Five games to go and in baseball terms, we’ve got ourselves a pennant race.
South Carolina fell out of first place after losing to Arkansas on Wednesday, but remains a game behind Kentucky and Florida as it heads to Vanderbilt on Saturday. Each of the teams will play one game against the other as the regular season ends.
Kentucky and Florida meet next week, with the Gators having won the first game in the series. The Gamecocks and Florida meet in Gainesville on Tuesday, USC up 1-0 in the series.
Disclaimer: In the event of a tie, all teams are considered SEC regular-season champions and would receive trophies. The schools can purchase rings, banners and list themselves as SEC champs, although only one team would receive the No. 1 seed for the SEC Tournament.
In 2000, Florida, Kentucky, LSU and Tennessee were considered champions after each finished 12-4. Ditto last year for Texas A&M and Kentucky.
The Gamecocks are bidding for their first regular-season championship in 20 years, and second overall. Either Kentucky or Florida has won the past seven titles, with the Aggies joining the Wildcats last year.
USC is trying to shelve the malaise that has cost it two of the past three games, with Duane Notice saying there have been players-only meetings since Arkansas. The Gamecocks are trying to re-discover their spirit, something coach Frank Martin said was lost.
Martin was so peeved at a recent practice he walked out. With him saying he could only do so much to get his team back to where it had to be, the veterans took it on themselves to supply the rest.
“For him to not even put us on the line and make us run, just for him to walk out, we obviously did something he didn’t like,” Notice said. “As a team, we tried to stay after, just talk, get some shots up, and kind of continue practice without him being there. And hopefully that won’t happen again with the next few practices that we have.”
USC is at Vanderbilt and Florida, then hosts Tennessee and Mississippi State before finishing at Ole Miss. The Gamecocks have already beaten the last four teams on the list, but are struggling lately, their league-leading defense giving up three consecutive games of at least a 49 percent shooting percentage.
Florida is at Mississippi State, hosts USC, travels to Kentucky, hosts Arkansas and finishes at Vanderbilt. The Wildcats are at Georgia and Missouri, host Florida and Vanderbilt and finish at Texas A&M.
The Gators and Wildcats are closing in on clinching a top-four spot in the SEC Tournament and the double-bye that goes with it. Each team won’t need a strong performance in Nashville – or really, a strong end-of-season stretch – to make the NCAA Tournament. Their RPI, strength of schedule and reputation will have them in barring a complete meltdown.
USC is hoping to join them. The Gamecocks are in danger of playing themselves out this year. USC is still comfortably in at this point, but needs to finish strong.
The Gamecocks have two choices – win the majority of their final five games (and beating Florida would be a huge boost) or win in Nashville. Winning the tournament is possible, although it would be tough – USC is the only member of the 12-team SEC (without Missouri or Texas A&M) to never win the league tournament.
The Gamecocks could make it much easier on themselves to do so by clinching a top-four finish, meaning they would only have to win three games to take the tournament. They hold a two-game lead over Arkansas and Alabama for a top-four finish, but lost to each team. If a tiebreaker scenario occurs, USC would lose it.
“Winning’s in our DNA. We’re not too far removed from that,” Notice said. “I think we’ve had a little dip in terms of our defense, things like that, but I don’t think our spirit’s that broken. I think we’re going to rally together as a team and play the last five games to the best of our ability.”
Follow on Twitter at @DCTheState
Who: No. 21 USC (20-6, 10-3 SEC) at Vanderbilt (13-13, 6-7)
When: 8:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Memorial Gymnasium, Nashville, Tenn.
TV: SEC Network
Radio: 107.5 FM
South Carolina’s probable starters: G P.J. Dozier 6-6 So. (13.8 ppg, 4.4 rpg); G Sindarius Thornwell 6-5 Sr. (21.2 ppg, 7.4 rpg); G Duane Notice 6-2 Sr. (10.3 ppg, 2.4 rpg); F Maik Kotsar 6-10 Fr. (6.5 ppg, 5.4 rpg); F Chris Silva 6-9 So. (10.0 ppg, 5.9 rpg)
Vanderbilt’s probable starters: G Nolan Cressler 6-4 Sr. (7.5 ppg, 3.8 rpg); G Riley LaChance 6-2 Jr. (10.0 ppg, 3.3 rpg); F Joe Toye 6-7 So. (5.8 ppg, 2.8 rpg); F Jeff Roberson 6-6 Jr. (10.7 ppg, 7.3 rpg); C Luke Kornet 7-1 Sr. (13.5 ppg, 5.9 rpg)
Next game: South Carolina tips off at No. 15 Florida at 7 p.m. on Tuesday.