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MSU baseball on NCAA bubble, but far from in trouble


David Miller



STARKVILLE -- Despite crashing out of the Southeastern Conference tournament in two games and losing four of its past five games, the Mississippi State baseball team feels it has a strong case to earn an at-large berth to the NCAA tournament.  


As of Saturday afternoon, the Bulldogs (34-23) were ranked No. 31 in RPI, according to MSU is one of seven SEC teams ranked in the top 31.  


The NCAA will release its bracket at 11:30 a.m. Monday (ESPN). 


"We play in the best conference in the country," third baseman Jarrod Parks said, "so hopefully they''ll look at that and we''ll get in." 


Like fellow SEC bubble teams Georgia and LSU, the latter of which didn''t make the SEC tournament, MSU''s optimism that it will receive an at-large NCAA is powered by the fact it plays in the SEC.  


Georgia might not have as good a winning percentage as MSU or LSU (35-20), but it rebounded from a loss in its first game at the SEC tournament to win three in a row and force an elimination game against the University of Florida on Saturday afternoon. That push figures to help Georgia''s chances to earn an at-large big and could hurt Ole Miss (30-25), which also failed to qualify for the SEC tournament. 


By default, any team in the SEC will have more games against high-RPI teams than teams in other conferences.  


MSU''s RPI sets it apart and makes it a favorite to play in the NCAA tournament. It has three wins against teams in the RPI top 20, and 11 against the RPI top 50. But its body of work makes it a favorable bubble team, too, editor Mark Etheridge said.  


While MSU''s non-conference schedule took a hit with two losses to Iowa, which finished under .500, its win against potential NCAA regional host Southern Mississippi, two wins against No. 78 Belmont, and a win against No. 90 South Alabama helped balance its non-SEC games.  


"When you look at the bubble, if you''re an SEC team and you''re not gonna get in it''s because you either didn''t make the conference tournament or you did absolutely nothing in non-conference," Etheridge said. "I think Mississippi State did enough. They could have done more, but I think they did enough to get in. I think LSU is going to get in, basically, for that same reason." 


Ole Miss has an uphill battle to make a regional based on its overall résumé, according to Etheridge. 


"Ole Miss, their best feature is a road series win over Houston, which is a sub-.500 team," Etheridge said of the Rebels'' non-conference slate. "Ole Miss is a team that played 37 games against top 100 and won 13. Those are the teams you have to beat, and they didn''t do it. There''s a big difference in the overall résumé." 


MSU is a bubble team for a variety of reasons. 


The Bulldogs'' end-of-season form leaves a greater impression on some NCAA tournament committee members than others, despite the multi-factor formula the committee says it uses. The Bulldogs were close to being swept by LSU in the final regular-season series, and they were flat and mistake-prone in an SEC tournament elimination game against Arkansas. 


Etheridge believes MSU would be assured an at-large NCAA tournament berth had it won two of three against LSU and at least one game at the SEC tournament. 


Upsets in other conference tournaments could increase the competition for a shrinking number of at-large bids.  


If Connecticut doesn''t win the Big East tournament, the conference would have two NCAA teams. Texas Christian had already lost a game in the Mountain West tournament entering Saturday, while Elon, the leader in the Southern Conference, was eliminated early from its conference tournament and is another NCAA tournament bubble team. 


Etheridge calls the selection process "maddening" because of the inconsistencies in teams that earn at-large bids each year. 


"I hope they''ll look at yesterday''s game (against Florida)," Parks said. "We were one play away from winning that game by a few runs. We played Arkansas good twice at their place; I still think we''re as good as them." 


The SEC bubble list shrank when Auburn was eliminated from Hoover and finished with a .500 record (the NCAA requires Division I baseball teams to be one game above .500 to get in). 


Etheridge believes Auburn would have been an NCAA tournament team if it had the required win percentage. 


"Anytime your season ends, it''s tough to accept," Auburn coach John Pawlowski said Thursday. "But we put ourselves in this position. The rules are what they are, but we''ve got to continue to build depth on this team. 


"On the weekends, I thought we competed well with some of the best in the country. Unfortunately, we weren''t deep enough to compete midweek. We''ll have to address that." 


Possible landing spots should MSU make a regional are Hattiesburg -- should Southern Miss host -- one of the four projected regional sites in Texas, and an Atlantic Coast Conference host site, possibly Tallahassee, Fla., or Chapel Hill, N.C. 


There also is a chance MSU will get sent to the West Coast, like LSU did last year.  


MSU''s chances of winning a regional depends on its draw, as its recent form has exposed problems that could stymie a postseason run.  


"They''ve got some problems on the mound," Etheridge said. "Down the stretch, Caleb Reed''s the only guy on the mound you feel extremely confident about. Everyone else has had their moments, but not someone a No. 1 type of club is gonna fear. But if they go to Southern Miss, which has some pitching issues with academic suspensions, that could be a place where they have a little bit of success."



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