2021 NCAA Tournament Oxford Regional Preview
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No. 1 Mississippi vs. No. 4 Southeast Missouri State (8 p.m., ESPN3)
No. 2 Southern Mississippi vs. No. 3 Florida State (3 p.m., ESPNU)
No. 1 Mississippi (41-19)
Season in a sentence: It hasn’t been easy, as Ole Miss has dealt with some serious blows due to injury, but the Rebels made a strong push late in the year to put themselves in a position to host regionals and enter the NCAA Tournament with momentum.
Best pitcher: Doug Nikhazy, LHP—Ole Miss came into the year with one of the best 1-2 punches in the country in righthander Gunnar Hoglund and Nikhazy. Hoglund was fantastic himself before having Tommy John surgery last month. Nikhazy bounced back strong from an early minor injury and has been one of the best pitchers in the nation. He’s 9-2, 2.18 with 114 strikeouts and 27 walks in 78.1 innings. He’s been at his best in the big moments, too. He threw a one-hit shutout at Mississippi State and delivered a quality start against Vanderbilt in a matchup with Kumar Rocker.
Best hitter: Jacob Gonzalez, SS—The nod here could easily have gone to Kevin Graham, whose OPS is .017 better than Gonzalez, or even to Tim Elko, who was Ole Miss’ top hitter before tearing his ACL and has homered four times in limited action since his injury. But we’ll give it to Gonzalez, a true freshman who has seamlessly stepped in at shortstop after the Rebels lost Anthony Servideo in last year’s draft. Gonzalez is hitting .354/.437/.540 with 10 home runs and has more walks (32) than strikeouts (30). Gonzalez has been solid at shortstop, though his bat has outpaced his glove to this point.
Outlook: Ole Miss played well down the stretch to secure a home regional. But it got a tough draw and will have to remain on form to reach super regionals for a second straight season. The Rebels are tough to beat at Swayze Field (27-9) and they have the best offense in the field. But their pitching staff is not as deep. Ole Miss can count on Nikhazy and closer Taylor Broadway and will need others to step up behind them. The Rebels got that last week in the SEC Tournament from Jake Dougherty, Tyler Myers and others. Getting a repeat performance this weekend is a must.
No. 2 Southern Mississippi (37-19)
All-Conference Honorees: SP Ben Ethridge (second), DH Charlie Fischer (first), OF Gabe Montenegro (second), RP Ryan Och (second), SP Walker Powell (first), SP Hunter Stanley (first), OF Reed Trimble (first)
Season in a sentence: Southern Miss has become the most consistent team in Conference USA over the last five years and in a resurgent year for the conference the Golden Eagles were again among C-USA’s best.
Best pitcher: Hunter Stanley, RHP—Southern Miss led CUSA in ERA (3.59, 15th nationally) and with that kind of pitching staff, there’s no shortage of options to choose from here. Righthander Walker Powell was named C-USA pitcher of the year and Ryan Och is a force out of the bullpen. But Stanley merits the nod and is 6-3, 2.42 with 119 strikeouts and 16 walks in 93 innings, while holding opponents to a .198 batting average. He comes into regionals hot, as over his last three starts he has struck out 39 batters, walked one and held opponents to four runs on 13 hits in 24 innings.
Best hitter: Reed Trimble, OF—Trimble was off to a solid start to his college career when the 2020 season was canceled, and he this spring took a big step forward. He’s hitting .319/.394/.595 with 14 home runs, 11 stolen bases and 51 runs. His combination of power and speed brings a dynamic combination to the lineup and helps him to impact the game in a variety of ways.
Outlook: Southern Miss presents a formidable opponent in a tournament format. Its 1-2 punch of Powell and Stanley with Och waiting in the bullpen will give it plenty of confidence. The Golden Eagles have a powerful offense and their 67 home runs rank 28th nationally. They have a solid defense and won’t give away many free bases this weekend. Southern Miss has what it takes to win a regional for the first time since 2009. But it also has come up short against the best teams on its schedule this season. It went 7-12 against NCAA Tournament teams, including a 4-7 mark against Louisiana Tech that cost it a home regional and the C-USA West Division. The Golden Eagles will need to step up on the big stage.
No. 3 Florida State (30-22)
Season in a sentence: Florida State was led by its pitching staff—which led the ACC with a 3.55 team ERA—but like so many teams in the conference this season it had some up-and-down moments during a grueling 12-week conference schedule.
Best pitcher: Parker Messick, LHP—Messick, a second-year freshman, this spring moved from the bullpen to the front of the rotation and excelled. He was named both ACC pitcher and freshman of the year, joining Carlos Rodon as the only players in conference history to win both awards in one season. He’s a good athlete on the mound and comes right after hitters with his fastball-slider combination. Messick is 7-2, 3.32 with 121 strikeouts and 23 walks in 84 innings.
Best hitter: Mat Nelson, C—Nelson could have gone into professional baseball a year ago as a draft-eligible sophomore but opted to return for a third season at Florida State. He’s made a leap forward and was named ACC player of the year. He’s hitting .332/.438/.777 with 22 home runs, the most by a Florida State player since Buster Posey hit 26 in 2008. Nelson has also managed the Seminoles’ standout pitching staff and played solid defense behind the plate.
Outlook: The strength of the Seminoles is their pitching staff. FSU's rotation of Messick, Bryce Hubbart and Connor Grady is one of the best in the country and it has a talented, veteran bullpen to call on. Florida State has a powerful offense—its 74 home runs rank 19th nationally, one behind Ole Miss—but it comes with a lot of strikeouts and can be a bit boom or bust. Florida State’s pitching staff could be a separator this weekend, but it also has the bats to compete if it gets caught in a slugfest.
No. 4 Southeast Missouri State (30-20)
Season in a sentence: SEMO edged Murray State for both the Ohio Valley Conference regular-season and tournament titles to advance to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2016 and just the third time in program history.
Best pitcher: Dylan Dodd, LHP—Dodd was named OVC pitcher of the year, becoming the first Redhawk to win the award since Joey Lucchesi in 2016. Dodd is 9-1, 2.78 with 113 strikeouts and 14 walks in 90.2 innings. He has won six straight starts and has thrown at least six innings in 12 of his 14 starts this spring.
Best hitter: Tyler Wilber, SS—Wilber won the OVC regular-season batting title for the second time in his career and is hitting .389/.458/.560 with six home runs. He has a good feel for hitting and leads the Redhawks in a host of offensive categories. He’s also a solid defensive shortstop.
Outlook: With Dodd at the front of its rotation, SEMO has good reason to feel confident. The Redhawks won an Opening Weekend series at South Alabama and then went toe-to-toe with Arkansas in the first game of their series before falling in 10 innings. SEMO doesn’t have the pitching depth behind Dodd to stack up with the talented staffs in Oxford, but it’s a solid veteran team that will present a challenge this weekend.