April 17, 2013 1:45:09 AM
Matthew Stevens - [email protected]
STARKVILLE -- The last time Mississippi State University baseball hosted an NCAA Regional round the members of the current team were in elementary school.
This next month will mark the 10-year gap between regional hosting berths for Dudy Noble Field since MSU was eliminated by two losses to the University of North Carolina in 2003. The last time the Bulldogs won a regional they hosted was 2000.
This is not an anniversary the MSU program has any interest in continuing beyond this season and the coaches and players have a good understanding of where they stand at the halfway point of the Southeastern Conference season. The 16th-ranked Bulldogs (30-9, 8-7) are in very good shape to host a regional and the national analyst perception is their ratings percentage index still gives them an outside shot at one of the eight coveted national seeds.
"We live in a world now where our kids are surrounded by RPI and projections and we don't shelter them from that because it's impossible," MSU coach John Cohen said. "They know our RPI and the rankings of every team they play along with everything about the players. They are reminded of it daily."
MSU has a RPI ranking of 10 as of Tuesday night according to WarrenNolan.com and the 19th most difficult strength of schedule. It is these numbers and the fact that they are 7-1 this month that has risen the stock of their hosting chances considerably over the last few weeks. The Bulldogs are currently 12-9 against schools in the RPI Top 100 and have an over .500 record in games away from Starkville (8-4).
After suffering through four straight losing weekend series, MSU, which was 3-6 in league play at the time, bounced back with a series win over the University of Florida, a mid-week win over the University of Mississippi in Pearl and a road sweep of Texas A&M University.
"We knew we were still a great club that quite honestly was losing one-run games in that 3-6 start," MSU junior outfielder Hunter Renfroe said. "You have to look at that and say if the talent is there then eventually that trend will swing the other way to the good. We know we're capable of beating anybody in the country right now and looking forward to the future for this club."
MSU will have the national spotlight to start this weekend when it hosts Auburn (23-14, 5-10) for the ESPNU Thursday night game to start the series and be a part of the school's Super Bulldog Weekend festivities. The national analysts are convinced that a home sweep of the Tigers, which haven't been to a regional since 2010, would go a long way to securing its regional hosting spot in the NCAA field.
"I think Mississippi State is in good shape for now," Perfect Game national college baseball reporter Kendall Rogers said. "The Bulldogs have a pretty good chance to sweep Auburn at home this weekend and will finish the season with Alabama and South Carolina at home and a big rivalry series on the road against Ole Miss. State is over .500 in conference now, but the most important thing is State's RPI"
With 16 schools getting a chance to host a regional, the NCAA selection committee has been perceived to be giving attention to growing the sport north and therefore giving hosting spots to schools in the Big Ten, Big East or conferences north of the Mason-Dixon line. Even with that sentiment alive,
MSU's RPI number in the Top 10 gives the Bulldogs a solid argument to host despite not even currently being in the top two of the Western Division in the highly competitive SEC.
"Yeah, I'd say the Bulldogs are on track to host at this stage," Baseball America national college baseball writer Aaron Fitt said. "The RPI will keep MSU in the national seed discussion if it can hold its own down the stretch."
Barring a collapse from MSU in the final five SEC series against Auburn, No. 2 Vanderbilt University, Alabama, Ole Miss and No. 18 South Carolina, the clouded issue is a national seed. MSU has never received a national seed in school history since the NCAA went to this current format in 1999.
"I could see Mississippi State going 10-5 in its final five weekends, finishing 18-12 in the league," Fitt said. "If they do that, I could see them getting a national seed."
If MSU were to win 10 of their final 15 conference games, the Bulldogs would also likely qualify for one of the four byes into the second round of the SEC tournament in Hoover, Ala., and therefore put them one step closer to host status for the NCAA Regionals.
On the day before the NCAA selection show and while the SEC tournament championship game is being played, the selection committee will now announce not only the national seeds but the 16 host sites for regional play. Having the Bulldogs get further along in the tournament without an upset loss on the first day, could eliminate second-guessing by the committee. Also since 1999, the SEC has never had less than three of its schools host an NCAA Regional round.
With the two division leaders of Vanderbilt and LSU currently serving as more-than-likely candidates to be national seeds, that leaves at least historically one more SEC host spot up for grabs over the final month.
"Would say Mississippi State has the advantage at this point," Rogers said when asked to evaluate MSU, South Carolina and Kentucky's hosting chances. "South Carolina's getting swept by Florida was absolutely huge. For comparison, State has a Top 10 RPI with a 12-9 record vs. RPI Top 50 teams. Meanwhile, the Gamecocks are 5-7 vs. RPI Top 50 and Kentucky is now 10-6 vs. RPI Top 50 after that tough series loss to Tennessee."