David Cloninger

Cloninger: Now it’s real

There are 17 games left. To say this one meant more than any in the future – those that will really define South Carolina’s postseason fate – is ridiculous.

Yet it felt like that.

The Gamecocks’ 81-69 win at Auburn on Tuesday was over a team that had won six of the past seven in the series. With a coach the Gamecocks beat twice in 15 tries. On the road in the SEC, where USC had lost four straight openers – and simply in the SEC, which has been the highest hurdle for Gamecock basketball over the last quarter-century.

Like it has a few times this season, the game featured a big USC lead that was clipped to two shots with way too much time to go. Yet as they have throughout, the Gamecocks answered, turning to their veterans to hit the big shot or get the key rebound.

Throughout the undefeated start, I’ve purposely avoided talking numbers and RPI and what USC has to do to get to March. While the non-conference schedule surpassed everybody’s expectations, it was the SEC that was truly going to define the season. It wouldn’t be the first time a hot start hit the league and became ice cubes.

Now … it’s here. Sure, there’s a long way to go, but USC answered its latest, biggest challenge. Now the numbers start being crunched (10-8 SEC good enough for the NCAAs?) and the outside noise, while Frank Martin isn’t thinking of it, becomes louder. Now the Gamecocks have become legitimized, so to speak, although good luck getting USC to pay attention to it – Mindaugas Kacinas made it clear the other day when he said that mentioning the start or rankings may as well mean start limbering up, because you’re going to run.

Vanderbilt’s on Saturday. The Commodores have been struggling lately, starting 0-2 in the SEC after forcing overtime against Arkansas in a very unlikely way but still losing the extra period. This one would look really good in March, considering I think Vandy will still rebound and be one of the conference’s best four teams.

Martin and the Gamecocks are thinking of it, because it’s the next game. Not what it would mean with a win or a loss. Just find a way to get it, then on to the next one.

It’s worked the previous 14 times. No sense changing it now.

Not Now.

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