For just the third time in Mike Bianco’s 17 years at the helm in Oxford, his team will be watching the NCAA Baseball Tournament from home. Ole Miss, which finished sub-.500 in SEC play and washed out of the conference tourney in just one game, wasn’t included in the field of 64 that was announced on Monday afternoon.
The Rebels finished 14-16 in league play, a mark considered to be the absolute cutoff for an NCAA invite. Five of the last seven clubs to win 14 SEC games had made it in, but all of them had top-30 RPIs. Ole Miss, which went 9-5 in midweek games this season, has an RPI ranked No. 37. Bianco’s club entered the SEC Tournament with a chance to bolster their resume, but instead blew a two-run lead and lost to Auburn in the first round.
Even still, D1Baseball.com had Ole Miss just inside the field of 64 heading into the weekend. But a rash of upsets in non-power conference tournaments shrunk the bubble significantly. From D1:
Sunday was a brutal day for teams on the at-large bubble. Heading into the day, there were seven conference tournaments where a likely at-large team was still alive but teams outside at-large position had a chance to win the automatic bids, and the non-at-large teams won five of them.
We thought this Ole Miss team could be special after vaulting into the top 10 with a pair of weekend sweeps over ranked opponents to start the season. But that early success was fool’s gold (neither ECU or UNC-Wilmington made the tournament), and the Rebels’ freshmen-heavy lineup just wasn’t ready to handle top-shelf pitching. Ole Miss finished 12th in the SEC in runs scored and dead last in batting average, its impotent offense undoing an impressive season by its young pitching staff (who’s ERA finished third in the conference).
So what’s next? No, Bianco isn’t getting fired anytime soon. But given that he just signed the No. 1 recruiting class in the country, legitimate pressure will mount if he’s not able to show significant improvement over the next couple of seasons. AD Ross Bjork’s postponement of a contract extension for Andy Kennedy shows his patience for complacency has its limits.
Fortunately for Bianco, his young roster looks primed to take a big step forward next season. The lineup loses Colby Bortles and probably Tate Blackman, but an offseason of hitting development for freshmen Thomas Dillard, Grae Kessinger, Cooper Johnson and Cole Zabowski should make a big difference. Then there’s the pitching staff, which could return all three of its weekend starters and the bulk of its bullpen. Freshmen Ryan Rolison, Will Etheridge and Houston Roth lived up to their elite recruiting hype and Dallas Woolfolk, who’s just a sophomore, developed into one of the league’s most dominant closers.
2017 was no doubt a disappointing baseball season for an Ole Miss fanbase that craved reprieve from its football depression, but there’s plenty of reason to be optimistic heading into next season.