"It's a new season now," the coach said moments after Mississippi State's SEC Tournament ended. "We'll prepare to enter tournament play next week and our kids are excited about it."
They should be. The Diamond Dogs have reached that most exciting point of the baseball calendar. The time when a team's entire season and many a college career can end immediately…or continue into another day, another weekend, another championship. Baseball doesn't get more exiting for both better and worse.
Which was also the luxury Mississippi State enjoyed this past week. They knew no matter how their SEC Tournament ended, that they were also leaving Hoover en route to a NCAA Regional. In fact, "We talked about it today," CF C.T. Bradford said after a loss to Florida eliminated the Dogs. "We looked at this week as a chance to take home some games and it didn't work out the way we wanted to. But we're going to learn from it and get ready to go in a Regional."
Which one, will be revealed along with the entire NCAA Tournament field and bracket. The selection show starts at 11:00am central, and if the Bulldogs are confident of selection they can't wait for the screen to show their destination.
Being Bulldogs, to exit Hoover without playing for a trophy or making the semifinals, as they had in the previous two trips, was a let-down of sorts at the moment. Or up to the point everyone remembered they would have some down-time top recover from playing on four-straight evenings. Which included two extra-inning games, and even a run-ruled victory that lasted long enough that the clock had struck midnight by return to the hotel. College kids are night owls by nature but even ballplayers have their nocturnal limits.
"But we get a couple of days off now so we can get our mind ready for Regionals," 2B Brett Pirtle said. Not just minds but bodies. Cohen well understands the risks of an extended stay at Hoover, better than any of his peers in fact. After playing six-straight day games en route to their 2012 Championship, those Bulldogs hadn't recovered strength by Friday at the Tallahassee Regional and went out in three games.
By contrast the 2013 team also had to begin play on Tuesday; won three games to qualify for the semifinals and lost on Saturday after a free Friday. Being baseball there is no honest way to definitively say that approach left last year's club fresher for the Starkville Regional and a run on to the College World Series. The home field for that team had to help too. Skeptics might note that LSU played for the 2013 SEC Tourney title and made it to Omaha too, but neither they nor opponent Vanderbilt had opened on Tuesday. And both had the Friday off as well.
What few argue is how just a little well-scheduled rest is a tournament-time advantage. Cohen could agree to suggestions that coming home Saturday was a big-picture plus.
"I think that is going to help. There's not many occasions you have to play four days in a row, certainly it's possible in a Regional." Which Cohen ought have recalled how his own '13 team did, forced into one of those ‘if necessary' Monday games before knocking off nemesis Central Arkansas to win the Regional. The point remains valid though since few Regionals go four playing days without weather issues.
So, "We feel like we in a good position right now to go home, get our work in and prepare for a Regional wherever that might be," Cohen said.
That they will be sent somewhere is no surprise. While giddy fans were wondering if three or four wins at Hoover could sneak State into hosting, no national analyst gave it a percentage of a chance. A RPI that only got into the 20s last week left MSU beyond that pale, and early-season losses to Holy Cross, Memphis, Arizona, and a late-season loss to Jacksonville State mooted hopes of Regional play at Dudy Noble Field for another year. Yet disappointed Dog fans only have to recall one key fact: this team has compiled a better record away from home. Especially in SEC play, where they were a frustrating 8-7 in friendly confines but 10-5 in enemy territory winning four of five series. That was as true in March as in May, too.
So packing the gear for another trip is not a penalty for this ball club and might well be a positive…depending on the specific siting. If there was one aspect more wins in Hoover would have done the Dogs good, it would be in their final seeding-strength. Such speculation about baseball tournament seeding matchups is not a lot like the basketball tournament where on the whole first-round matchups are a relative indicator of how strong or week the team is rated. Geographic objectives in siting squads can trump seeding and often does.
But in very vaguely general, the stronger #2 seeds are not to be assigned to one of the eight #1 national seeds. Since Mississippi State looks to be a #2, and with 21 regular- and post-season SEC wins any lower seeding would surprise, they hope for assignment to a non-national seed #1. The 16 Regional sites are to be announced Sunday evening but the national seeds not until the full field is revealed.
The national analysts and experts are all over the proverbial map as to where the Bulldogs will play. If they go by history, the safest bet would be somewhere in the eastern time zone. Since 2004, Mississippi State has played six road Regionals; all at Atlantic Coast Conference schools. Even their '13 super Regional was played in that league, at Virginia, though that was a function of Regional pairing. For that matter the 2000 Dogs also got sent to Clemson, in-between trips to Ohio State.
But all trends turn sometime, and 2014 looks like a good year for it. The ACC is projected with three hosts, but the same total is forecast for the state of Texas alone now. And since SEC West members Louisiana State and Ole Miss are regarded as locks to host a Regional, that leaves four more SEC West teams to site somewhere in State, Arkansas, and probably both Alabama and Texas A&M. They all can't go eastward since Florida is sure to host; South Carolina likely and Vanderbilt possibly; and Kentucky will get an at-large bid.
In Cohen's view, Regional week is a relief in one area. "At least in the beginning you don't have to play any SEC opponents." Because, the NCAA won't pair league schools in any Regional. The super round is another matter as Mississippi State can attest from their 2011 trip to Gainesville. Such cross-conference conflicts would be almost inevitable here in 2014 if the SEC does indeed put a league- and NCAA-record ten teams in the 64-field.
So talk around the Hoover Met press box all week has been Who Goes Where, and after a couple weeks of forecasts the Bulldogs would be assigned to Miami the picture got a lot bigger and cloudier by Thursday. The easiest call is a return to Tallahassee, since Alabama went there last year. But LSU going from just outside hosting scenarios to a sure thing has opened up room on the other side of the Mississippi River. Especially in Lafayette, which would delight at the prospect of a few thousand Mississippi State folk driving over for good food and tournament baseball. The media corps is not as enthused based on reports of the stadium press box size, and Bulldog baseball is followed by a sizable press gang…many of whom have checked facilities in Houston, Fort Worth, Indiana, etc., all just in case.
The Diamond Dogs could care less about such peripheral factors. They will enjoy the short rest, but by Sunday most will get fidgety about resuming routine. "We're going to work hard this week," Bradford declared.
"We're going to get in the weightroom, we're going to get after it on the field. We're going to find out where we're going and prepare for that, then get on the road and go take care of some business." If that sounds like a veteran player who can quickly and completely transition from one game to the next, it is. And so is the entire club, according to senior Bradford, who called the overall mood "great".
"I've said all year to you guys, we lose games like this and we bounce back. We get home and in the locker room and get back to having fun. And get ready to go."