No team starts a season aiming for the NIT. It’s fine if you get there, because it’s the postseason (one you don’t have to pay to play in), and a way of showing your fans that next year could bring an NCAA tournament berth. It’s a cool, fun tournament, but also the junior-high dance you’re forced to chaperone because everybody else wanted to go see The Rolling Stones.
The NIT is for outsiders to predict at the beginning of the season, a way of saying that the team might not be good enough to make it to the Stones show, but when they come around next year, they’ll have an excellent shot at being in the fifth row, middle stage.
So it is when talking South Carolina basketball. If the Gamecocks have a winning season and get to the NIT, that’s a successful year.
I’m not putting a cap on that because I, just like any of you, don’t know how this season will go. I see a team that lost its leading scorer and is down three players before the first game, but also one that isn’t as freshman-stocked as it was last year and has a coach who has cheerfully said that this is the first year he really knows what he has before the season begins. I’ve also been watching college basketball for the great majority of 36 years and have seen teams that seemingly have no shot at anything win the national championship.
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I talked with Brian Steele at media day and I asked what the team’s goals were. He said, “Same as every year, the NCAA tournament. NIT would be great, but we don’t want to go to the NIT. We want to go to the tournament.”
He must have seen my eyebrows shoot up because he cut me off before I asked the next question, which was, “Really? You guys think that’s realistic considering everything?” The “everything” would have been that this program has made one postseason appearance in the past eight years (2009 NIT), has been to eight NCAA tournaments in its history and has had five consecutive losing seasons, with a fewest-loss total of 16.
“I think some of the older guys are starting to see that window close,” Steele continued. “We’re not thinking NIT. It’s NCAA tournament, all the way through, for us.”
This year’s Gamecocks aren’t carrying an us-against-the-world chip on their shoulders, or pounding some sign mentioning the tournament above the locker-room door, or angrily declaring that the preseason picks (the media had them 12th in the SEC) are unjust. What they have is a quiet confidence that Frank Martin’s system will work and that they, like him, really know what they have.
This isn’t a bunch of holdovers getting used to a new coach or eight newcomers sinking or swimming. After a year together during which they fought through losing both of their point guards within two weeks, and thus had to start over midseason, this group won four of its final six games, including one against the national runner-up.
What they know is they were just starting to play well last year, winning four in a row, then losing at Florida and dropping a three-point decision to LSU, before Ty Johnson broke his foot. With Bruce Ellington gone to the NFL, the Gamecocks had to lean on freshman Duane Notice at the point, ask more of freshman Sindarius Thornwell than he already was giving and keep hoping that, somehow, they’d find a way to win the game.
They didn’t until March, when they won those four of six, including two in the SEC tournament. That was enough for fans to get enthused for this year – the Gamecocks had had five consecutive one-and-dones in the tournament. This is the first year since 2009-10 that fans have felt confident going into the next season.
Steele expressed that confidence. USC has its issues – not a lot of height, thinning personnel and an aggressive non-conference schedule – but also knows it’s better than predictions. The Gamecocks have Johnson, Thornwell and Notice to lead a three-guard attack that will handle the scoring, Michael Carrera back to his freshman form and other veterans who know what Martin expects.
The NCAA tournament might be too high to reach this year, but a postseason appearance is realistic. With one senior on the team, an NIT berth this year would bring a lot of hope for next.
Although I’ll brush up on “Little Red Rooster,” just in case.