"We haven't thought a whole lot about it at this point," Coach Rick Stansbury said of the team's NIT outlook. "Now we ought to think about it some."
Maybe the Bulldogs ought to have been pondering what it could take to attract NIT attention before earning the dubious distinction of first team dismissed from Nashville's Gaylord Center. They certainly didn't look like a team prepared or even particularly eager to participate in any sort of tournament, conference or national alike.
"It's a big disappointment," said freshman guard Reginald Delk about both the outcome and his first SEC Tournament experience.
And a big letdown by a Dog team that seemingly had something to be playing for. Instead the Gamecocks, who came in with an identical record, gave a far superior effort on the neutral court. "You just have to give South Carolina credit," sophomore forward Charles Rhodes said. "They were the aggressor all night."
"I said South Carolina in this tournament has a chance to beat anybody," Stansbury said. "Tonight they played exceptional. But we weren't as sharp as we had been. Why, who knows?"
Or who could explain how State could shoot almost as well as the Gamecocks and win the battle on the backboards and still lose a lopsided decision? Actually, that was easy to explain. The SEC's worst team for turnovers fell to the occasion by losing, throwing, or just giving the ball away 17 times, while the Gamecocks had just four turnovers. That allowed USC to take nine more shots and those chances added up.
"It's about playing with poise," Stansbury said. "And the difference in the game was turnovers. And on the road our team is not good enough to overcome that, we have such a small margin for error."
While the Bulldogs did have their usual share of self-induced error, the opposition deserved credit here as well. While showing a zone defense on a few trips, the Gamecocks preferred to attack State's shaky ballhandlers. Whether trapping at midcourt or jumping into a double-team on the point, South Carolina harassed the Dogs relentlessly. Not only did this produce giveways—which USC turned into 22 of their 59 points—but it also ate up clock. At the other end the Gamecocks also took their time, typically shooting only after 20 to 25 seconds had been burned.
Yet what burned the Bulldogs most was that they didn't give the sorts of extra effort needed in a tournament setting. Making and missing shots is one thing; energy is another, and the Gamecocks had it this afternoon. "They just turned the intensity up on defense," Delk said. "And they started getting every rebound and every loose ball. They were just beating us at hustle plays."
South Carolina also dominated, if that is the word, the ‘battle of benches.' Gamecock backups provided 20 points; Bulldog subs produced nothing and only took three total shots anyway. The mismatch wasn't a surprise since State came to town with a thin bench anyway. Junior guard Dietric Slater was unable to play at all, freshman forward Vernon Goodridge barely saw the court after a late-February illness, and while senior guard Jamall Edmondson did put in nine minutes he was unable to offer anything.
But USC's degree of reserve-superiority was telling, and combined with extra hustle it meant a huge difference. Besides, "What showed today was South Carolina's experience," Stansbury said. "And when they play well they're a very good team."
"It was frustrating out there," said freshman guard Jamont Gordon, who led State with 11 points, 11 rebounds, an three assists. But he also had eight turnovers and was just 5-of-14 shooting, 0-for-3 at the arc. Rhodes was just as frustrated for other reasons. He managed 11 points also, on 5-of-10 shooting, but only went to the free throw line twice and came away with just two rebounds in 32 minutes. This, after averaging almost eight boards per regular SEC game.
In his case it wasn't a lack of effort, it was USC's gameplan. "I can't make excuses for it, the guys they had on me did a great job," Rhodes said. "They always had one fronting me, and one trying to play physical with me, talk noise to me, try to get me out of my game. But you're supposed to expect that."
South Carolina could afford to double-up on Rhodes, a 17.3-point scorer in SEC season. Brandon Wallace started in the post for USC, which came with a four-guard set at tipoff, but big body Renaldo Balkman got in early and often and finished with a game-best 12 points. Or one of the smaller Gamecocks would drop on Rhodes and go for the ball. Either way it was a hard day for the sophomore, especially at his specialty. "They kept me off the boards pretty good."
Guards Tarence Kinsey and Tre' Kelly each had 11 points and five assists for USC.
Stansbury also changed for this game, giving up the four-guard lineup to start 7-2 Wesley Morgan in the post with Rhodes at forward. Still it was Gordon who set an instant tone by driving the lane and slamming the first two points of the day. Then three other starters each notched a bucket, including a trey from Richard Delk and a dunk by Rhodes, as State took a 9-2 lead.
It wasn't going to be so easy, of course. South Carolina steadied and with five points by Kelly caught up 10-9 by 12:55. The Dogs got sloppy with the ball and shot selection, typical of their SEC season, and the normal early round of substitutions did not improve things. "We had to go to our bench at that time," Stansbury said, "and it's obvious we don't have a lot of depth. I think that hurt us in that stretch." Reginald Delk halted SC's momentum with a trey, but Kinsey stuck consecutive jumper to put the Gamecocks up for the first time, 15-13 at 9:15.
Rhodes reported back in and dropped a turnaround jumper to briefly re-tie the count, but South Carolina was getting into a rhythm now as Antoine Tisby banked one in and Kelly hit for three with a Delk in his face. When Balkman finished a fastbreak State was suddenly down 22-15. Gordon manufactured a three-point play and Rhodes dunked again to cut the deficit to 24-20, before the Gamecocks responded with an open three by Kinsey.
Even with a three-pointer by Reginald Delk and Rhodes dunk it was still a 32-25 score at intermission, and State already had 11 turnovers—six by Gordon. He also had forced some long jumpers that failed to fall. "I thought I had to shoot a couple more shots, to pump my team up or get us points some kind of way."
State's best chance to rally was right out of the locker room, as down nine points Morgan cashed in a pair of rebounds around another Rhodes stuff. The Bulldogs had pulled within 36-31 with lot of time left, only to misplay four ensuing possessions with a turnover and three misses. So it hurt that much more when after a dry spell Kinsey got free and finished a fastbreak.
"It was very frustrating," said Morgan, who finished with nine points and five rebounds. "Just every push we made it seemed they got to those balls and made hustle plays. And we weren't able to mount a big enough comeback."
Balkman followed with a baseline drive for two, then State forced—and missed—consecutive trey-tries by Stelmach and Reginald Delk. USC's Kelley made is sting by sticking his longball for a 44-31 lead that had Stansbury calling time. Something in the talk must have helped as the Bulldogs managed to string some stops together while figuring out ways to produce points. Gordon and Delk got baskets and Morgan scored on yet another rebound, chipping the deficit to 46-38 with eight minutes left. It didn't take long for this final flourish to fade, though.
State wasted a series, unable to get a decent shot off, and at the other end Bryce Sheldon threw in a 24-footer. If any doubt remained, a Bulldog turnover and Balkman basket, foul, and free throw banished it and pushed SC out ahead 52-38. Gordon was able to score a couple of impressive dunks but nothing was going to alter the outcome as Wallace tipped one in and Trice got a layup. State managed only one basket in the final five minutes, a layup by Reginald Delk with 21 seconds left.
Delk tallied eight points with a pair of threeballs, while Richard added five points.
Stansbury could not get around the radical discrepancies in two areas: South Carolina's margin in bench points and points off turnovers, which were a combined 42-3. "That's two difficult stats to overcome right there." And the Bulldogs couldn't.
Which leaves the players and staff alike with three whole days to wait before the NIT names their 40-team bracket Sunday evening. Stansbury was talking optimistically. "In the past anytime you've got a record of 15-15 you're automatically in," he said. In fact last year South Carolina got in with 15 wins, and scored five more victories to take the NIT title. That was the last year the tournament was an independent entity; now the NCAA is in charge.
"The new criteria, I don't know if anybody knows what it is. Over the last ten games we're 4-6, we've got four top-50 RPI wins. I think it's very obvious we're playing a lot better even though we've had to play without one of our better players down that stretch. If you talk about 65 teams going to the NCAA and 40 more, I think there's no question our team would have been one of the one-hundred best in the country."
So it's safe to assume that having ignored the subject up to now, the Bulldogs are talking about the NIT. Whether the NIT is talking about Mississippi State…"We'll have to wait and see," Stansbury said.