Gamecocks need assurance win in SEC Tourney
South Carolina coach Darrin Horn might have called this a dream scenario when he took the job back in 2008. In his first season as head coach, the Gamecocks have claimed their first 20-win regular season since 2003-04. They share a piece of the SEC Eastern Division title for the first time since 1996-97. Along the way, they upset three top 25 teams and finished with 10 wins in conference play.
Despite all that, the Gamecocks (21-8) are, according to most experts making predictions on the NCAA Tournament, either just inside or outside of the bubble, making this weekend's trip to Tampa for the SEC Tournament all the more crucial.
"I think every win helps without question, but it's something that's still beyond our control," Horn said. "It would be hard pressed for me to figure out how you don't put a divisional champion in an NCAA Tournament from a BCS league. But again our focus is the same as it was heading into Saturday's (Georgia) game. We want to play like we're capable of playing, and if we do that we feel like we're able to give ourselves an opportunity to be in games and have a chance to win."
What the Gamecocks do control is their level of play in the SEC Tournament. After sustaining a two-game losing streak to Vanderbilt and Tennessee, USC pulled out a 68-51 win in the regular season finale against Georgia, which eventually allowed them to tie with Tennessee for the SEC Eastern Division title. It also helped them earn a first-round bye in the conference tournament for the first time since 1998. That extra day makes Carolina's road to a possible tournament title a lot easier. And if nothing else, it gives them one less game to play which could translate into better overall results.
If they don't win another game against an SEC opponent this year, the Gamecocks will have a 10-6 record in the conference, making it their first 10-win season in the league since 1998. Unlike any year before, the 10-wins do not guarantee a slot in the NCAA Tournament field as USC is quickly finding out. Since the SEC split into two divisions in 1991, no team with 10 wins in the league has been left out of the Big Dance.
"To me that's kind of uncharted territory, and one of the reasons that you do take a job like this is if you're 10-6 in this league history would tell you you're in the tournament. I think some of those stats can be extremely misleading," Horn said.
USC's résumé has taken numerous hits by no fault of their own over the course of the season. All three of their wins over top 25 teams are now over teams also on the bubble or fighting for an NIT berth. Five of their eight losses have come against quality teams who are still playing well, including a combined three to both No. 1 seeds in the SEC Tournament. The other two came against a College of Charleston team that reached the finals of their conference tournament and to a Clemson team that remained in the top 15 for much of the season.
"You go back and look at who we beat and when we beat them and we have some of those wins without question. Again we've talked about it before, the no bad losses. We haven't lost to the non-conference teams at home like some teams in our league. We haven't lost a game at home in conference to a team that's lesser than us in terms of overall record, not lesser but overall record," Horn said. "Those are things that can be argued either way, but again we can't control any of that."
What the Gamecocks do have control over is their time in the SEC Tournament, which could be the deciding factor in whether or not they make the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2004. The more wins the team comes away with, the better the résumé looks.
But for Horn, the only assurance is winning the tournament crown, which is exactly what he andthe players are aiming to do.
"What we've tried to do is go out and take care of business every game, and over the course of a season I think our guys have done a good job of that and we've just got to do that going into the tournament," Horn said.
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