USM, Rebels gear up for tournaments

Southern Miss’ hopes of playing in the NCAA Tournament for the seventh consecutive season almost assuredly will come down to the Conference USA Tournament, which begins Wednesday.

The good news for the Golden Eagles?

They’ll be playing at home, at Pete Taylor Park, and they’ll be trying to send out retiring coach Corky Palmer on a strong note. USM assistant coach Scott Berry will become the Golden Eagles’ head coach next season.

Ole Miss, meanwhile, will try to roll with its momentum heading into the SEC Tournament, which also begins on Wednesday at Regions Park in Hoover, Ala.

The Rebels (40-15) earned a share of the SEC regular-season title on Saturday, burying Arkansas 16-3 to complete a three-game sweep of the Razorbacks. Ole Miss and LSU both finished 20-10 in regular-season play against the SEC, but the second-ranked Tigers (41-15 overall) will be the No. 1 seed in the SEC tourney because they took two of three games from the Rebels earlier this season.

“The kids played very loose,” Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco said.

Southern Miss will face longtime Conference USA rival Tulane in the final game of first-round play Wednesday in Hattiesburg. The game is scheduled for a 7:30 p.m. start. The Golden Eagles are the No. 5 seed in the tournament.

Tulane (32-23, 13-11 in C-USA) won at least two games in its final six conference series. The Green Wave defeated Marshall 5-3 on Saturday.

Palmer is expected to use a pitching rotation of Todd McInnis, J.R. Ballinger and Kyle Lindsey in the C-USA Tournament.

“A new season starts on Wednesday and we have to play to win it,” Palmer said.

Ole Miss has probably secured the home-field advantage for NCAA regional play and could be playing for a national seed, which could bring a super regional to Oxford, in the SEC Tournament.

The Rebels have won eight of their last 10 games.

Ole Miss unloaded four home runs in Saturday’s rout of Arkansas, a power surge seldom seen from Bianco’s team this season.

“They weren’t going to be denied,” Bianco said. “We were really locked in offensively.”

Bianco isn’t sure if All-America pitcher Scott Bittle will be healthy enough to pitch in the SEC Tournament, but he’s expected to throw sophomore left-hander Drew Pomeranz against Georgia in first-round play on Wednesday. The game is scheduled to begin at 1:30 p.m.

LSU (41-15) will face Vanderbilt in first-round play Wednesday.

The Commodores (31-24) squeezed into the eight-team field even though they were swept by Tennessee over the weekend in Nashville.

Mississippi State, meanwhile, finished 25-29 under first-year coach John Cohen, marking the Bulldogs’ first losing seasons in back-to-back years for the first time since 1975.

“Where one chapter ends, another chapter begins,” Cohen said. “Our total focus now begins. It starts with who’s going to be on this field next year and preparing them to play in the best league in America.”

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