David Cloninger

SEC has been Gamecocks’ Achilles’ heel

USC coach Frank Martin was vocal during the second half of their game against Clemson.
USC coach Frank Martin was vocal during the second half of their game against Clemson. online@thestate.com

A pal of mine once compared South Carolina basketball to U.S. men’s soccer. It was always the plucky underdog, he said, that played well enough at times to make you think it had a chance at glory (World Cup, or breaking a 44-year stretch of not winning an NCAA Tournament game) before the bottom dropped out.

I can’t disagree, having seen events occur that made me scout for ancient burial grounds around Carolina Coliseum. I’ve heard all the reasons, and a big one is the Gamecocks haven’t had a consistent identity in their conference.

When they haven’t won in a conference that’s considered by many to be the worst in major basketball, you can see why shaping an identity becomes arduous.

The Gamecocks are 155-253 in 25 years in the SEC, a league that has had some great success, but more often than not been nicknamed, “Kentucky and the Pips.” Florida’s back-to-back national titles a decade ago have been forgotten in the SEC’s March struggles.

In 2008, six SEC teams made the NCAA Tournament, which ended a 12-year stretch where the league never sent less than five per year and advanced six teams to the Final Four. Since, the SEC has twice put five teams in, and has only sent three in three of the past four years.

The league has a hard-to-overcome reputation, and when the Gamecocks couldn’t win in that league, you see where the issues arose. In 25 years, USC has had double-digit losses in the conference a staggering 18 times and posted four winning seasons.

They start another season Wednesday night, seeking a consecutive winning SEC year for only the second time in their history. Frank Martin, having increased his SEC wins in every season and claiming that fourth winning SEC season last year, couldn’t speak on USC’s past struggles but detailed what he stepped into.

“We were not in a place, as an organization, to be successful in the SEC from top to bottom,” Martin said. “From facilities to budgets to players to coaches – not the previous coaches, I’m talking about us – we’ve all had to do more and get better there.”

The commitment has been evident through ticket sales, and wins. The Gamecocks won 11 SEC games last year, a mark bested by only one team in USC history.

It still wasn’t enough. The committee seemed to think, when it comes to the NCAA Tournament, what teams have more working for them historically – Syracuse, Michigan and Vanderbilt or the Gamecocks?

Steve Newton (pause to allow teeth to grind) was overwhelmed. Eddie Fogler had the best run in the SEC but it didn’t last. Dave Odom never had a winning SEC season, Darrin Horn had one before guiding the Gamecocks to a 2-14 season and Martin has overcome one setback after another to make a winner.

USC can help itself and the SEC’s reputation with another strong season, despite the lousy history.

“I think if you go based on records, and you don’t pay attention to the teams, you can sit back and say, ‘Hmmm. Such-and-so’s not very good, this team’s not very good, that team’s not very good,’ which unfortunately happens in this conference more than any conference I’ve been a part of,” Martin said. “If I dwelt on that stat, I’d probably go home and bang my head into the wall.”

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Tough road to travel

The SEC hasn’t often been considered a powerful basketball league, but South Carolina has never found a consistent way to navigate it over the past 25 years. The Gamecocks’ history in the SEC:

Overall record: 155-253 (37.9 percent)

Regular-season championships: 1

Winning seasons: 4

.500 seasons: 2

Double-digit loss seasons: 18

Times posted back-to-back winning seasons: 1