Rebels, Eagles Bulldogs ready for post-season

Still another splendid Division I college baseball season in Mississippi seems headed for an extra special post-season.

Three reasons:

• After winning the SEC West, the Ole Miss Rebels also won the SEC Tournament and will host an NCAA Regional in Oxford this weekend as the No. 4 national seed.

• After winning the Conference USA regular season championship, Southern Miss also won the Conference USA Tourna­ment and heads to Arkansas as the No. 2 seed in the Fayetteville Regional.

• After a horrendous start to the season, which included the dismissal of its coach, Mississippi State re-grouped under interim head coach Gary Henderson, and heads to Florida State this weekend as the No. 2 seed in the Tallahassee Regional.

All things considered, none of Mississippi’s so-called Big Three had anything to complain about after the NCAA Tournament pairings were announced Monday.

A quick look at pairings involving Mississippi teams:

• At Oxford, Ole Miss will play St. Louis in the first round Friday night at 6:30. Tennessee Tech and Missouri State play the opener at 2 p.m. The winner of the Oxford Regional will play the winner of the Austin Regional, where Texas is the No. 1 seed and Texas A & M is the No. 2 seed. If Ole Miss wins, the Rebels would host that Super Regional.

• At Fayetteville, USM will play Dallas Baptist at 7 p.m. Friday night, after top-seeded Arkansas plays Oral Roberts in the regional’s first game at 2 p.m. That regional is paired with the Greenville, N.C., Regional in which East Carolina is the top seed and South Carolina is the No. 2.

• State will play Oklahoma at 11 a.m. Friday in the first round of the Tallahassee Regional. Top-seeded Florida State, the No. 7 national seed, will play Samford in the second game at 6 p.m. The Tallahassee Regional is paired with the Clemson Regional in which Clemson is the top seed and Vanderbilt is the No. 2.

Most college baseball experts, in predicting the regional match-ups, had Southern Miss going to Ole Miss. It didn’t happen and neither team seems to mind a bit. In fact, there were cheers at the Ole Miss team watch party when it flashed on the big TV screen that USM would be headed to the Fayetteville Regional.

“If that’s true then it’s a measure of the respect that our programs have for one another,” USM coach Scott Berry said. “We know how good they are, and I’d like to think they have a healthy respect for us. This way, both of us have a chance to go and represent Mississippi and both have a chance to advance instead of just one of us.”

This writer’s take: Of the three Mississippi teams, Ole Miss is by far the most balanced – all phases (hitting, pitching, fielding, base-running) considered. These Rebels, who were left out of the NCAA field last year, have as good a chance as any to win it all at Omaha.

As Rebel coach Mike Bianco put it to reporters Monday: “Our team has played really well and is very deserving.... We played well from Game One and finished it off. We’re excited and proud, but our guys are deserving.”

But this is baseball and anybody can beat anybody. It’s a matter of getting hot at the right time. Get this: Mississippi State, which lost three games to USM, won three of four from Ole Miss, which swept USM in the two meetings between those two teams.

If there’s a Cinderella team in the field, it has to be State, which started slow, lost its head coach in the first week of the season and battled back against all odds.

“They have very good players and Gary Henderson did an outstanding job,” Berry said. “They had a lot of adversity, but it made them tougher and toward the end it showed. It would not surprise me to see them advance.”

In summation, Mississippi often gets called a football state. It might be time to reconsider.

Rick Cleveland is a Jackson-based syndicated columnist. His email is rcleveland@mississippitoday.org.

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