OMAHA, Neb. - When South Carolina won its second consecutive College World Series last year, Robert Refsnyder was playing in the Cape Cod League and sticking up for Western baseball.

The quality of play in the Pac-12 is just as good as in other conferences, Refsnyder would tell his fellow Wareham (Mass.) Gatemen. It's just that the teams are never on television, and nobody comes to games.

"They always joked about, 'What's the Pace-10?' and 'What's the Pace-12?'" Refsnyder said. "That's kind of where I realized we need to try to gain some respect nationally."

Here's the Arizona Wildcats' chance.

The UA will open the best-of-three College World Series Finals tonight at TD Ameritrade Park against South Carolina, the two-time defending national champions and the living embodiment of college baseball's decidedly Southern bent.

The Wildcats' first national championship since 1986 would strike a blow for the laid-back, and mark a shift in the sport's balance of power.

Consider: South Carolina (49-18) advanced to the finals by defeating Southeastern Conference rival Arkansas in Friday's elimination game; before that, it opened the CWS by defeating Florida, the country's top-ranked team and another SEC foe. Arizona punched its ticket by defeating Florida State, a program that's all sweet-tea and syrupy accents. Twice.

Arizona (46-17) has won all eight of its postseason games by a combined score of 79-26 and is more rested heading into a short series.

But stopping South Carolina will be a challenge: Exactly 10 of the last 20 national champions have hailed from either the SEC or the Big 12 Conference, the reigning deans of college baseball. Just three have come from the Pac-12: USC took it all in 1998, and Oregon State won back-to-back championships in 2006 and 2007.

The possibility of three consecutive championships makes the Gamecocks local favorites, even if coach Ray Tanner thinks otherwise.

"We've been here, and we've had some good fortune here, but I don't think that's an advantage for us," he said.

The Wildcats have, after all, played just twice over the last week, a benefit of staying in the winners' bracket. South Carolina, by comparison, has played three times since Thursday.

UA coach Andy Lopez disagreed, calling this year's tournament "The Ray Tanner Invitational."

The Gamecocks, today's designated visitors, will send right-hander Forrest Koumas (2-2, 4.56 ERA) to the mound. Arizona will counter with Konner Wade. The right-hander threw a shutout in last week's win over UCLA, improving his season record to 10-3 with a 4.17 ERA.

Wade said he won't make more of today's game than he needs to - "People know the Pac-12 is good baseball; I don't think they need a national champion to reinforce that" - but admits that upsetting the crowd favorite would be sweet.

"I think people want to see a new champion," he said. "But we'll see."

Lopez can see both sides. A Los Angeles native and UCLA graduate, he coached at Florida before being hired at the UA in 2002. Lopez remembers the SEC as "an exciting and dangerous" place filled with fans who took winning, and rivalries, seriously.

"There's nothing like a Friday night in the SEC in baseball," he said. "And I'm saying that as a Pac-12 rat."

But strip away the traditions and the stadiums and mystique, and the history and the travel and the rivalries, and - Lopez says - things even out.

"Put them in a field somewhere, and there's good baseball in the Pac. Good baseball in the SEC," he said.

Omaha technically qualifies as a field somewhere. Tonight, the baseball world will find out who's better.

"It's great for Arizona, for the West Coast and the Pac to be matched up against such a powerhouse in the SEC," Refsnyder said. "Hopefully, it helps the Pac-12 kind of gain some momentum in this whole realm of college athletics, especially college baseball."


CWS Finals

• What: Arizona vs. South Carolina

• Where: Omaha, Neb.

• Best-of-three series: Today, 5 p.m. on ESPN2, 1290-AM and 1490-AM; Monday, 5 p.m. on ESPN, 1290-AM and 1490-AM; Tuesday, 5 p.m. on ESPN, 1290-AM and 1490-AM (if necessary)