Any number of regular-season college basketball games every season carries a certain amount of importance. Once in a while, a game comes along that also has historical significance.
South Carolina's game tonight at Colonial Life Arena against No. 1-ranked Kentucky has both. USC badly needs the win, and the Gamecocks never have defeated a top-ranked team.
USC can ill afford another home loss in league play. A loss would put USC four games behind Kentucky and virtually eliminate the Gamecocks from the SEC East race. So the defending East co-champions know the significance of the game.
From a historical standpoint, consider that The Associated Press has ranked college basketball teams weekly for 62 seasons. This will be the eighth time USC has faced a No. 1-ranked team and the second time the Gamecocks have done so on their home court.
"I think this is fun," USC coach Darrin Horn said about tonight's game. "This is why you want to be in this league and at this level, to be able to compete and be in games like this (with) national television and the No. 1 team and an Eastern Division foe. There are a lot of nice elements to this one."
This will be Horn's third brush with a top-ranked opponent. Both previous meetings came at Western Kentucky, once as a player and the other as coach. Western Kentucky opened Horn's senior season in November of 1994 with a 101-87 loss at North Carolina. Then his Western Kentucky team dropped a 101-68 decision against Florida in the Las Vegas Invitational in November of 2006.
Neither of those games had the intrigue of USC's game against top-ranked Michigan at the Carolina Coliseum on Jan. 2, 1977, although the timing of the game so close to the New Year meant little build-up.
USC students had not returned to campus for the spring semester. Also, an ice storm in the Upstate and the threat of the same in Columbia kept the Sunday matinee crowd to 10,031 - about 2,000 short of capacity.
The game originally was scheduled for Dec. 8, but the prospect of national TV coverage prompted the move, leaving USC with an unusual scheduling quirk. After facing Michigan, USC defeated Nebraska the following night at the Coliseum.
Michigan was the preseason No. 1 team by virtue of returning four starters from a unit that lost the 1976 national championship game to fellow Big Ten rival Indiana. Among those starters were Phil Hubbard, fresh off winning a gold medal for the U.S. Olympic team, and what was considered the best backcourt in the country in Ricky Green and Steve Grote.
Michigan held its No. 1 ranking by winning its opening six games. Then it dropped a one-point, overtime decision at Providence four days before playing at USC. A new poll had not come out, so when Michigan traveled to Columbia from Providence, it reamined the nation's top-ranked team.
USC was an independent at the time, and coach Frank McGuire again had lined up a challenging schedule. USC carried a 4-5 record into the Michigan game, but four of the losses were to ranked opponents: at No. 13 Alabama, vs. No. 4 Kentucky, vs. No. 5 Alabama in the Carolina Classic, and vs. No. 5 Cincinnati in the Sugar Bowl Classic.
USC was not much of a match for Michigan, which raced to a 48-36 halftime lead and stretched the advantage to 16 points early in the second half. The score was 76-62 with six minutes remaining when USC took advantage of some Michigan misfortune.
Green and Grote were seated on the bench with four fouls apiece. Then Hubbard engaged in a shoving match with USC's 6-foot-6 reserve forward Karlton Hilton. Both players were ejected.
USC inched closer down the stretch, but Green sank 10 consecutive free throws in the closing minutes to seal Michigan's 90-86 victory.
"Boy, if we could have won that one, I would have been on cloud nine for the rest of the season," USC senior forward Nate Davis said.
Davis' comment sums up the sentiment of USC in its history of playing No. 1-ranked teams. The Michigan game is the closest a USC team has come to pulling an upset.
That Michigan team eventually regained its No. 1 national ranking and carried a 29-4 record into a NCAA tournament regional final loss to UNC Charlotte. The 1957 North Carolina team that defeated USC twice while ranked No. 1 won the national championship, as did the No. 1 1978 Kentucky squad that defeated USC.
Other losses to No. 1-ranked teams have come against UNC early in the 1957-58 season, Notre Dame in 1979 and Duke early in the 2001-02 season in the Maui Invitational.
This will mark the first time USC has faced a No. 1-ranked team in both men's basketball and football in the same school year. The football program, which has not won in four meetings against top-ranked teams, dropped a 24-14 decision to Florida at Williams-Brice Stadium in November.
There always is a first time for everything. Hey, who ever would have figured the New Orleans Saints to be playing in a Super Bowl?