OXFORD • Ole Miss found itself a No. 12 overall seed when the NCAA Tournament bracket was revealed Monday, making it look like the Rebels didn’t just back-door their way into host status.
The top 16 teams begin postseason at home, and there was speculation that Ole Miss needed to win Sunday’s SEC Tournament championship game to earn a host spot for the third time in four seasons.
Maybe the title game wasn’t a deal breaker, but there’s no denying the importance of the week in Hoover, Alabama, Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco said.
“Certainly the run in Hoover is what made it possible, but maybe it wasn’t as close as we all thought there at the end.”
Before losing to RPI No. 1 Vanderbilt, which was awarded the NCAA Tournament’s No. 2 overall seed, the Rebels defeated Texas A&M, Arkansas and Georgia in succession, three RPI top 15 teams in three days.
Friday at 7 they’ll be the No. 1 seed in the Oxford Regional and will play No. 4 seed Jacksonville State on opening day. No. 2 seed Clemson and No. 3 seed Illinois will play at 3 Friday.
The Oxford Regional is paired with the Fayetteville Regional and No. 5 seed Arkansas.
If the Rebels advance – something they haven’t done from a home regional since 2014 – they could find themselves needing to win a second series and post wins No. 4 and 5 against Arkansas to get to the College World Series.
For now the Rebels (37-25) will spend the next couple of days learning about the three visiting teams.
Some will focus on the opportunity to create a different outcome than last year’s Oxford Regional when Ole Miss, the No. 4 national seed, lost twice to Regional 2 seed Tennessee Tech on the final day.
Opinions are mixed on how much last year’s surprise exit motivates this team.
“A little bit. We have some guys back from last year, and obviously we want to put on a good show for the hometown crowd. It will motivate some of the older guys that played a lot last year to not end that way again,” outfielder Thomas Dillard said.
Ole Miss won the first two games of that regional against 4 seed Saint Louis 9-2 then against Tech 9-8.
Tech, however, won 15-5 in a rout on Monday to force a winner-take-all final game which it won 3-2 to advance to face Texas.
“I think last year kept us hungry for this year. I thought all season, especially at the end, we fought really hard. We learned a lot about ourselves, and we have a lot of momentum going into this,” first baseman Cole Zabowski said.
Bianco won’t push last year as a narrative to try and prepare his team, but he’ll let it drive players if that’s what motivates them personally.
“It doesn’t drive me. Obviously it was disappointing, but every year you get a different club,” he said. “I’m sure it drives a lot of those guys. For a lot of them it may be their last time for this. They want to leave their mark. Everybody wants to leave their mark here.”