State Looks To Strengthen NCAA Position At SECs

The first tournament of baseball's postseason hasn't even begun, and already attention around the Southeastern Conference has partly turned to the next one. In many cases, perhaps even the bigger partly.

Because during Monday's SEC Tournament teleconference for league coaches coming to the Hoover-Met this week much of the talk involved prospects for the NCAA Tournament. In the case of respective Division champions and other high finishers the question is just how confident/hopeful these skippers are of hosting a first-round Regional. Then there are Mississippi State and Arkansas, the #7 and #8 seeds respectively at this year's gathering at Hoover.

Their question is just how assured do Ron Polk and Dave van Horn feel of receiving an at-large bid, period. The Diamond Dog coach is clear…and confident. "Getting in the SEC Tournament should give you the right to be a Regional team."

If this holds true then Mississippi State can be reasonably confident that when the 64-team field is announced next Monday the Bulldogs will be booked for a Regional, somewhere. And they would travel because, at 36-20 and 13-16 SEC, there is no chance of hosting a first-round event even if State were to win the SEC Tournament. A super Regional might well be another matter, but that's two whole weeks away and no Bulldog needs to be caught looking that far down the tournament trail.

Just guaranteeing a Regional invitation is task enough for this team, and yes, Polk will admit that there is remaining reason for uncertainty. "Do you feel you have to win a game? I don't know that answer," said the coach, who knows this question will come up repeatedly all week. "And the answer is the same thing: who knows? We'll have to see what happens around the country and hope there's not too many upsets. But we deserve 10."

‘We' being the nation's leading league. There are undoubtedly conferences with better top teams this year, but here in 2005 no loop is stronger top-to-bottom. That's why going into the last weekend of the regular season five of the eight SEC Tournament berths were up for grabs among eight contenders; and not until the last out of the last day were two of those slots filled. Mississippi State slipped in at #7 due to losses by three contenders, and Arkansas took the #8 berth on a convoluted tiebreak.

Polk, being the SEC banner-bearer he is, still spares sympathy for Auburn and Vanderbilt teams that came up on the wrong side of the system despite identical records to Arkansas. "You have to feel bad for the kids not getting in via tiebreaker. But you have to live with it, and I hope both teams are considered for NCAA Regionals so they have a chance to continue."

A noble sentiment, yet Polk might should be careful what he asks for. Because it's not at all impossible if a low SEC Tourney seed went 2-and-through at Hoover they could lose a NCAA spot to the Tigers or Commodores, since all records and RPIs are so well-matched. Especially if chaos occurs around leagues with one sure NCAA club that is upset in their conference tournament, giving the automatic bid to someone else.

Polk has an answer here—that ten SEC clubs merit bids this year, after nine made the NCAA field last year (including MSU, which did not make it to Hoover in '04). "I think that's the perception," said Polk, before admitting "it's not guaranteed. Those guys meet in that room and strange things can happen. That's a good committee and they'll have a tough call. But they've never had 10 SEC teams."

Several SEC clubs don't have to worry about ten getting in. Regular-season champ Florida and West top-seed LSU are not only guaranteed but confident of hosting a Regional. Tennessee and Mississippi have good reason to think they too will host, and #5 seed Alabama should surely try to make a case also. "I think there's going to be a lot of hosts from this tournament," said Polk.

Meanwhile the Bulldogs just need to firm up their own postseason position. The first challenge, interestingly enough, is the team State just concluded a series with. MSU meets #2 overall seed (Division champs automatically are seeded atop the respective brackets) LSU in the tourney-opening game Wednesday morning, at 10:00 a.m. "We just had three very tough, close games with a fine LSU team," said Polk. "Now we turn right around and play them again. The good things for both teams is we've already got detailed scouting reports on each other!"

The Wednesday winner will play Thursday at 5:00 against the winner of South Carolina-Tennessee; the loser meets that game's loser in an elimination contest.

Polk said after staff discussion it's been decided senior righthander Alan Johnson will start Wednesday's game; no surprise as A.J. has been the series-starter all season and should have no problem being rested even on a shorter turnaround. LSU is expected to come back with southpaw Lane Mestepey. Whoever the Dogs meet on Thursday, righty Todd Doolittle will get the ball.

"We're back at full-health for the tournament," Polk said. "(Centerfielder) Joseph Hunter is healthy so we're at full-strength going in." The coach is particularly glad to have all arms ready to throw this week…and the entire rotation and relief staff will be called on if State is to make any sort of SECT run. Polk likes how his bullpen stacks up for postseason play.

"It's been committee-like this year because Saunders Ramsey hasn't pitched a lot. Mike Valentine and Brett Cleveland have been the guys we've given the ball to when we needed to and they've risen to the occasion. We don't have the number-one starter we've had in the past, but AJ, Todd, and Jon Crosby have kept us in games and got us to the middle part. But we don't score enough runs to make them feel comfortable."

That's an understatement as MSU is bringing by far the least impressive offense of the eight squads coming to Hoover. Batting average, on-base average, home runs, scoring, in every aspect the Bulldogs rank at or around the bottom of the list. Yet Polk is optimistic that this particular change of venue could dovetail nicely with Mississippi State's abilities at-bat. "This ballpark meets our expectations, it's even bigger than ours and that's a strength."

Hopefully, anyway. Whatever the dimensions of the yard, Mississippi State still needs to come up big this week to be absolutely certain the 2005 campaign will continue into the post-season. The Bulldogs might have, in some eyes, backed into the SEC Tournament. But with a good showing here they can accept a NCAA ticket with no reason for humility.

"All I know is the charge they have is to pick the best 64 teams after the conference tournaments are over," said Polk.

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