May 31, 2011 8:09:00 AM
STARKVILLE -- Aside from the fanfare of playing a state rival in the opening round of the NCAA tournament, the Mississippi State baseball team should have an added advantage of having faced Southern Mississippi in the regular season.
MSU''s 5-4 win against Southern Miss on April 5 helped it rebound from being swept at the University of Georgia, and also set the stage for a crucial Game 1 win against Florida on Super Bulldog Weekend.
But much has changed since MSU won that game, mostly on Southern Miss'' side. The Golden Eagles have two of their top pitchers suspended. Conference USA first-team selection Geoffrey Thomas (10-3, 3.09 ERA) is "temporarily" suspended and is uncertain to pitch in the regional. Jonathon Thompson (7-1, 3.49) is suspended and won''t play this postseason.
The Golden Eagles went 1-2 in the C-USA tournament without both pitchers. They also played without leading hitter and Ferriss Trophy winner Tyler Koelling, who suffered a hamstring injury May 21.
Koelling, a senior outfielder, leads USM with a .367 batting average and has four home runs and 46 RBIs. His status for the regional opener at 2 p.m. Friday against MSU is uncertain.
Normally, having played a team during the regular season might make scouting a bit easier, but Cohen''s focus in Game 1 is to determine who''ll take the mound for his team.
"I don''t think it simplifies anything for us," Cohen said. "I think we''re gonna ask ourselves, who''s pitching best for us? We''ll take a closer look at Southern Miss'' lineup. In my mind, (sophomore left-hander Luis) Pollorena had great success against them in Trustmark, so we''ll weigh all of that here the next couple of hours and start making some decisions."
Pollorena pitched 5 2/3 shutout innings of relief against Southern Miss, giving up just one hit and striking out six.
The Bulldogs (34-23) and Golden Eagles (39-17) enter the NCAA tournament in similar positions. MSU has lost four of its past five, while USM has dropped six of its last nine. The stretch run prevented the Golden Eagles from being one of the tournament''s 16 host sites.
The MSU-USM matchup joins the Vanderbilt-Belmont as the tournament''s true rivalry games in the first round.
The nature of rivalry games is another reason current form or past results can be irrelevant, MSU second baseman Nick Vickerson said.
"They''re competitive and they play with a chip on their shoulder," Vickerson said of Southern Miss. "I''m sure a lot of those guys would have liked to have ended up in the SEC coming out of high school, so when you play a bigger team they really want to beat them."
LSU left out
Mississippi State''s walk-off win against LSU helped propel it to the Southeastern Conference tournament and, ultimately, helped seal an at-large bid for the NCAA tournament.
The Tigers, who won the other two games of the series, weren''t one of the SEC''s top eight teams to qualify for the league tournament in Hoover, Ala. On Monday, LSU learned its No. 26 RPI and 36-20 record -- both better than MSU -- weren''t enough to get them into the NCAA tournament.
Cohen was just as surprised to see Arkansas, which will play in the Arizona State Regional, didn''t get the chance to host a regional.
"I can''t even imagine what the LSU kids are going through," Cohen said. "I''m still shocked about that part because there''s no doubt LSU deserves to be in the NCAA tournament. There is no doubt about it, and I''m not criticizing the committee. I know they have a very difficult job. In years past, they had a teleconference and I would imagine there''ll be a couple of calls on that I''d like to listen to.
"I heard them say the fact that LSU didn''t get in the (SEC) tournament (was a reason for no NCAA bid), so that might be something that changes our thinking about (SEC) tournament in years to come because LSU shouldn''t just be in the field of 64; In my opinion, they''re one of the better teams in the field of 64."
The SEC is tied with the Atlantic Coast Conference for the most selections with seven. The Pac-10 and Big 12 each have six.