When the team didn’t show up for the team watch party, it cast an ominous shadow.
Then again, privacy is the best way to grieve.
South Carolina (24-8) didn’t receive its ninth NCAA Tournament bid Sunday, a stunning announcement that cast a damper over a remarkable season. The Gamecocks are only one win from tying the school’s winningest team, had a winning SEC season for just the fourth time in 25 years and won their first 15 games.
But as RPIs and SOSs and “Last 10 Games” were thrown around a watch party for fans after the show, only one thing was clear – USC didn’t do enough.
“If you win enough, you get in, if you don’t, you won’t,” coach Frank Martin said. “And obviously, we didn’t win enough.”
USC will host High Point – and former assistant coach Scott Cherry – at 7 p.m. Tuesday in the first round of the NIT. The Gamecocks are a No. 1 seed since they were one of the first four teams out in the NCAA tournament.
There were no angry declarations or punching a wall or getting the head of the NCAA on the phone. A team that won three times more games than it lost and was an absolute lock in Friday projections was drowning in the residue of a burst bubble on Sunday.
The Gamecocks dropped six of their last 11, including three to Georgia and a shocking defeat at Missouri, which finished last in the SEC. Their nonconference schedule wasn’t judged tough enough, so the Gamecocks basically got no credit for winning every game in it.
The decision mimicked 2009, the last time USC had a shot to break a long NCAA Tournament drought. Like that season, the Gamecocks won more than 20 games and finished in the top four of the SEC.
Also like that season, USC lost in the first round of the conference tournament and had a weak non-conference schedule. The selection committee’s criteria changes from year to year, but one thing it’s always agreed on is the teams that challenge themselves, setting up a tough slate and doing well against it, will be rewarded.
USC’s best nonconference win was at Clemson, which began to fade as the Tigers couldn’t continue a hot start in the ACC. The Gamecocks also beat Memphis, a surprising finalist in the American Athletic championship game, but which got there after a lousy regular season.
“In scheduling contracts, I’m going to have them include that if their team’s players transfer out, that voids the contract,” Martin said, pointing out that when he signed teams like Drexel, Memphis and St. John’s, their best players left afterward. “So we don’t have to pay $80,000 to get out of a contract.”
USC’s only notable win was over a Texas A&M squad that played for the SEC championship and is heading to the NCAA Tournament as a No. 3 seed. The SEC, as has become custom, beat itself up so thoroughly that everyone’s stock dipped.
The conference only got three teams to the NCAAs (A&M, Vanderbilt and Kentucky). When the Commodores, who USC beat and finished higher than in the SEC, got in, a pall settled over the room.
USC went 2-1 against the Commodores, Aggies and Wildcats, and also beat a Tulsa team that got into the tournament. But as selection committee chairman Joe Castiglione said afterward, Tulsa had four wins over Top-50 RPI teams. USC had one.
The Gamecocks were left kicking themselves for what more they could’ve done. That was, most likely, win just one more game, pushing their win total so high the committee couldn’t leave out a power-conference team with that number.
Losses to Mississippi State, Tennessee and Missouri wounded USC’s resume, and when Georgia topped the Gamecocks for the third time, USC was left with a sickening realization – the Bulldogs were just one of dozens of teams across the nation that were pulling upsets in their conference tournaments.
When regular-season champions from small conferences didn’t win their conference tournaments as expected, the committee was forced to start shuffling teams that were supposedly locks onto the bubble. The Gamecocks’ numbers outside of their overall wins couldn’t overcome those teams’ other strengths, and despite checking into the SEC tournament as a comfortable seed, they weren’t in the tournament by Sunday.
It’s the first time since at least 2002 that a power-conference team with 24 wins was left out of the NCAA Tournament.
“After beating Arkansas, myself included, we were pretty confident we had done enough,” Martin said. “We lost an unbelievable hard game to Georgia without a first-team all-conference player in the conference tournament, and that was held against us.”
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