For all the chatter about parity in this week’s Conference USA Tournament, Southern Miss is in the best position to shut everybody up. Before a pitch is even thrown, USM has to like its chances of at least making it to Saturday’s championship game.
First of all, the Golden Eagles (38-15) aren’t sneaking up on anybody. Ranked in three major polls, they’ve got cred. They also tied for the C-USA regular season title with Rice, which earned the tiebreaker for No. 1 tournament seed because it won two of three in Hattiesburg last weekend.
The tournament site, Trustmark Park in Pearl (just outside Jackson), is a neutral site in name only. The Eagles play two games there every season, against rivals Mississippi State and Ole Miss. They know the place.
USM fans, in their unmistakable black-and-gold garb, will be plentiful at the TeePee; there is a large contingent of USM alums in the greater Jackson area, and Hattiesburg is just a 90-minute drive away.
Plus, the format seems almost to have been drawn up to favor USM. The tourney is divided into two four-team pods; each team will play the other three in its pod. The teams with the best record in each pod advance to the title game. Head-to-head breaks a two-way tie. If there is a three-way tie, the top seed advances. USM, seeded second overall behind Rice, is the top seed in its pod.
Because tournament officials want to maximize its drawing potential, USM gets to play the late game (7:30 first pitch) each of the first three days, thus avoiding the midday heat as well as early morning wakeup calls, which no college kid enjoys.
Of course, there are more tangible reasons to like the Eagles in this event. They’ve got a bounty of quality hitters. The Eagles lead the league in runs and are second in average and homers. Tyler Koelling is hitting .367, one of six Eagles at .303 or better. B.A. Vollmuth has 12 homers and 47 RBIs. Marc Bourgeois is hitting .352 with seven homers and 35 RBIs.
Perhaps more importantly, USM also has a strong pitching staff, headed by starters Todd McInnis, Geoffrey Thomas and Jonathan Thompson and capped by closer Collin Cargill. Keep in mind that the TeePee is a pitcher’s park, a big yard with deep power alleys. It’ll be humid and the ball won’t carry well — unless the wind is blowing out, as it sometimes does to left field.
USM has incentive, too, in this event. The Eagles, who likely have an NCAA bid locked up, could earn the right to host a regional if they win the C-USA tournament, which they have done twice, including last season.
The tournament begins Wednesday morning at 9 a.m. with Memphis playing Central Florida in the first of four games.
The Eagles will come out at night, facing Tulane. Expect their presence to be felt the rest of the week.