David Cloninger

Cloninger: USC’s season hinges on next four games

Frank Martin is oh-so-close to his first NCAA tournament bid at USC.
Frank Martin is oh-so-close to his first NCAA tournament bid at USC. gmelendez@thestate.com

I knew he was gonna say what he said, because he always does. Frank Martin, through going on four seasons now, is the first coach I’ve ever met who when he says he doesn’t look at the overall schedule, I believe it.

That cliché of "the only game that matters is the next one" has never been more true than at South Carolina under Martin. He knows how many games are on the schedule, but he sure doesn’t know in what order. All he knows is he shows up one day around mid-October and there’s a practice plan on his desk, and then a month later, there will be a scouting report for the first opponent.

After that it’s a series of next days, some with travel and some where he rubs his eyes looking at the name atop the report, since it sometimes has a high national ranking next to it or it’s one of those teams that’s always going to give him a fit. This year he has to be feeling pretty good since he definitely knows his team is 19-2, 6-2 in the SEC.

The next four games are going to play a major part in how good he feels at the end of the year. But he’s only thinking of the next one.

"We’re worried about Georgia," he said after Saturday’s win over Alabama, talking of Tuesday’s matchup. "If I sat down and I went like this (glances at the stat sheet) and I said, ‘Holy cow, we got to play all them teams? You know what, I ain’t coaching. I’m gonna go back and do something else for a living … ’

"We got Georgia on Tuesday."

That the Gamecocks do, and while he’s not going to discuss it, I’m eyeing it. USC, despite a sterling record and its best standing in the SEC in quite a while, is back to its usual no-respect tag from the national media, because of strength of schedule and so forth. I get that, although it falls into the same category as me when discussing the Carolina Panthers’ weak schedule. I sneer, "Who’d they beat?" and their fans correctly tell me, "Nearly everybody."

The next four games don’t necessarily make or break USC’s schedule, but it either clears or muddies the picture when thinking about March. I figure four more wins and there’s no way the Gamecocks miss the NCAA tournament, and even if they don’t chip away at those four in the next four games, there are six more games after that.

At Georgia.

At Texas A&M.

Hosting LSU.

Hosting Kentucky.

Georgia’s a rivalry game as USC’s permanent opponent, and the Bulldogs need a late-season run to get to the NCAAs. As Martin mentioned, they’re probably still a little peeved that USC walked into Stegeman Coliseum last year with an undermanned team (Demetrius Henry and Shamiek Sheppard were announced as suspended before tip) and won.

The Aggies are leading the league and are stocked at every position, starter and backup. Danuel House, so close to being a Gamecock, took over late on Saturday and led A&M to a win over Iowa State.

LSU and Kentucky aren’t jaw-dropping frightening. They can be beaten, and those two games are at home. That said, they surely aren’t going to be easy games – while his supporting cast could play a little harder and tougher at times, Ben Simmons is one of the best players in the country. The Tigers are trying to improve their March resume as well, since 13-8 isn’t exactly eye-popping.

The Wildcats are the Wildcats. They’re not the dominant team they were last year, but there’s still plenty of talent up and down the roster. Plus, you just know John Calipari is going to find some kind of gimmick (Brownies? Slumber parties? The mid-season "tweak?") that will have UK playing like UK through February.

In this league and considering USC’s tortured history in it, no game should be considered an automatic win and no game an automatic loss. As I’ve said before, four more wins strictly by the numbers is 23-8 before Nashville, and the NCAAs would be very, very hard-pressed to leave out a Power-5 team with that record, even if the SEC tournament is one-and-done.

Martin’s not thinking numbers, not discussing scenarios. That’s for the outsiders to do.

"We got to be ready to go take a best shot from a team. And then we’re going to be off on Wednesday," Martin said. "And then by Wednesday at dinnertime, I’ll be miserable because I got to figure out the next game."

Four more wins.

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