After a year away from NCAA tournament play, South Carolina coach Chad Holbrook breathed a sigh of relief on Monday when things finally got back to normal.
June baseball at Founders Park is back. Even though the Gamecocks are hosting another NCAA Regional, their first test in the tournament is hardly an easy one.
Atlantic 10 champions Rhode Island (30-25) will trot out their ace, lefty Tyler Wilson, who leads the country with 12 wins and has given up just one earned run over his last 55 1/3 innings of work.
“He would do very, very well in the SEC, on a weekend basis,” Holbrook said. “I told our team (Thursday), this is no different than a Friday night game in the SEC and we’re going to have to treat it as such.”
How they got here
South Carolina won the SEC Eastern Division for the first time in the Holbrook era, posting a conference record of 20-9. The Gamecocks (42-15 overall) are led by first-team All-SEC outfielder Gene Cone and second-team All-SEC pitcher Clarke Schmidt.
Cone leads the team in hitting with a .356 average with 22 RBI and 45 runs scored. The junior from Columbia, S.C. enters NCAA tournament play third in the SEC in on-base percentage (.468) and sixth in batting average.
Schmidt, who will start on Friday night, is 9-3 with a 2.96 ERA. Over 100 1/3 innings of work, the sophomore from Acworth, Ga. has 115 strikeouts to 22 walks.
South Carolina closed its regular season with a bang, sweeping Alabama in Tuscaloosa, to clinch the seventh division title in school history.
The Gamecocks have wins over several NCAA tournament teams, including Clemson, Florida and Ole Miss. In regular season play, they were 8-7 against teams included in the NCAA tournament field.
Last time in Omaha
In 2012, Arizona beat South Carolina in two games, to snap the Gamecocks’ reign as back-to-back National Champions.
Opponent to watch
Holbrook’s decision to start Schmidt on Friday night is an indication of just how seriously he’s taking the first game of the weekend. Instead of holding his ace for a potential winner’s bracket matchup with Duke or UNCW, Holbrook is opting to pitch his best starter against Rhode Island’s best starter.
Based solely on his merits, Wilson makes Rhode Island the opponent to watch for South Carolina. The Rams have a team batting average of .263, which is the lowest mark of the four teams in the Columbia Regional. However, they’ve been on fire at the plate since sweeping La Salle by a combined score of 20-6. In A-10 tournament play, Rhode Island outscored its opponents, 38-7.