USC makes NIT, misses NCAA bid

Darrin Horn grimmaces as his team hosts Auburn.
Darrin Horn grimmaces as his team hosts Auburn.

The experts had been saying South Carolina was a longshot for the NCAA tournament. As the Gamecocks gathered at coach Darrin Horn’s house to watch the selection show Sunday evening, only a couple of brackets had gone by before Horn began to realize those experts had been right.

“When we saw the seeds for the other SEC teams,” Horn said. “I can’t speak for everybody else, but you get a little concerned when your tournament champion gets a 13.”

When it ended, South Carolina was absent — even from a list of eight near-misses that CBS ran on its screen. Indeed, the bracketologists and analysts had been correct: USC’s late stumble — including a first-round loss in the SEC tournament — had doomed them to the NIT.

The Gamecocks at least get an interesting matchup against a marquee name in that second-tier tournament. Davidson, and All-America candidate Stephen Curry, will visit Colonial Life Arena in the first round of the NIT on Tuesday.

If the Gamecocks win, they likely will head west to California to play St. Mary’s, another team jilted by the NCAA tournament. That would set up a match against another great guard in Patty Mills.

Still, those are far from the kind of intriguing games the Gamecocks wanted.

They thought they had built a strong resume, going 21-9 overall and winning 10 SEC regular-season games to earn a share of the East Division crown. But the overall weakness of the SEC — which received three bids — and a weak strength of schedule doomed USC.

“This team has accomplished a whole lot this year, and I think it exceeded a lot of expectations,” Horn said. “The history would tell you that if you’re 10-6 in the SEC and divisional co-champ, there is a great possibility that you will play in the tournament. And that just wasn’t the case this year.”

Auburn and USC became the first SEC teams since expansion to win 10 regular-season conference games and miss out.

The three bids is the lowest the SEC has received since 1990. The No. 13 seed given to Mississippi State indicates that the league may have received two bids if the Bulldogs had not won the SEC tournament on Sunday. All this despite the head of the selection committee being SEC commissioner Mike Slive.

Ultimately, Horn felt the perceived weakness of the league was his team’s undoing. He said his team’s schedule strength — which ranked 93rd — would not have mattered. Nor would a longer run in the SEC tournament, according to Horn.

Horn pointed to Maryland, which got in despite going 7-9 in the ACC. The Terrapins, who received a No. 10 seed, were rewarded for beating North Carolina, Wake Forest and Michigan State.

“It started way back in October, when people nationally were talking about (the SEC) being down,” Horn said. “And then the fact of the matter of it is, when your perceived power teams are not at their best, it’s going to hurt the rest of your league. And I think Maryland’s entry into the tournament is a great example of that.”

South Carolina thought it had earned a nonconference resume-builder when it won at Baylor in December, but the Bears faltered.

The Gamecocks have no wins against any of the 65 teams in the field, or any team ranked in the top 50 of the RPI. Three of the teams they beat — Baylor, Kentucky and Florida — were ranked at the time but later fell out.

“We tried to deliver the message this year that it’s your entire body of work,” Slive said during the selection show. “One of the statistics that I tried to look at myself was trying to find teams that played away and won against the top teams in the country and there are very few of those kinds of wins. And I think the message here is those kinds of wins will make a difference.”

The Gamecocks will now have a chance to show their wares in the NIT. While they missed out on their first NCAA appearance since 2004, Horn pointed out that this will be their first postseason trip since 2006.

“We talked about the beginning that this was a process for us,” Horn said. “Regardless of what the circumstance was I kept telling you guys we’re trying to build this. No matter what we’re playing for we’re going to try to continue to build it, and lay a foundation. I think that we were able to do.”

Reach Emerson at (803) 771-8676.

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