The Conference USA baseball tournament returns to MGM Park in Biloxi this week and Southern Miss can again be considered the favorite to lift the championship trophy after Sunday's 1 p.m. title game.
No. 1 seed USM will open tournament play at 4 p.m. on Wednesday against No. 8 UAB (21-31).
The Golden Eagles roll in with a record of 39-15, but Louisiana Tech (38-18) will present a threat as a strong No. 2 seed that took two of three games at USM earlier this month.
The Eagles feature the best lineup in the conference with a team batting average of .305.
Junior third baseman Luke Reynolds, a Mississippi State transfer, has been impressive at the plate all season, but he's been at his best lately. He is hitting .403 with 15 homers, 19 doubles and 58 RBIs.
It's likely that USM will go with junior ace Nick Sandlin in Wednesday's contest. The right-hander has been one of the nation's best starting pitchers with an 8-0 record and 1.25 ERA in 13 starts. He has 122 strikeouts and just 14 walks in 86 1/3 innings.
Local ties at La. Tech
Louisiana Tech features a pair of George County products who have played key roles for the Bulldogs this season. Junior third baseman Tanner Huddleston and junior left-handed pitcher Logan Robbins are both in their first years at Louisiana Tech after transferring from Jones County Junior College.
The 6-foot-4 Huddleston is hitting .252 and ranks second on the team with seven homers and 44 RBIs.
After putting up an undefeated career mark at JCJC, Robbins has again been hard to beat at Louisiana Tech. He is 7-1 in 13 starts this season with a 4.66 ERA, 46 strikeouts and 16 walks.
Former Gulfport star Ben Stiglets, another JCJC transfer, is also in the bullpen for Tech. He has a 4.64 ERA in 11 appearances this season.
Louisiana Tech will play No. 7 seed Rice at 12:30 p.m. on Wednesday.
The drive from Lucedale to MGM Park in Biloxi is about 52 miles.
Southern Miss also features local talent in a pair of former Gulfport standouts — senior designated hitter Daniel Keating and sophomore right-hander Alex Nelms.
Graham's last ride
Wayne Graham is entering his final Conference USA tournament as the Rice head coach after it was announced in April that he will not return for the 2019 season after 27 years on the job at the Houston school.
The 82-year-old Graham, who is a member of the College Baseball Hall of Fame, has earned more than 1,150 career victories, 21 conference titles and the 2003 national championship.
For the second consecutive season, Rice (24-29-2) had to rally late in conference play to secure one of the eight spots in the C-USA tournament.
Rice needs to win this week's tournament to clinch a spot in the postseason for the 24th consecutive year.
Junior shortstop Ford Proctor leads the Owls at the plate with a .346 batting average, seven homers and 37 RBIs.
NCAA bubble glance
Conference USA has the potential to send three teams to the NCAA Tournament with Southern Miss, Florida Atlantic and Louisiana Tech all in the hunt.
USM is safely in the NCAA Tournament, but it will likely need to play well this week to fully secure a No. 2 seed in a regional. USM's RPI ranking dipped six spots to No. 45 this week, putting the possibility of a No. 2 seed in some jeopardy.
Florida Atlantic, the No. 3 seed in Biloxi, appears to be in good position to earn a postseason bid after finishing the regular season with a 36-15-1 record and an RPI ranking of No. 31.
Louisiana Tech will likely need a strong run through the tournament to earn itself an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. The Bulldogs are probably on the wrong side of the bubble at the moment with an RPI ranking of No. 56.
Tickets for the C-USA tournament can be purchased at TicketFly.com or at the south box office at MGM Park.
Games held on the first four days of competition will be available to watch on ESPN3.com.
Sunday's 1 p.m. championship game will be shown on CBS Sports Network.
No. 1 — Southern Miss (39-15)
No. 2 — Louisiana Tech (38-18)
No. 3 — FAU (36-15-1)
No. 4 — Charlotte (31-22)
No. 5 — UTSA (31-22)
No. 6 — FIU (26-26)
No. 7 — Rice (24-29-2)
No. 8 — UAB (21-31)
Game 1 — (6) FIU vs. (3) Florida Atlantic, 9 a.m.
Game 2 — (7) Rice vs. (2) Louisiana Tech, 12:30 p.m.
Game 3 — (8) UAB vs. (1) Southern Miss, 4 p.m.
Game 4 — (5) UTSA vs. (4) Charlotte, 7:30 p.m.
Game 5 — Loser Game 1 vs. Loser Game 2, 9 a.m.
Game 6 — Loser Game 3 vs. Loser Game 4, 12:30 p.m.
Game 7 — Winner Game 1 vs. Winner Game 2, 4 p.m.
Game 8 — Winner Game 3 vs. Winner Game 4, 7:30 p.m.
Game 9 — Winner Game 5 vs. Loser Game 7, 3 p.m.
Game 10 — Winner Game 6 vs. Loser Game 8, 6:30 p.m.
Game 11 — Winner Game 7 vs. Winner Game 9, 9 a.m.
Game 12 — Winner Game 8 vs. Winner Game 10, 12:30 p.m.
Game 13 — Same teams as Game 11, 4 p.m. (if necessary)
Game 14 — Same teams as Game 12, 7:30 p.m. (if necessary)
Championship game, 1 p.m.