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Bulldogs ready to bounce back in Hoover

Published 10:00 am Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The start of the Southeastern Conference Tournament provides a dilemma for Mississippi State coach John Cohen.

On the one hand, he wants to continue the momentum his team has built up over the past month. On the other, he wants them to forget all about it.

Mississippi State (35-20) will begin what it hopes is a lengthy run in the SEC Tournament tonight against Georgia (26-28-1). The Bulldogs from Starkville won 13 of their last 18 games, and seven of their last nine.

Cohen, though, knows that success will quickly be forgotten if they don’t do well in late May and June.

“That’s all anybody remembers, is how you do in the postseason,” Cohen said, “and we’re playing our best baseball heading into the postseason.”

Mississippi State and Georgia will play an elimination game in tonight’s first round, as the 12-team field is quickly winnowed to the eight who will continue on to the double-elimination round Wednesday.

It’s a game MSU could have avoided had it won Saturday’s regular-season finale against Alabama. The Bulldogs could have clinched a first-round bye by winning, but instead finished three percentage points behind LSU.

Cohen said it was a tough break, but chalked it up as part of life in the rugged SEC.

“Every team in the SEC is all about how you’ve got to bounce back and move on. Every team in the league has disappointments,” Cohen said. “Everybody in our league gets punched in the mouth a little bit and you’ve got to bounce back. If we win that game it changes some of the dynamics, but that’s just how it works.”

LSU was the big beneficiary of Mississippi State’s Saturday stumble. The Tigers outscored Auburn 29-4 during a three-game sweep to storm into the No. 4 slot.

LSU (40-14-1) will play Wednesday morning against the winner of today’s elimination game between Vanderbilt and Tennessee. LSU coach Paul Mainieri said the tournament format makes the first-round bye a huge reward.

“The way the tournament is now, you’re literally getting a free win. You get to advance to Wednesday without having to win a game to get there,” Mainieri said. “That’s an accomplishment.”

Several SEC teams are hoping to add to their list of accomplishments and beef up not just their NCAA Tournament resumés, but their credentials as top seeds.

Four teams in the SEC Tournament — South Carolina, LSU, Vanderbilt and Ole Miss — have surpassed the 40-win mark. Florida, Mississippi State and Arkansas all can get there with deep runs in the tournament.

While most of those teams are locks to make the 64-team NCAA field, the top teams are also vying for the right to host next week’s regionals and possibly the super regional round as well.

Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco said the easiest way for all of that to fall in his team’s favor is to go out and play well.

“We know that if we play well and do what we’re supposed to do over in Hoover, things will turn out the way we would like them to be,” Bianco said. “At the end of the day, worrying about national seeds isn’t going to help you win a ballgame. You just have to play games and stick to the process, and we’ve been able to do that the last four weeks.”

The tournament’s deep field also offers everyone a final chance to beef up their credentials. Seven teams were ranked in this week’s USA Today Top 25 poll, and seven were in the top 45 of the NCAA’s RPI rankings. A few wins could boost a team’s RPI and help its case.

“We’ve had a terrific year. Our resumé for all of the things is pretty strong. But you want to continue to play well, to continue that momentum,” Bianco said. “That’s what we look at this week. There’s more games against great teams, and more opportunity to increase our resumé and be playing well when you get to the postseason.”