When UNO recorded the final out of its come-from-behind upset of LSU, the homestanding Privateers celebrated like they had just won an NCAA tournament game.
It didn’t matter that it was February and there were still 52 games remaining in the regular season. It was and remains a win that could end up defining the Privateers’ season.
Since then, LSU has dropped two more midweek contests against in-state schools — one on the road to McNeese State and another to UNO, that one at home. Southeastern will try to become the latest Southland Conference school to knock off the perennial power at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday in Alex Box Stadium.
Lions coach Matt Riser makes no bones about the game's importance.
“If we can get a quality win in this ballgame, it’s going to go a long way," he said. "It’s going to speak volumes, because you know where LSU is going to be at the end of the year. They’re going to be competing for an SEC championship; they’re going to be talking about hosting a regional and being a national seed again. It’s not just another game for our guys. This is a big program that we can make a lot of noise, a lot of headway with.”
For schools like Southeastern, McNeese and UNO, a win against a program of LSU’s caliber goes beyond the raw elation of the moments after the game. When the NCAA tournament's 64-team field is put together, that win could make the difference for a team that does not receive an automatic bid for winning its conference tournament.
Besides wins and losses — and it’s fairly close — the most important number for a program like Southeastern is its RPI.
“On my tombstone, instead of putting 'RIP,' they’re going to put 'RPI,' ” Riser said. “Here we are, the fourth week of the (season), we’re already talking about it. But everybody’s talking about it.”
LSU coach Paul Mainieri said it goes both ways. The Southeasterns, UNOs and McNeese States of the world aren’t the only ones that benefit from a matchup with LSU.
“Last year, we were a national seed, and I give a lot of the credit for that to the teams we played in the middle of the week — all the state schools,” Mainieri said. “All their RPIs were really strong, and it probably made our RPI go up.”
Louisiana boasted five NCAA tournament teams a year ago: Southeastern, Louisiana Tech and Tulane joined regional hosts LSU and UL-Lafayette. Although Tulane is having a down year so far under a new coach, it looks like the state again will be well-represented in the NCAA tournament.
LSU is a top-five team in each major poll, the Ragin' Cajuns have been hovering around the top 15 most of the season and the Bulldogs have spent time in the rankings after a strong start. Entering Tuesday, Southeastern, UNO and McNeese had a combined record of 42-17, and the Cowboys and Privateers already have résumé-boosting wins against LSU.
“I don’t think it’s a negative thing at all,” Mainieri said. “It’s more challenging, it stresses your pitching staff a little bit, but I think it keeps your team focused at a high level, and I think that’s a good thing.”
Mainieri has always considered college baseball to be one of Louisiana’s strong suits, given the state's weather and the talent of its players. But he also saw this parity coming after a rule change from a couple of years ago.
Before the 2009 season, the NCAA implemented three rules changes related to scholarships: Rosters were limited to 35 players, only 27 of those players could receive scholarship aid and each player receiving aid must receive a minimum of 25 percent. The limits forced coaches to be more selective about whom they could recruit.
They were designed to level the playing field, and they worked.
“Not only do you have limited scholarships, but they tell you how you have to spend them as well,” Mainieri said. “A lot of the players that used to come to LSU for the opportunity of a very small scholarship … now those players are taking scholarship offers to other mid-major schools, and it’s strengthened those schools.”
Senior closer Hunter Newman, who is out indefinitely with a back injury, saw a doctor Tuesday. Mainieri said surgery has not been ruled out, but Newman is “making progress.”
Mainieri said Newman, who will not travel with the team to Florida this weekend, will be re-evaluated next week.
“If he makes the same progress as he did from last week to this week … I feel really confident he’ll be back helping us before you know it,” Mainieri said.