South Carolina’s regular season came to an end as the Gamecocks won on Saturday to complete a sweep at Alabama. The Gamecocks finished the season with a record of 42-13 (20-9 SEC) and earned the SEC East championship and the #2 seed in the SEC Tournament. That’s an impressive accomplishment in one of the toughest years in the SEC in recent memory. Carolina is one of 7 SEC teams to get to at least 18 wins in conference play and all 7 of those teams are in the top 11 of the NCAA RPI. Most people projecting the NCAA Tournament bracket expect the SEC to have 4 of the 8 national seeds. Even if that doesn’t pan out for some reason (which seems unlikely at this point), the fact that it’s even being discussed indicates what a ridiculously strong year this has been for the SEC.
Carolina’s struggles in Hoover are well-documented, both here at GABA and by pretty much every outlet that covers Gamecock baseball. The short version is this: despite routinely being one of the top teams in the SEC at the end of the regular season, the Gamecocks have repeatedly fallen on their face in Hoover. They haven’t won a game in the SEC Tournament since going 1-2 in 2012 and they haven’t had a record of .500 or better there since 2007.
That needs to change this year. Besides the fact that it just isn’t fun to watch the team be so consistently disappointing in the SEC Tournament, this year a national seed in the NCAA Tournament is on the line for the Gamecocks. Coach Holbrook feels like his team should already be a lock for a national seed and even though he’s probably a bit biased, he’s not alone in that. Kendall Rogers, a national writer for D1 Baseball, has said that he considers the Gamecocks a lock as well. The Gamecocks have a strong argument for being one of the top 8 teams in the country heading into the postseason. However, it’s probably still possible for the Gamecocks to play themselves back out of that. If one of the teams on the national seed bubble gets hot in their conference tournament while the Gamecocks have a poor showing in Hoover, Carolina may end up getting pushed out of the top 8.
On the other hand, with a decent showing in the SEC Tournament, Carolina can really lock down that national seed almost beyond doubt. If the Gamecocks win their Regional, being able to spend the second round of the tournament with a home crowd in Founders Park would be huge. The Gamecocks were 30-4 in Columbia this season, but were 12-9 in games played somewhere other than Founders Park. Carolina lost three of the five SEC series they played on the road this season and two of those series losses were to unranked opponents. It would be a stretch to say that this Gamecock team is bad on the road when they also have a couple of impressive sweeps away from home, but making it to the College World Series will be easier if winning the Regional means another weekend at home for Carolina.
There is reason to be optimistic that this is the year that the Gamecocks will solve their issues in Hoover. This Carolina baseball team is a good one and they’re coming into Hoover playing well and on a five-game winning streak. The offense, which was in a bad funk for a few weeks, has reemerged for the Gamecocks. The team is now hitting .290 and is still led by Gene Cone. But Dom Thompson-Williams and Alex Destino are also contributing in a big way and guys such as Madison Stokes and Marcus Mooney have stepped up too. Holbrook’s decision to keep a slumping John Jones in the lineup seemingly finally paid off as Jones was responsible for 6 RBI against Alabama from his new spot in the bottom third of the order. The Gamecocks will need to keep the bats going and get contributions from throughout the lineup to make a real run in Hoover.
The strength of the Gamecocks all season has been their pitching and defense, and they’ll need that in Hoover too. The team is fielding .980 and has a 3.32 ERA with opponents hitting .225 against them. While Carolina didn’t have the best weekend on the mound against Alabama, for the most part the Gamecocks have a very good starting rotation and there’s no shortage of talent on the pitching staff. Reed Scott had done well coming out of the bullpen and both Josh Reagan and Tyler Johnson have had success in a closing role for Carolina.
The level of the Carolina pitching and defense makes this a formidable team when the offense is clicking as well. If the Gamecocks can shake whatever demons seem to haunt them in Hoover and play to their capabilities, they could make a deep run in the SEC Tournament this year.
Here is the full SEC Tournament bracket. A single-elimination first round begins today and the Gamecocks will begin play tomorrow in the double-elimination portion of the tournament. Be sure to stick around for our coverage of what will hopefully be a fun week!