Assessing the Gamecocks' NCAA chances

What did a win over top ranked Kentucky and a thrilling win over a Georgia team that almost pulled off three upset specials on the road in the SEC do for the University of South Carolina? It changed a fantasy to a realistic long shot, as Carolina still dreams of earning an NCAA Basketball Tournament berth – but must almost be perfect the rest of the season.

The Gamecocks stand at 5-4 in the SEC. With seven games left in the conference schedule, USC has a realistic shot at an NCAA tournament bid – if it finishes at 11-5 in the SEC.

As an optimistic Carolina fan, let's say 10-6. The easiest road to that record was to win the five games following the Georgia game to compile a seven game SEC win streak. The only Carolina team to do that was the 1996-97 team that went 15-1. That was the last – and only – time USC has won even six straight SEC contests. It didn't happen, thanks to Tennessee overcoming a late night flight back from Baton Rouge, with only one day to prepare for USC, to throttle the Gamecocks last Saturday. Then the Vols were terrible three days later in a huge loss at Vanderbilt. Thanks, Tennessee.

That brings us to now. Carolina won 5 straight SEC games in 97-98 and 03-04 with NCAA Tournament-bound teams, and won four straight conference contests in both 05-06 and 08-09, two "almost made it" years. This will be an "almost" year again if Carolina does not win six of the next seven. Since it snowed in the Low Country, this must be a special year, maybe 5-2.

"What?" You say. "We beat Number 1! That's got to count for more!" In all fairness, the depleted Gamecocks remarkably passed the challenge of winning two "must win" games out of their first 3 SEC contests, beating Auburn on the road and LSU at home. The problem is, this season's non-conference record is almost as poor as the 5-5 record of the 96-97 Gamecocks. Melvin Watson, B.J. McKie and Larry Davis took ten games to jell as a three-guard offense, and then shocked the SEC by winning 15 of 16 SEC games. Devon Downey needs Brandon Raley-Ross and then a (fill-in- the-blank) each game to match the 97-98 squads' SEC record and make the NCAA tournament.

USC's 9-5 non-conference schedule this season was caused mostly by the loss of big men Dominique Archie and Mike Holmes. Casual Gamecock basketball followers may be surprised to know that Archie, not Devan Downey, was the best overall player on the squad, and even handled the role of guarding the other teams' best scorers. Things looked bleak after losses to Clemson, Miami, Baylor, and Southern Conference foe Wofford. After winning those first two SEC games, USC got off-track with a home loss to Vanderbilt January 16, and then another loss in Oxford to top 20 Mississippi. A split would have been good, but two losses put USC in a difficult spot, at best. Suddenly, the winnable game at Florida a few days later became a "must win" – or set up the Kentucky game as a "must win," in part because of last year.

When the Gamecocks beat the number one team for the first time ever in basketball, the fantasies of March Madness began. I hope I don't burst anyone's bubble, but Carolina has work to do just to get on the bubble for the NCAA's.

Longtime observers say the SEC was lucky to get 4 NCAA berths last year, and without Mississippi State winning the tourney title, there would have been only three league teams picked. This year the league is much stronger, but last year's reputation will be hard to erase in one season. If history tells us anything, it's that the SEC will never get more than 6 teams in the NCAA basketball tournament, no matter how many good teams are in the conference. Just ask the 2000 Vanderbilt team.

The "Dores" were ranked #25 in the last few weeks of the regular season, were 20-8 overall with an 8-8 conference mark – and were inexplicably left out of the Big Dance after an opening round loss in the SEC tournament. In the immediate post selection analysis, national pundits unanimously agreed there were three or four at large teams selected that year that had no business being selected over Vandy. Since then, the Big 11 (their sic, not mine) has had 8 and even 9 teams selected. A glance at past years will show more than a few deserving SEC teams that somehow just didn't get picked.

The huge revenue that SEC football brings the conference affects the selection process. The smaller schools and other conferences represented on the selection committee can try, but the powers that be just can't keep that thought of SEC football money out of the back of their minds. Money builds programs. An NCAA basketball tournament share and its publicity can do a lot for a program. Even though the ACC at times has had just four teams, the selections - or lack thereof - have been fair when all factors are considered. The ACC has also had 7 teams selected since 2000. Not the SEC.

Which leads us to this year. Because of last year's weaker than expected conference, the SEC will likely only get 5 tournament berths, unless another Mississippi State-style surprise produces an unexpected tournament winner. That scenario could just knock out a more deserving SEC team.

Of those five spots, fill in Vanderbilt and put down Kentucky in indelible blue ink. Even with back to back losses to Arkansas and Kentucky in three days to drop to .500 in the conference, Mississippi still looks like the best in the West and the Rebels have been ranked since early in the season. That leaves two spots open and three likely candidates – Mississippi State, undermanned-but-still-ranked Tennessee, and Florida, who beat the Gamecocks at the buzzer three weeks ago in what could turn out to be the biggest "what if" game of the season. The exciting 77-71 win over the Gators Wednesday was an absolute necessity to gain an NCAA tournament berth. Carolina is trying to climb over the backs of those teams. For a few weeks, Alabama lurked in nearly the same spot, trying to climb past USC and over the others, but two straight one-point losses to Auburn and Florida, then the loss to Mississippi killed the dream. The Tide even missed its opportunity to beat Number One Kentucky Wednesday. Wait until next year.

So there are five teams still competing for two spots. Unfortunately, its time to root against your SEC neighbors, USC fans. It's "knock out time," and sometimes that means a deserving fifth or sixth team gets bounced out of contention by an also-ran.

How does USC rise to #5 in the SEC? Try an 11-5 record. Or, if you actually got a chance to ride food tray or slide down a hill on your bottom in the snow, this might be a special year, so dream about 10-6.

The logical goal for USC since late December has been to sweep all 8 SEC games at home, and then beat Georgia, Arkansas and Auburn on the road to receive its first NCAA tournament bid since the 03-04 season. That's tough but simple enough, except Vanderbilt cruised past Carolina in Columbia three Saturdays ago to make the task tougher. The win over Kentucky in Columbia was not a bonus but a "must win" since the loss to Baylor January 2. The replacement win for the Vanderbilt home loss must now come on the road.

The game at Florida was a great opportunity on paper for a replacement win. Tennessee looked tempting, except wins in Thompson-Boling Arena are rare for the Gamecocks. They happen twice every 13 years (01-02 team and the 96-97 NCAA team). Wins over the Vols anywhere are rare – 2 in the last 11 meetings on any court. So the blowout in Knoxville leaves the following opportunities for the make-up win:

• At Kentucky on February 25. A revenge game, so this could get ugly even though it is not Senior Night.

• At Vanderbilt on March 6 in the SEC regular season finale. Carolina's last road win in Nashville was during the 05-06 season, but USC won three straight there from 01-02 through 03-04. Kevin Stallings' Commodores would be a tough team to beat, but if USC is 10-5 going into this game, I would bet on the visitors.

Vandy would likely have an NCAA berth already assured. And maybe, since this could be an unusual year of optimism, 10-6 will be good enough.

• At Georgia on February 13. Oops, we have already counted that as a "must" road win. Drop this game, and Carolina has to win two of the above three road games against probable NCAA tournament teams to reach 11-5.

Can it get much tougher? Ouch. The Gamecocks and their fans might want to try to sleep on nails instead.

Then there are the two other home games, just your regular "must win" games. Mississippi State comes to Columbia on February 27. Rick Stansbury's crew led by Jarvis Vernardo may be good enough to swat the Rebels from the top spot in the West. Alabama is the final home opponent on March 3. The Crimson Tide must have considered their own scenarios for an NCAA bid, with all including a win over the Gamecocks. Why not play spoiler?

The Arkansas game next Wednesday? "Must win" against the Western Division leader on the road with Courtney Fortson back. If there is another ice storm in Fayetteville, that night he might score 40 in the second half instead of 33 like he did in the win against Mississippi State.

This all means that USC needs six more SEC wins, completing the home and away sweep over Georgia, plus a win at Arkansas to go along with the win over the Volunteers in Columbia before the rematch at Rupp Arena. Only once before have the Gamecocks won seven SEC contests in a row. They did not this season. Carolina fans now have to contemplate a sweep of Kentucky just to be on the selection committee's radar.

Why 11-5? That would give USC a 20-10 record. A 10-6 record gives Carolina a shot, that is, a chance, an opportunity, to earn an NCAA bid at the SEC Tournament. Frankly, an 11-5 record probably puts the Gamecocks in the same position. That's right, an 11-5 Gamecock squad would still probably have to advance to a Saturday semi-final and be one of the last four SEC teams standing to get an NCAA bid. To quote the old Steve Miller Band song, "It just keeps getting tougher every day." Welcome to the SEC. Too bad it's not considered a basketball conference worthy of - dare we say it - seven NCAA bids some year?

Strangely, finishing 11-5, or even 10-6, but in third place in the East instead of second place, and NOT getting a first round tournament bye, might help USC. It would give USC an easier first game on Thursday night vs. the sixth team in the West, and make Friday's game against the second seed in the West perhaps "the game" of the entire season. Thank goodness it is an "even year," so it's the #3 seed in the West and not the #3 seed in the East that gets the honor of playing in the last game of the night, both Thursday and - if lucky - Friday night. Both of those games likely will start after 10:00 p.m. Eastern each night. I can remember a couple of those contests where it seemed there were more fouls committed than points scored by halftime. That's not always an atmosphere for great basketball if you are fighting for an NCAA berth.

If you are dreaming that 9-7, or even 8-8 would somehow allow Carolina a fighting chance, look at the numbers. Look at their SEC competitors. Look at their schedules and the RPI's. The best way for the Gamecocks to reach the coveted top 35 ranking in the RPI to have a strong shot at a large bid is to……go 11-5 in the SEC.

Can Carolina force the selection committee to take a sixth team from the SEC? Maybe, but the magic number to do that looks like…11-5. For you optimists who just bought lottery tickets, maybe 10-6 this year. But remember, that was USC's conference record last year. If the Gamecocks finish 10-6 and reach the SEC finals, the optimists will say, "They can't keep USC out!" Oh, yes they can. USC should leave nothing to chance.

If this is too much drain on the brain in mid-season, just sit back and relax – or jump up and down if you prefer – and watch Devan Downey try to become the first player to average 30 points per SEC game in a season since Pistol Pete Maravich.

If the Gamecocks don't get 11 conference wins, start thinking about taking a road trip to Nashville the second week in March. You might see an improbable four wins in four days performance. In the same Arena four years ago, Renaldo Balkman watched a tired Tre Kelly's three point shot fall just short in the final seconds, and USC came up just short of taking the SEC Tournament title from Florida and earning a trip to the Big Dance.

As Devan Downey has showed the past nine games, anything is possible with Number 2 on the floor - and Downey's lucky number might just be 11.

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