LSU battling for nod to host NCAA regional

HOOVER, Ala. — In the aftermath, a red-faced Paul Mainieri began the frustrating process of analyzing the rarity he just witnessed: LSU’s 2-2 tie with Georgia in 13 innings.

The Tigers left 17 stranded, were 2-for-18 with runners in scoring position, and had multiple base-running blunders.

“It’s a game,” Mainieri said then, “that we should have won.”

No loss this season had the coach so miserable after the tie March 23. Maybe because he knew the tie with Georgia could come back to haunt his team.

It’s back.

LSU heads into the Southeastern Conference baseball tournament Wednesday among a group of teams on the fringe of hosting an NCAA regional. The tie with Georgia and the rain-canceled rubber match against Alabama loom as daggers in the side of the Tigers’ host bid chances.

LSU (40-14-1), the 3 seed, meets 6 seed Vanderbilt (41-16) at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday to open a critical event.

So what do the Tigers need to do in Hoover?

“That seems to be the most popular question nowadays,” Mainieri said this week with a chuckle.

The answer isn’t easy. In fact, players like outfielder Sean McMullen choose not to worry about it.

“I’m only going to really look at it once everything is all settled,” he said.

The simple explanation: If LSU wins three games in Hoover and advances to Sunday’s championship game, the Tigers will have a good shot to host.

But Mainieri believes his squad did enough in the regular season to draw a host bid. LSU won 40 games, finished third in the SEC and has the second-fewest conference losses of any league team.

However, LSU played one fewer game than 12 other teams in the SEC and had that tie. The Tigers have an RPI of 16, fifth in the league, and a strength of schedule of 45, last in the league.

Vanderbilt, who many project will host a regional, finished sixth in the SEC with 17 conference wins – the same as LSU – and the two are separated by just 0.40 percentage points. VU has an RPI of 6 entering the tournament.

“You can say all you want: the bottom line is we’re the third-best team in the SEC,” Mainieri said. “I think the third-best team in the SEC deserves to host a regional.”

That’s been the case in the past.

Since the NCAA expanded the field and added super regionals in 1999, just three teams that have finished in the top three in the SEC have not hosted a regional.

Third-place Arkansas last year didn’t host. Florida, third in 2008, and South Carolina, second in 2003, were the others. Arkansas and Florida had worse RPIs than LSU’s No. 16. Florida had an RPI of 15.

At the crux of all of this: How many SEC teams will receive a host bid?

Since 1999, the NCAA has given the a wide range of host bids: two hosts (once), three (five times), four (seven times) and five (twice).

“The SEC should have five host sites,” Mainieri said this week.

That hasn’t happened since 2006.

The NCAA committee will announce host sites at 8 p.m. Sunday. The full field will be announced at 11 a.m. Monday.

According to Perfect Game’s most recent NCAA regional projections, LSU is one of three teams fighting for the final of 16 host bids. Louisville (No. 20 in RPI) and Houston (9 RPI) are the other two, baseball expert Kendall Rogers wrote.

“It’s my belief the Tigers will host if they can make some noise in the SEC tournament,” Rogers said. “However, they haven’t secured one entering the action in Hoover.”

Mainieri thinks so.

In a 10-minute bit with reporters Monday, the coach fought for his team and expressed frustration with the NCAA selection committee.

He chided those who criticize LSU’s low strength of schedule and compared the Tigers’ résumé to that of – guess who? – Vanderbilt.

“This is the thing you have to ask yourself,” Mainieri said. “Does Vanderbilt deserve to host over us? They finished sixth in the SEC. Now, their RPI is 6. God bless them. But they’re sixth in the league. Why do we play 30 games? To determine the rankings, right?”

LSU’s strength of schedule has been a topic of discussion. Mainieri shoots down anyone who tries, citing schedules from other likely hosts.

“This is the thing: The RPI takes into account the strength of schedule. So if you’re RPI is 13 or 15, it’s already taken into account. So don’t tell me we’re not going to get a site because of our strength of schedule,” Mainieri said. “If you’re going to say that, then (Louisiana-Lafayette) doesn’t deserve one. Their strength of schedule is (117). Cal Poly’s is (148). Oregon State’s (57).”

Mainieri has explained LSU’s situation to his players earlier this week.

They know what’s on the line.

“We’ve got to win a good bit of games,” pitcher Aaron Nola said. “We haven’t gotten anything locked down yet like we did last year.”