South Carolina took care of its business with a win at Vanderbilt, and got some of its business taken care of when Tennessee removed Texas A&M’s tag as the lone unbeaten team in the SEC. When the last ball stopped bouncing on Sunday, the No. 7 Gamecocks (18-2, 6-1 SEC) were tied with the Aggies for first place in the league.
Texas A&M holds the all-important tiebreaker over USC due its 67-65 overtime win on Jan. 16, and since the two do not play again, the Gamecocks cannot equal or overcome it. But, with nine games to play, USC is in position to eye the SEC regular-season title. Even a tie at the end of the season would reward titles to each team that ties, as the tiebreaker is only used for seeding in the SEC tournament.
Mention the scenarios to coach Dawn Staley and she’ll begin shaking her head before the question is finished. There are too many things to happen, especially with nine games to play, and in the SEC, no game is a guarantee (note: Alabama, paying rent in the SEC cellar for most of the past decade, beat No. 9 Kentucky on the road and then ended a 23-game losing streak to Georgia this past week).
“The road opens up a little easier?” Staley said. “No, not in this league. In this league, anybody can beat anybody anywhere.”
Yet, it’s not tough to look ahead and see that the Gamecocks can put themselves in even better position over the next four games. Three are at home, all are against teams in the bottom five of the league. The Gamecocks host Ole Miss (1-6) and Missouri (2-5) this week before playing at Mississippi State (2-5) and hosting Arkansas (2-5, lost to USC on Jan. 2) next week.
If things go well, the Gamecocks could be 10-1 heading into their most crucial stretch. USC knew all along that the final five games of the SEC season would define the season and it certainly hasn’t gotten easier from the first look.
In short, USC needs to be 10-1 or pretty close to it entering the final five games to keep the vision of a championship glowing. The Gamecocks will play back-to-back games at No. 14 LSU and No. 13 Kentucky. Their final two home games are against Florida, which began the year hot but has cooled since, and Georgia, an everlong league stalwart that has stumbled to a 2-5 record thus far. USC finishes the regular season at No. 10 Tennessee.
The Gamecocks will also have to hope for some help from the rest of the league if they hope to get past the Texas A&M tiebreaker. The Aggies were pummeled on Sunday by the Lady Volunteers, but A&M’s schedule considerably softens. It gets the league’s top teams (LSU, Kentucky) at home and while it has some tricky road games (at Vanderbilt, at Auburn, at Alabama, which had one of the best weeks in program history this past week), it should be favored in all of them.
It’s not for coaches and players to look ahead – “By any means, looking ahead at the teams in this league, you’re setting yourself up to fail,” Staley says – but each of them have the same goal. Of course everybody wants to win a championship, but nobody talks about that while they’re trying to do it. A more verbalized goal is to finish in the league’s top four, which guarantees a team a free pass out of the first two rounds of the SEC tournament.
Staley’s Gamecocks just missed a top-four seed last year and were eliminated by Texas A&M in the third round. Still, finishing that close to the top four virtually guarantees a high seed in the NCAA tournament and if a top-four finish is feasible, a first-place finish is as well.
But as Staley said before Vanderbilt, she was going to look at Vanderbilt and then whoever was next. The Gamecocks are playing very well and there’s no need to muddy the river with talks of what could be.
That’s for others to point out.