David Cloninger

Breaking down the SEC basketball schedules

Frank Martin and the Gamecocks will try to break USC’s sour streak in the SEC.
Frank Martin and the Gamecocks will try to break USC’s sour streak in the SEC. tglantz@thestate.com

The SEC schedules for South Carolina’s men’s and women’s basketball teams were released this week, tying a tidy bow on the slates after the non-conference skeds were released last week. After shuttling out the three-technique and shuttling in the pick-and-pop, here’s what stands out.

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The beginning. The Gamecocks open at Auburn. That’s the fourth time in five years USC opens on the road and the second straight year they travel to Auburn with no return home game. Fair? Of course not. But understandable considering USC’s history in the SEC – no built-in rivalries, no long-standing traditions and therefore no leverage when it comes to this kind of thing. USC and Frank Martin can holler until they’re fuchsia in the face and it’s not going to change that oldschool SEC teams are fed first, and the newbies (USC, Arkansas, Missouri, Texas A&M) get the table scraps.

The actual game? Bruce Pearl signed a very nice recruiting class but also lost three of his top four scorers, including K.T. Harrell. Cinmeon Bowers is a monster to handle in the paint but a team like USC can run him up and down.

The next. Vanderbilt’s going to be a very strong team (I think they’ll be picked second in the league behind Kentucky) but USC gets that game at home. After that are a lot of games against rebuilding teams – Alabama, Missouri, Tennessee and another game against Alabama. Normally I’d say the Gamecocks should never count a game against the Volunteers as a win, but they finally broke that losing streak last year and Rick Barnes is going to have a rough first season.

In between are tough ones at Ole Miss and hosting Mississippi State. The Rebels have the best shooter in the league (Stefan Moody), return Anthony Perez and Sebastian Saiz and again loaded up on JUCO transfers. One benefit for each team – that game will be at the brand-new Pavilion at Ole Miss, so one would hope the lights will stay on. The Bulldogs signed one of the best recruiting classes in the country but like Vandy, USC gets that one at home.

The stretch to watch. Right after the home game against Alabama is at Georgia, at Texas A&M, hosting LSU, hosting Kentucky. Geeeeez. That could get ugly. The Gamecocks won at Georgia last year and I think they’ll match up well with the Bulldogs, which they may really need to do considering the next three. The Aggies also signed one of the best recruiting classes in the country and return Danuel House. Going to be tough to get that one.

LSU and Kentucky are at home. Each signed top-notch recruiting classes, led by the Wildcats’ No. 1 prize, Skal Labissiere, and the Tigers’ No. 2, Ben Simmons. It’s not as bleak as first glance.

LSU will be tremendously talented but it’s always a question when freshmen are the best players. Of course it has worked for many teams – Kentucky, and Duke won the whole shootin’ match last year led by its rookies. I’m not sure the Tigers have enough veteran guys around those freshmen to ease the burden late in the season. Kentucky’s Kentucky. While it may not be as talented as last year, is saying a team is going to be less talented than one that went 38-1 saying anything?

The end. Another game against Missouri, home against rebuilding Florida, home against Tennessee, at MSU (oof, but late in the year, freshmen leading, etc.), Georgia at home and at Arkansas. The Arkansas game is intriguing – Mike Anderson lost another experienced guy this week when Jacorey Williams was dismissed and doesn’t have a lot of proven talent to lean on. But the game’s at what I’ve always felt is the roughest environment in the league.

Bottom line. Look, I say every year that .500 is attainable. It always is. USC has hardly ever done it, though, posting five .500 or better SEC seasons in 24 years. The league got better despite losing a lot of talent and the SEC seems poised to shed that "bad basketball league" moniker it’s been saddled with.

The Gamecocks have a non-conference schedule that’s very conducive to coming into the SEC with double-digit wins. Nine wins in the SEC is .500 and should be more than enough for the postseason. Depending on which games they win for RPI, USC could sniff the postseason with seven or eight SEC wins.

Health and the freshmen staying afloat all season are massive factors, but if USC can last, I think it has the best chance it’s had since its last SEC winning season (2008-09) to do it this season. As Martin recently said, "It’s the first time since I’ve been here that we actually look like an SEC team."

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Dawn Staley’s team has gone 29-3 in the SEC the last two seasons. Any reason to even wonder?

Plenty.

The beginning. Arkansas will be a strong team, especially after Jimmy Dykes shocked the world by taking an undermanned squad to the NCAAs in his first year. The Razorbacks signed a whopping nine new players though, so it’s a lot of inexperience he has to mold into a squad. Then he gets sent to the two-time regular-season champs for the first game. Vanderbilt is coming off a bad season and you have to figure that it won’t last for two straight. Missouri should be no problem, especially at home.

The next. At Kentucky, the site of USC’s only SEC loss last season, is a tough one. It’s no secret the Gamecocks and Wildcats aren’t fond of each other and with a healthy team, Kentucky will be as strong as always. I’ve said that with the league getting so much better, this year’s regular-season champ may lose three or four games. This could be the start of it (and USC and Kentucky are each contenders for the crown).

Texas A&M is no slouch (the two Courtneys are back for what seems like their seventh seasons) and it’s at home, and then USC is at a struggling Auburn program. At Mississippi State is another tough test – the Bulldogs are also going to challenge for the league title after returning Victoria Vivians and signing 6-foot-7 Teaira McCowan. Ole Miss is a growing program but lost Tia Faleru, and nearly its entire team is freshmen or sophomores.

The stretch to watch. From Jan. 31 to Feb. 15 is where USC will really find out where it is in relation to winning a third straight title. At A&M, hosting Kentucky, hosting Florida (the "easy one" in the slate) and at Tennessee. In the middle is a home game against Connecticut.

The Gamecocks beat the Lady Vols twice last year and you just know those in orange want to re-stake their claim to SEC royalty. They have Diamond DeShields eligible this year – she was a thorn in USC’s side in two games two years ago – and another group of elite players around her. The good part is USC doesn’t have to play UConn and Tennessee back-to-back, but that stretch as a whole could leave some bruised bodies and egos.

The end. Get through that stretch and it opens up. Georgia at home, under a new coach and trying to reclaim what slipped away in the last few years of Andy Landers’ career. At Alabama and Ole Miss, home against an LSU team that has some players but lost multi-talented – and multi-troubled – Danielle Ballard. The possibility of honoring an outstanding senior class and recognizing another title on Feb. 28 is high, but I have a feeling USC won’t have as easy of a road as it’s made it look the past two years.

Bottom line. Yes, it’s tough. Yes, the league improved. Yes, the Gamecocks won’t be handed a championship.

But they weren’t last year, either. They went the whole year being targeted and survived, and now they know what it takes to stay. They’re here now, the fruition of Staley’s long-ago plan, and you know that she knows of her incredible streak – going into her eighth season, she has improved her SEC win total in each successive year, and still has a chance to do it one more time.

While I think 16-0 will be a brutally tough goal, it is possible. But I also believe that a few games less than that will still be more than enough to bring home a third championship.

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