State Playing One Tourney, Thinking Ahead To Next

There's a championship to play for here in Hoover, but already Mississippi State minds are on next weekend's round of NCAA Regionals. The thinking runs the gamut from how to pitch the rest of the SEC Tournament to where the Diamond Dogs may play their first round of the national tournament.

State (38-20) is now as assured of participating in the post-season as if the bid had already arrived. A pair of wins at the Hoover-Met not only has the Bulldogs playing Saturday for a spot in the championship round, they removed any conceivable possibility that MSU will be denied at least an at-large NCAA berth. Tough, if the Dogs should come out the Sunday winner at Hoover, they will have earned the SEC's automatic bid.

Either way, Coach Ron Polk and staff have begun thinking about the upcoming week once Monday's selection show reveals how State is seeded and which four-team Regional they are assigned to. It's a welcome change from 2004 when a MSU team that did not qualify for the SEC Tournament was waiting on pins-and-needles (and in some player-cases, not even in Starkville) for NCAA word. When it came, Mississippi State made league history by rounding out a nine-team lineup of SEC squads receiving bids. This May the waiting will be much less tense.

In fact, before even leaving for Hoover the State administration was so certain about the postseason that a bid was submitted to host one of the 16 first-round events. "A substantial bid," amplified athletic director Larry Templeton, and though he would not reveal the exact figure speculation is in the $150,000 range. That's three times what the NCAA requires for a first-round hosting bid.

Yet money is not the deciding factor any more. For a half-dozen years now the NCAA has gone in a different direction that puts more emphasis on what programs have done on the field than what is in their bank account. It's somewhat oversimplified but generally true that the siting committee awards Regionals to teams that are at the top of their conferences, or the NCAA's unpublished R.P.I., or both. That is, the eight ‘national' seeds are almost automatically assured of hosting, with the next eight #1 seeds right behind…

…if they put in a bid. Some don't. Or, if they have all the facilties, support staff, and track record of hosting successful tournaments. Some don't meet all the criteria; for example a few don't even have full lights on the field, an automatic bid-killer. So there is room for many #2 seeds to hope they can host. And as they play for a SEC Tourney title, the unranked Diamond Dogs are almost certainly playing for a second-rank seeding.

Not that Polk, who knows a thing or three about hosting Regionals, expects to be playing on the home field this coming weekend. "I doubt it," he said Saturday. "It's a shame, because if we'd won the second game with Florida and the first game with LSU, and say we win the next two, we'd be 42-18 and a RPI of maybe 16.

"We're two, maybe one game away from hosting, but you can't call the committee and say hey, our shortstop can't throw the ball across the field. They'd say get another shortstop. But look at all the overall records of the teams. I don't think our RPI is good enough to host, but it's not a disaster. And we can always get the super Regional depending on who we play and the bracket."

That is something for Bulldog fans to ponder, as Dudy Noble Field has yet to host a second-round super Regional in the five years this format has been in effect. The 2003 team was poised to do so, since the Starkville Regional was paired with a first-round tourney at Georgia Tech won in an upset by South Carolina. All the '03 Dogs needed to do was beat North Carolina and as the overall higher-seed they would have hosted. The Tarheels spoiled that plan.

And realistically a super Regional is a tough proposition unless State wins the SEC Tournament and secures a solid #2 seeding or, maybe, a low #1 as in 2001. Of course that year the Dogs, seeded 16th, were assigned as the top seed at Ohio State and won but being paired with overall #1 seed Cal State-Fullerton had no chance of hosting. Money is not an issue here either as the NCAA only requires a $35,000 baseline bid.

Whatever the numbers, as this '05 campaign heads into June, Polk can wonder what might have been. "Look back to the Florida series. If we make one play, throw a ball across the infield we win two of three. Same thing with LSU. We've played well lately, we've pitched well and we've got double-digit hits the last eight games."

So realistically the Bulldogs are playing to win their conference tournament and let the NCAA chips fall as they may on Monday. And State really is playing to win, unlike some folk have in league tourneys Polk has participated in. "I remember a SEC Tournament in New Orleans and Florida started an outfielder in a championship game," he recalled.

Commissioner (Roy) Kramer went ape because he thought the SEC Tournament was the most important thing, and Florida said they had to start (the NCAAs) Thursday."

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