It was a different feeling.
Frank Martin and his players were able to enjoy a couple of days of South Carolina’s spring break before heading to Nashville and the SEC tournament. Once they returned from a win at Arkansas last Saturday that concluded the regular season, they were able to relax, rest, re-visit the family and not look at a basketball.
That lasted through Monday. The Gamecocks reconvened on Tuesday to start the process of their third, and most important, season.
That was also different. Martin and his teams, plus the three before them, were always preparing to leave for the tournament on the Tuesday of game week. This year, with the Gamecocks the third seed and not playing until late Friday, they could spend an extra day on their own practice court.
“Kind of sit around and wait to see who we play,” Martin said Tuesday. “For the last couple of years, we’d be getting ready to travel. Being able to give our guys Sunday and Monday completely off, we’re going to gather here today … and give it a go.”
The rest can do everybody some good. Martin said the final three games of the regular season really stressed the team, mentally and physically. Leading scorer and rebounder Michael Carrera suffered a hip injury against Georgia and didn’t play against the Razorbacks, and the rest of the team was trying to overcome the outside noise – that with two losses before Arkansas, they were in danger of throwing away all they worked for.
They won, creating a lot of eased minds. While Martin said that nothing is guaranteed when it comes to the NCAA tournament selection committee, he said he needed to go back to working security at taverns if the Gamecocks’ current resume (24-7, 11 wins in the league) wasn’t enough for a bid.
It almost definitely is, although it won’t be final-stamped until Sunday. The days until Friday will be spent preparing to win the SEC championship.
“Previous years, we were the ones coming in who had to play multiple games. By the time we got to the third game, we were worn out, we were tired,” Sindarius Thornwell said. “That gives us an advantage. But we’re going in with the same mindset – try to get to the championship game, and win it. That’s the goal.”
Martin’s last two teams won two games each at the SEC tournament. Those four wins are as many as USC had from 2006-13. In each of the past two years, the Gamecocks were so worn out by the third game in three days – and each of their third opponents were playing their first game – that they simply couldn’t keep up.
This year, if they mimic the success of the past two, that third game will have them playing in the championship game. The gravity of that moment would doubtless ease tired bodies and have USC playing at its best.
“We fought and fought and fought,” Martin said. “They rallied the troops, they figured out a way to stay the course and that’s why right now, those two days off, are so important for our guys.”
Ranking the SEC field
Picking tournament favorite in wide-open SEC:
Kentucky: The Wildcats are the defending champs and have won three times since John Calipari was hired. His Wildcats lost in the title game in 2014 and 2012.
Texas A&M: The Aggies come in with the league’s longest winning streak at six straight and also posted the only winning road record in SEC play.
PLAYING FOR NCAA SEEDING
USC: Frank Martin’s Gamecocks won at Texas A&M and also beat Vanderbilt and LSU this season. But they finished the regular season losing four of their final seven games.
Vanderbilt: Coach Kevin Stallings has his best team since upsetting then-No. 1 Kentucky in the 2012 title game, and the Commodores (19-12) have won four of last five.
ON THE BUBBLE
Florida: Florida’s spot looked secure after beating West Virginia to wrap up January. Instead, they finished the regular season losing five of their last seven.
Alabama: The Crimson Tide notched big wins over USC and Texas A&M, the kind good for any resume. Two wins likely would push the Tide off the bubble.
The Associated Press