Midseason report: USC hoping to go dancing
With an overall record of 16-5 in Darrin Horn's first season, South Carolina has already surpassed its win total from each of the previous two seasons (14). The Gamecocks' SEC record of 5-3 not only has them tied for third in the SEC East, but equals the number of wins they had all of last season. Carolina needs just three more wins to finish .500 in conference play, equaling the best finish under Dave Odom.
That 8-8 campaign came in 2003-2004, when the Gamecocks went 23-11 and made the NCAA Tournament. That team was similar to this year's squad: both loaded up on wins against a weak non-conference schedule and had a hot start to conference play (5-2 this year, 5-1 in 2004). The 2004 team struggled after the hot start in the SEC, and had to sweat out selection Sunday. The Gamecocks were a 10 seed, and lost in the opening round to Memphis. So what does this team have to do to get into the Big Dance for the first time since 2004?
Carolina's strength of schedule is only 83. It will continue to rise as USC finishes SEC play, but only so high given the down year the conference is having. Two games against Georgia, plus games with Arkansas and Alabama will not be a big help. Still, the Gamecocks have a respectable RPI of 47. That is not high enough to make Carolina a lock, but it is not a detriment, either. The Gamecocks still play Tennessee at home, and the Vols have an RPI of 17, but other than that, all of the Gamecocks' future opponents have a lower RPI than Carolina.
The selection committee also looks at a team's "body of work," who it beat and who it lost to. Carolina stacks up pretty well in its defeats: there is no fault in losing to Clemson, at LSU, at Tennessee, and at Florida. The loss at College of Charleston is more damaging, but every team gets a mulligan. The Gamecocks have quality wins at Baylor (although the Bears have struggled lately, taking away some of the luster of that win), at Kentucky (ditto), over Florida, and over an improving Ole Miss team. The loss to Florida hurts because Carolina had a real chance to win, and there are not many opportunities left for the Gamecocks to get a "quality win."
Mississippi State (5-2 SEC), Kentucky (5-3), and Tennessee (5-2 SEC) are the three best opponents left, and Carolina gets the latter two at home. The Gamecocks will also have a chance to get some quality wins in the SEC Tournament.
Looking at the remainder of the schedule, Carolina should beat Georgia twice, win at Alabama, and at home against Arkansas. That would put Carolina at nine conference wins, and it seems unlikely the selection committee would ignore a team with double digit conference wins. The game at Vanderbilt is a little more of a tossup, but very winnable. If the Gamecocks can get a win against Mississippi State, Kentucky, or Tennessee, they would probably be in the tournament. Win two, and they may even get a good seed.
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