FRANK MARTIN SPOKE recently about the SEC’s state of transition for men’s basketball. He could have been speaking about the state of Division I college basketball in South Carolina.
Call it a state of flux. Call it a state of evolution. Call it a state of instability.
Whatever you want to call it, the state of South Carolina might as well have succeeded from the union of men’s college basketball teams this season. It is not showing up on any map that pinpoints significant contributions to the game.
Through Sunday’s games, the 12 instate D-I programs are a combined 26 games under .500. The average computer ranking of a South Carolina team by Ken Pomeroy of kenpom.com is 231 (among 347 teams) and 238 by Jeff Sagarin of USA Today.
Clemson is the highest ranked instate team, No. 76 by Pomeroy and No. 100 by Sagarin. In the thank-God-for-Grambling category, The Citadel is at 345 and Presbyterian at 346 in both rankings.
As if all that is not bad enough, the state stands a chance of being shut out of the NCAA tournament for a second consecutive season. That has not happened since the state was void of tournament appearances for six consecutive seasons from 1981-86.
Like everything else in sports, the collective success of men’s college basketball teams in the state appears to be cyclical. USC appeared in four consecutive NCAA tournaments from 1971 through 1974, while Furman was going to the tournament in 1971, 1973-75. Then there was the period from 1996 through 2000 when 14 teams, representing six programs, played in the NCAA tournament.
Thanks mostly to Winthrop, which appeared in the NCAA tournament field nine times in the 12-year stretch from 1999 to 2010, the state was represented in college basketball’s gala event every season from 1996 through 2011.
The downtick that began a season ago has much to do with many programs being in what Martin calls “transition,” which describes both his USC program and that of Clemson under Brad Brownell.
Martin is in his first season, not helped in any way by two major defections — Anthony Gill to Virginia and Damontre Harris to Florida — from the remains left by his predecessor, Darrin Horn. Brownell, in his third season, fields a roster that counts two seniors and no juniors.
Normally, when the state’s two high-profile programs experience coaching changes and roster adjustments, at least one of the other less-visible programs has stepped to the fore. There were the College of Charleston teams of the late 1990s under coach John Kresse and the Winthrop teams at the start of this century under Gregg Marshall.
Not so, this season. Nearly every instate program is attempting to find its way to success. In addition to Martin, Doug Wojcik at College of Charleston and Pat Kelsey at Winthrop are in their inaugural seasons. Gregg Nibert’s Presbyterian program is eligible for postseason play for the first time since its transition to Division I.
Coastal Carolina’s Cliff Ellis was dealt a severe blow when senior forward Sam McLaurin, one of the top big men in the Big South Conference, transferred to Illinois prior to the season. Furman’s Jeff Jackson, S.C. State’s Tim Carter, The Citadel’s Chuck Driesell and Wofford’s Mike Young all are fielding youthful squads.
That leaves Charleston Southern and USC Upstate as the instate teams with the best chances of challenging for conference championships and advancing to the NCAA tournament.
Barclay Radebaugh’s ninth Charleston Southern team might be his best. Four starters returned from a squad that won 19 games a season ago. The Buccaneers (8-6) lost early road games to Charlotte, Arizona, Alabama and Wichita State but rebounded to win seven of their past eight and remain the favorite to capture the Big South’s South Division.
Eddie Payne’s 11th USC Upstate team also might be his best. It returns all five starters from a club that won 21 games last season. The leader of the bunch likely is the top player in the state, Torrey Craig, who is the reigning Atlantic Sun Conference player of the year. Craig, at 6-foot-6, is considered an NBA prospect and was rated by one preseason magazine as the nation’s 15th best small forward.
USC Upstate (8-9) also played an ambitious early schedule with road losses to Saint Louis, Kansas State and Baylor. The Spartans recently suffered back-to-back home conference losses to Florida Gulf Coast and Stetson but remain a threat to win the league.
No knock on those two, but when you are talking about Charleston Southern and USC Upstate as the programs most likely to wave the Palmetto State’s banner in the postseason, you are talking about a state of basketball that is transition, flux or whatever you want to call it.