The jockeying for second place in the SEC men’s basketball race began in earnest Wednesday night at Colonial Life Arena, and South Carolina immediately got pushed to an outside position.
Losing home conference games can prove costly, as was the Gamecocks conference-opening loss to a Florida squad that is clearly trying to find itself in the early season.
“You can’t lose at home, period,” Frank Martin said afterward. “If you ever want to be any good, you better hold serve at home. You start losing home games, then you’re not going to be very good, plain and simple.”
The only SEC given this season is that Kentucky will win the league’s regular-season crown. The No. 1-ranked Wildcats are the conference’s only legitimate national championship contender.
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After Kentucky, it appears to be an open race with at least 10 teams vying for a second-place finish that likely comes attached with an NCAA tournament bid. In alphabetical order, the contenders are Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, LSU, Mississippi, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas A&M and Vanderbilt.
Shuffling that list to reflect how the teams played in the non-conference portion of their schedules, Arkansas, LSU and USC probably moved to the top of the list. That was until Wednesday, when the Gamecocks lost a golden opportunity to solidify their standing among the top contenders.
The loss essentially negated USC’s recent surge in the non-conference schedule that included noteworthy wins against Oklahoma State and ninth-ranked Iowa State. That is because a 9-3 record outside the league will prove meaningless if USC cannot play above .500 in the conference.
“We know that non-conference play is over and now is a new season and every game counts,” said USC guard Ty Johnson. “That would have made another statement for us, but we’ve got to learn from that and move on.”
There are a couple of important lessons to be learned from USC’s loss: Rebounding is essential to winning, and teams are going to follow Florida’s lead in solving USC’s pressure defense.
USC entered the game having outrebounded its opponents by an average of nine per game. The Gamecocks held a rebounding edge in every game this season with the exception of a win against Marshall. Yet Florida dominated the boards by a margin of 14, including a 22-9 edge in the second half.
The defensive pressure applied by USC’s guards had not previously allowed opponents to pass the ball to the wings, and many times kept opponents from running their set offenses.
Florida countered that pressure by having its guards drive off high-ball screens directly to the basket, where they either scored or kicked passes to the wings and corners for open jump shots.
USC ranked third nationally in allowing opponents to shoot 33.8 percent from the field. Yet Florida converted 42.9 percent of its field-goal attempts, the third highest percentage against USC, with the other better shooting nights coming in losses to Baylor and Charlotte.
In playing their best game of the season, according to Florida coach Billy Donovan, the Gators extended their SEC regular-season winning streaks to 19 games overall and 10 in a row on the road.
“Anytime you win games on the road, it’s always a positive thing,” Donovan said. “It’s either way. It’s catch-22. People say you’ve got to steal games on the road and you’ve got to try to protect home court. You’re kind of always in defensive posture when you get into the league.”
That is unless you take the offensive and win your opening league game on the road, as Arkansas did in winning at Georgia on Tuesday and Florida did against USC on Wednesday.
Then you jockey yourself into the inside position for gaining a second-place finish in the league. Or, in USC’s case, you find yourself pushed to an outside position right out of the gates.