As soon as the Gamecocks nipped then number 24 Florida 70-69 on a last second lay-up by senior Zam Frederick on January 21, Florida dropped out of the rankings. So did then number 24 Kentucky when USC won its second game ever at Rupp Arena 78-77 January 31, thanks to a Devan Downey pull up jumper from 8 feet. USC did not replace either team in the poll, despite a comparable record.
The SEC, as several national pundits have pointed out, including ESPN's Jimmy Dyches, does not have a dominant team or two that might go all the way in the NCAA Tournament, thus many sports observer says it's a "down" year. The SEC is young, but as Vanderbilt Coach Kevin Stallings and others have pointed out, besides no dominant teams, the SEC is as strong as ever from top to bottom.
The loser in the scenario created by this perception could be USC on NCAA Tournament selection Sunday, though recent trends show more respect for the Gamecocks as they surged into a first place tie in the SEC East. More NCAA Tournament projections than not now have the Gamecocks in as one of four, or in some cases five, SEC teams. That's a good trend, as is Carolina's steadily rising RPI ranking, but these speculations usually have Carolina in the field instead of Kentucky, as LSU, Florida, Tennessee and USC are projected as "in." But there are few potential signature wins left for the Gamecocks, who seem to have the easiest remaining SEC schedule among the four teams tied in the East.
Road games at Alabama on Saturday and the season finale at Georgia March 7 are not only winnable but expected victories from a team that wants to earn an NCAA berth, as is the home game with Arkansas. Home games with Kentucky and Tennessee are great opportunities to have an undefeated home SEC schedule and take first or second in the East, and are also needed wins. The contest at surging Vanderbilt, with great young talent meshing together, is a likely defeat, leaving the February 18 game at Mississippi State as the key game of the season.
State seems to be battling USC for the potential fifth and final NCAA tournament berth, and if there are just four, both teams may be left out. The16-8 Bulldogs, 6-3 in the SEC after a 97-94 double OT loss to LSU Wednesday night, is now effectively three games behind the Bayou Bengals after being swept in the season series, and is headed for second in the West and a Thursday bye in the SEC Tournament. In this particular year, that might be a bad thing, as a team that gets a couple of wins and makes the semi-finals on Saturday can bolster its tournament credentials. Lose on Friday and it could be a trip to the NIT. Mississippi State needs to beat the Gamecocks, get 10-11 wins on its own and play on Saturday in Tampa to have a legitimate shot at the NCAA Tournament. Besides USC, the Bulldogs travel to Auburn, Alabama and Tennessee while hosting Auburn, Mississippi and Florida – a probable 4-2 slate in other games that makes the Carolina contest the difference between 10 or 11 SEC wins.
Carolina is just 2-8 at the Humphrey Coliseum since joining the SEC in 1992 and a loss there not only makes wins over Kentucky and Tennessee in Columbia vital but also seems to raise the magic number of SEC regular season wins to hold off State from 10 to 11- ironic considering a win over Mississippi State would make 11 wins much more realistic for Carolina. Finishing 6-1 with wins over Tennessee, Kentucky and Mississippi State would assure USC of a 12-4 SEC mark and the upper hand in the six team game of "knock out" that may leave just four standing in the NCAA field. An 11-5 mark might be enough if Carolina's RPI cracks the top 40, or at least the top 45. A 10-6 mark, my pre-season projection to get an NCAA berth, may not be good enough based on the perception. USC fans have to hope the mid-majors, who are also mainly "down" this season with fewer conferences legitimately campaigning for 3-4 berths instead of 1-2, do not have upsets in the conference tournaments and that the clear favorites win the titles and NCAA berths outright, leaving more at large selections.
NCAA TOURNAMENT PREDICTIONS
The SEC will get either 4 or 5 teams in the NCAA Tournament. At least 3 will win first round games and at least two will advance to the Sweet Sixteen. The reason? Without a dominating team or two, every SEC team has had at least two more close games, a sign of "parity." NCAA Tournament games are typically close with great guard play counted on to advance. The SEC teams are more used to close, tight games decided in the last minute – see the Gamecocks' wins over Florida, Kentucky, Baylor and losses at Florida and vs. the College of Charleston, so are more prepared to make a play to win having been in that situation more often. Other teams, like North Carolina, have had few close games which may have an effect in the outcome of a close first or second round NCAA contest. The best SEC teams, aside from Tennessee led instead by its the multi talented forwards, boast great guard play in Nick Calathis and the improving freshman Erving Walker of Florida, super scorer Jodie Meeks of Kentucky, and the Carolina duo of Downey and Frederick. All are likely to play well in NCAA tournament play. Mississippi State has the imposing Jarvis Varnado in the middle but no back court standout.
With Memphis running its Conference USA win streak past 50, the question is not when will the streak end, but can you argue that any other team from the conference deserves an NCAA bid? Tied for third place UAB is #32 in the RPI and 16-8, but second place Tulsa (#65, 16-7) and tied for third Houston ( #92, 14-7) are not even close to being at- large picks. This Tiger team is not the highly ranked, almost-unbeaten, Final Four, championship game, NBA trio of picks team from last year zipping through C-USA again, and not even a Top Ten team. The Tigers may only be a Top 20 team. How can anyone else in this league totally dominated by a good but not great Memphis Tiger team claim to belong in the NCAA Tournament? Even UAB?
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