Frank Martin has plans for a nice little Saturday.
South Carolina hosts No. 14 Texas Tech at noon, tipping off a nine-hour basketball marathon that could end with Martin’s league claiming it’s the nation’s best.
“I’m hoping we play well, I think we will,” the USC coach said Thursday evening on his “Carolina Calls” radio show. “I’m hoping the crowd is absolutely nuts. And obviously I hope that by 2:30 I’m in a real, real good mood.
“And knowing that we don’t play until the following Wednesday and knowing it’s at home, so we don’t have to travel, I’m going to sit down Saturday with the kids and the wife and we’re gonna watch some TV.”
Saturday includes the fifth edition of the Big 12/SEC Challenge. For the Gamecocks (13-7, 4-4 SEC), it’s their first appearance in the event in three seasons. The reigning Final Four participants are matched with the likely NCAA Tournament bound Red Raiders (16-4, 5-3 Big 12).
“Texas Tech and us,” Martin said, “is a heck of a matchup.”
USC-TTU doesn’t come with the national appeal of Oklahoma-Alabama (2:15 p.m. tipoff) or Kentucky-West Virginia (7 p.m.), but ESPN2 will still provide a platform for a couple intriguing sides playing in a raucous environment.
Colonial Life Arena has averaged 17,105 fans (95 percent capacity) the last two home games. Garnet and black supporters saw an upset of No. 18 Kentucky last Tuesday and a close loss to No. 21 Tennessee last Saturday.
A third straight ranked opponent in Columbia should draw a similar scene.
Carolina is coming off a win at No. 20 Florida. On Friday, the Gamecocks, as a No. 11 seed, debuted in Jerry Palm’s NCAA Tournament bracket projection on CBSSports.com. Texas Tech, currently a game back of Kansas for first place in the Big 12, is a No. 4 seed in Palm’s field.
Saturday is a résumé-boosting opportunity. USC sophomore forward Maik Kotsar on Friday acknowledged the game’s significance – before smiling sheepishly.
“Of course,” Kotsar said. “I mean … err … we’re as motivated as we can be every game. So kind of a tough question. There’s no right answer, but, I feel like, yeah, with every win we get more motivated to just go and get a win.”
The SEC has never beat the Big 12 in this challenge, though it earned a split of the 10 contests last season. When the 2017 NCAA Tournament reached its Elite Eight stage, the SEC had three teams to the Big 12’s one.
“SEC, this year, last year, it’s really physical,” said Kotsar, who’s second on the Gamecocks in rebounding (4.8 per game). “I think last year showed us how physical the SEC was as us, Florida and Kentucky were able to get to the Elite Eight. This year, the pattern’s pretty much the same.”
Palm is projecting an SEC-record nine teams making the Dance this season. He’s got six of the 10 Big 12 teams in the field.
Carolina guard Frank Booker, a graduate transfer, played the first two seasons of his college career at Oklahoma.
“It’s around the same,” Booker said when asked to compare the leagues. “Every single game is a dog fight. You can’t go into every game thinking, ‘Oh, we’ve beat them before, we’ll do it again.’ You can’t have that mindset. It’s a clean slate, you just have to go in and play ball and just hope that you execute well enough to come out on the winning side.”
Speaking during Thursday’s SEC teleconference, Kentucky coach John Calipari said Saturday’s event is “probably” showcasing the country’s top two leagues.
“I mean, it’s just not believable,” Calipari said. “Like, we lose to South Carolina. Yeah, but they just went to Florida and won. Wait a minute, what? We got really good teams in this league right now, with really good coaches, and dudes are performing. There are no bad teams in this league. None.
“Frank (Martin) and I were talking the other day, and he said to me, ‘Cal, there is no game where you walk in and say, ‘OK, we can play bad and still win this.’ ”
Such a mentality goes for marquee non-conference games, too.
“It’s all about our team and we’re going to build our résumé to get our win,” Kotsar said. “And, yeah, if we win and it puts the SEC more on the map, that’s good.”