David Cloninger

Breaking down the non-con men’s schedule

USC coach Frank Martin
USC coach Frank Martin

It doesn’t have the "wow" factor at first.

But South Carolina’s non-conference schedule is exactly what it needs to be – a handful of tough games with the possibility of a couple more, overall designed to get double-digit wins before SEC season begins.

At 17-16 last year, the Gamecocks could have gotten a berth in the pay-for-play CBI but turned it down – as an administrator told me, "We don’t need to be playing in something like that." That’s agreed – as much as it would be nice to say, "The Gamecocks made the postseason!," only one other Power 5 team played in the CBI last year and it’s not something I’d brag about.

Two more wins and USC is in the NIT. Three more and they would have been sniffing the NCAA tournament, due to RPI and strength of schedule. Ifs and buts, Christmas, etc., but it was that close.

This year’s designed to take that final step. The SEC has hardly ever been kind to USC, so the Gamecocks frankly need to have a non-conference schedule that isn’t designed to beat them down before they get to the 18-game gauntlet that will decide the year. With Frank Martin’s first class of recruited seniors and a fully intact five-man group of talented freshmen, the Gamecocks finally look like an SEC team ready to play in the postseason.

NOTE: There would have been one other big-name opponent but USC was promised, then stripped of, a berth in the Big 12/SEC Challenge. From what I was told, the Gamecocks were going to be one of the 10 SEC teams in the event, but were going to have to travel. That would have made USC the road team for the third time in four years, starting with St. John’s in the old SEC/Big East event.

That’s not fair, considering Frank Martin volunteered to go to Oklahoma State two years ago with a bunch of freshmen and got slaughtered. So USC voiced its objection, the SEC yanked the promise and the Gamecocks are now out of the Big 12/SEC for this year and next year.

The Memphis game kinda/sorta takes the place of that, and USC will get a home game out of it against a "name" opponent. But the Gamecocks will want to find an opponent of equal stature next year as well.

A quick glance at the non-con:

ALLEN (Exh.)

Giving some love to another in-city team, as USC did with Benedict last year. Always good for the community.

NORFOLK STATE

The first of three first-time opponents on the roster (with the possibility of two more), the Spartans won 20 games last year and made the CIT. It’s the first game of the Paradise Jam, so the two teams could meet again in the Virgin Islands. Norfolk State is also the first of four teams USC will face that lost one of its star players to transfer – second-leading scorer and top rebounder RaShid Gaston landed at Xavier.

NOTE: This game is the same day as the home football game against Florida. Now, Martin understands the power and pull of football – he talks about college basketball scheduling around it, and his beloved Dolphins, all the time. I have to think that this was scheduled as having no other choice.

Times for each game won’t be known for a while, so the best-case scenario for basketball is to hope for a noon kickoff. That will clear the way for a 7 p.m. tip. While they could go with an early afternoon tip in the event of a 3:30/7 kick, nobody will leave tailgating for the basketball game. Just not gonna happen.

ORAL ROBERTS

CBI team with Obi Emegano, who averaged 18.3 a game last year.

PARADISE JAM

DePaul’s the definite opponent. The Blue Demons re-hired Dave Leitao (he left them to take the Virginia job, and got turfed) after firing former Clemson coach Oliver Purnell (who found out, like so many others, that DePaul is about as impossible of a winning proposition as one can find). This is also the school that USC freshman Ray Doby committed to, then asked to be released from, when Purnell was axed.

After that comes Florida State/Hofstra, with either team being a strong opponent. FSU returns All-ACC freshman Xavier Rathan-Mayes and three freshmen who were state players of the year. The Pride won 20 last year, made the CBI and return Juan’ya Green and Ameen Tanksley, who average over 33 a game between them.

Ohio-Tulsa-Indiana State-Norfolk State are potential third-game opponents. This is not as easy of a tournament as it looks on paper. Keep in mind, the Charleston Classic looked easy, too.

LIPSCOMB

They’re the Bisons. They’re from Nashville.

WESTERN CAROLINA

USC has never lost to the Catamounts but WCU returns three of its top four scorers.

SOUTH FLORIDA

As pal Andy Demetra pointed out, this is a meeting between the only two Hispanic-American coaches in Division I. Former Kentucky assistant Orlando Antigua is in his second year at USF and won just nine games in his first year. It doesn’t look rosy this year – the Bulls only lost one senior but it was leading scorer Corey Allen.

DREXEL

The Dragons are big, physical, the type of matchup USC will face night-in and night-out in the SEC. Plus, coach Bruiser Flint (!!!) sounds like a Dick Tracy villain. Damion Lee transferred to Louisville for his final year after scoring over 21 per game.

CLEMSON

The rivalry game which is at a neutral court, although said neutral court (Greenville’s Bon Secours Wellness Arena) is the Tigers’ home gym this year while Littlejohn Coliseum is being renovated. The Gamecocks smoked Clemson last year for Martin’s first rivalry win and he’s looking to make it two straight. Brad Brownell always plays pressure defense but I’m not sure who’s going to score the ball. But you know … despite losing to USC, the Tigers won eight ACC games last year. Not easy.

ST. JOHN’S

The lone NCAA tournament team on the schedule, the Red Storm (almost called ’em the Redmen, just rewatched "Requiem for the Big East") are that New York team that Martin loves to schedule. He likes the talent there, it gives old supporters of the program a throwback to the McGuire days and it’s sort of a Homecoming game for freshman Chris Silva, whose family is around there. The Storm hired program legend Chris Mullin as coach, and while Mullin’s NBA credentials leave no doubt of his ability, he’s never actually coached. He’s going to have to deal with the losses of three key seniors and junior Chris Obekpa, who transferred to UNLV.

FRANCIS MARION

The Patriots, a team I occasionally covered in my Florence days, from Division II and the Peach Belt Conference. The first meeting between the two and the second straight year Martin has offered a game to a non-Division I in-state team (Coker last year).

MEMPHIS

Big name, big program (played for the national title in 2008), big coach (Josh Pastner) which USC is catching at the right time. One, it’s at home; two, it’s an old Metro Conference rival; three, it’s the first year in five that the Tigers missed the NCAA tournament; four, top scorer Austin Nichols transferred to Virginia. Good game leading into SEC play.

TEAM NOTES: Eric Cobb, the last member of the recruiting class, is on campus. … The team reports on Aug. 18 and the first day of class is Aug. 20. … TeMarcus Blanton is fully cleared to participate after a hip injury stole his freshman season.

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