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NIT hopes could swing against Bulldogs

In each of the past two seasons, a team has come from nowhere to win the SEC tournament, so it can not be ruled out that a team such as South Carolina could still make the NCAAs.

Barring that, however, tonight's game against Mississippi State is big for another reason: It could determine whether USC can make the NIT.

South Carolina is 14-13 overall and figures to be favored in one more game (at home against Alabama on Wednesday) and a heavy underdog in another (at Vanderbilt next Saturday). If those go according to form, Mississippi State is the swing game that determines whether USC enters the SEC tournament at .500 or two games above it.

In every way except its overall record, USC has an attractive resume for the NIT: It owns the only win against Kentucky, has a star in Devan Downey and boasts an RPI of 73 as of Friday.

But if the Gamecocks continue their free-fall and finish with a .500 record, they would be in a precarious position.

The NIT does not have a rule against picking teams with records below .500 - but it has never done so. The teams in last year's field with the worst records were Georgetown (16-14), Washington State (17-15) and Notre Dame (18-14). Washington State had the lowest RPI rank of the three, at 92.

If the Gamecocks were to miss the NIT, they would be an attractive option for one of the third-tier tournaments. But it is unknown if USC would be interested in playing in the College Basketball Invitational or tournaments.

South Carolina turned down the CBI in 2008, mainly because the program was in the midst of a coaching search. Vanderbilt turned down both third-tier tournaments last year after going 19-12 but missing the NIT.

As far as the SEC tournament, tonight's game will be critical for that too.

South Carolina can finish no better than fifth in the East and is one game ahead of sixth-place Georgia. Since Georgia and USC split their matchups, the tiebreaker would be division record.

USC and Georgia each have three division wins. USC's last division game is at Vanderbilt, while Georgia hosts Florida and Kentucky before playing at LSU.

Being a fifth seed could help in the first round. The third seed out of the West is likely to be either Arkansas or Mississippi, two teams which have defeated USC. The fourth seed, which USC would face it finishes fifth, should be either Alabama or Auburn.

Mississippi State (20-8) has more to play for tonight, because it is on the NCAA tournament bubble. The Bulldogs were out of at-large contention last year, and it took a four-game run at the SEC tournament, including a quarterfinal upset of South Carolina, to make it into the field.

Downey said after Thursday's loss at Kentucky that going on a winning streak was still USC's goal.

"Keep fighting. We've just gotta keep fighting. We get a few of these last ones, get in the tournament and try to make some noise, who knows what can happen," Downey said. "This team is capable of beating anybody in the league, so we've just gotta stay positive."

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