Matt Jones is the editor of the Hawgs Sports Network. He is a member of the Football Writers Association of America and National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association, and voter for the Heisman Trophy. He has a bachelor's and master's degree in journalism from the University of Arkansas.
Don't sweat results in Hoover
Greg Sankey (center, left), commissioner of the Southeastern Conference, presents Arkansas head coach Dave Van Horn (center, right) and his team a trophy for being co-champions of the conference, Wednesday, May 24, 2023, before the first inning of the Razorbacks’ 6-5 extra-innings win over the Texas A&M Aggies at the 2023 SEC Baseball Tournament at the Hoover Metropolitan Complex in Hoover, Ala.
Regular-season conference championships should carry the most weight in college baseball.
Losses Saturday in the semifinals of the SEC Tournament do nothing to take away from the achievements of Arkansas and Florida, who survived a 10-week marathon with the best records in the best baseball conference.
It just means a third team will be able to call itself SEC champion in 2023.
Vanderbilt will play Texas A&M for the tournament championship Sunday. Those teams had the fourth- and 10th-best records in the league during the regular season, but have played well in Hoover.
They also won — and lost — at the right times.
Both teams lost earlier in the week to the teams they eliminated Saturday. Neither Arkansas nor Florida lost previously at the tournament, which toggles between single-elimination and double-elimination rounds.
It is a format SEC commissioner Greg Sankey said "works really well," prior to Saturday's games during an interview on SEC Network.
That argument is weakened when the tournament runner-up will finish with more losses than the semifinalists, but there aren't a lot of desirable ways to eliminate so many teams in such a short amount of time.
Eleven teams are eliminated at the SEC Tournament in six days. By comparison, it takes nearly two weeks to eliminate seven teams at the College World Series.
It’s a reminder why the tournament outcomes should be taken with a grain of salt, at least for the teams that don’t need to win in Hoover for a chance to win in Omaha.
Privately, Arkansas and Florida team members might tell you their early exits bode best for their chances to win regionals next week. A few pitchers might have missed an opportunity to pitch in Hoover, but the tradeoff is an extra day of team rest after a long road trip.
The Razorbacks spent their 10th consecutive night in a hotel Friday. They made the drive south to Hoover last week following a three-game series at Vanderbilt to close the regular season.
Sometimes the teams that win most in Hoover struggle the following week in the regional round. Meanwhile, the last two national champions never won a game at the SEC Tournament.
The 2021 College World Series champion, Mississippi State, was run-ruled twice at the conference tournament. Arkansas won the SEC Tournament that year and earned the No. 1 overall seed for the NCAA Tournament, but struggled to win its regional and lost its super regional at home.
The same happened to Tennessee last year.
In the first nine seasons of the current format, teams that played three or fewer games at the SEC Tournament advanced to the College World Series almost twice as often as teams that played four or more games.
Seventeen of the 26 College World Series teams from the SEC since 2013 fall into the first category, including Arkansas in 2018, 2019 and 2022.
The Razorbacks have been to the College World Series seven times since joining the SEC, but never in one of the five seasons when they played for the championship in Hoover.
Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn likely summed up the feelings of most coaches prior to Thursday’s game against LSU.
“We don’t want to extend our [pitchers] to where they’re feeling this game next Friday or Saturday,” Van Horn said on Razorback Sports Network.
“We want to win this tournament….At the same time we want to be sure we’re healthy next weekend.”
Arkansas and Florida could have gone 0-2 in Hoover and been locks to be top-eight national seeds, which guarantee home-field advantage for the NCAA Tournament. The same can't be said of the teams that will play Sunday.
That’s the respect winning a regular-season SEC championship warrants.
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