templeton said.

           

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Alabama coach Mike Shula faces one of the most difficult and public decisions of his three seasons as the Crimson Tide's head coach.

 

Shula has already been questioned by fans, media and opponents because of his perceived soft stance on his players' off-field problems. Now he must figure out what to do about starting linebacker Juwan Simpson's recent arrest for possession of marijuana, carrying a pistol without a license and a 2nd-degree charge of receiving stolen property.

 

The Jefferson County (Ala.) Sheriff's Office later reduced receiving the stolen property charge from a felony down to a misdemeanor because the gun was valued at less than $500, but the point, and the challenge, remain the same: what does Shula do about Simpson?

 

On one hand, Simpson is a 21-year-old senior 2005 Academic All-Southeastern Conference selection who earned his undergraduate degree in financial planning in December. Simpson is also pursuing a second degree in criminal justice. When spring practice came to a close, Simpson was presented with the Derrick Thomas Community Award, named after the late Alabama star who was actively involved in charitable works.

On the other hand, Simpson is one of only four returning defensive starters on defense and a key leader on a rebuilding defensive unit. There's no one on the defense in a position to replace all that he brings to the Crimson Tide at this point.

 

Somewhere in the middle, Shula must also consider the seriousness of these charges. The charges are so serious Simpson decided to hire one of the state's most prominent attorneys, H. Lewis Gillis of Montgomery.

 

So what does Shula do? Dismiss Simpson from the team? Suspend him for the summer? For a game or two? For half the season? Make Simpson run the steps at Bryant-Denny Stadium all summer? Nothing at all until the legal system has its way with Simpson?

While Gillis digs through the case, Shula apparently has decided to sit and wait for a result of some sort.

 

"Whenever there is a problem with one of our players, we do a lot of investigation," Shula told the Tuscaloosa News. "We're still in that process, so it's too soon to make any decisions.

 

"If discipline is necessary, we will handle it internally and not through the media. We try to be fair and consistent with our discipline, but we will have accountability.

 

"We all make mistakes sometimes, but mistakes have consequences."

 

Quarterback John Parker Wilson missed one game following his DUI arrest last fall. When four players were suspended from the 2005 season opener due to offseason "violations of team rules," the decision was not announced until moments before kickoff. When two players (DJ Hall and Chris Keys) were suspended from last year's Cotton Bowl, the suspensions were not confirmed until after the game.

 

On all three occasions, Shula insisted he was handling the problems within the program and encountered considerable criticism for his decisions.

 

"Any time one of our kids, or anyone associated with the University gets into trouble, it's tough," Shula said. "We talk to our players and tell them that if they get into trouble, it's going to be in the media. That's part of it."

 

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Richard Scott is a Birmingham based sports writer, author and guest columnist in Tiger Rag magazine. Reach him at RScottfree@aol.com.


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