David Cloninger

Cloninger: Run the picket fence at ’em

The Gamecocks should clinch an NCAA tournament berth with two more wins.
The Gamecocks should clinch an NCAA tournament berth with two more wins. tglantz@thestate.com

Ever seen "Hoosiers?" One of my favorites.

It’s a grim start to the big state championship game as tiny Hickory is being overwhelmed by a massively talented team from South Bend Central. After an all-SBC start, the Huskers call timeout and the players are immediately talking about how good the Bears are and how Hickory is playing embarrassing basketball.

Coach Norman Dale (Gene Hackman, in a role he thought would kill his career) listens, then fixes them with a glare.

"Maybe they were right about us!," he shouts. "Maybe we don’t belong up here!"

He could have been Frank Martin on Saturday as Kentucky blew the Gamecocks’ doors off. The loss summed up how the nation’s view of USC has been all year.

Look, I realize the Gamecocks’ strength of schedule is way down there in the bottom half of the country. I know that on paper, they haven’t beaten a lot of "great" teams.

My opinion of it – and no, I do not vote in the AP Top 25, at least for the men, anyway – is how folks responded to me when I asked who the Carolina Panthers beat this season (full disclosure: I am as opposite of a Panthers fan as you’d ever meet.) That was me trying to downplay how successful they’d been, until one reply shut me up.

"Nearly everybody," one guy said.

He was right, and I’m right about how the nation’s experts look at the Gamecocks. They have won 21 games, and there aren’t a lot of teams in the country that can say that. They can’t help who they play in the conference or if the teams they’ve beaten aren’t having great years. The polls don’t mean much anyway – SMU and Louisville are Top 25 teams and will not be going to the postseason – but the point of not being ranked after winning 20 of 23 games before this week began was clear.

USC, as Martin said, had to earn respect. The Gamecocks haven’t been a national presence in so long that when they won their first 15 games, pollsters and national pundits took it as a "well, the other shoe will drop soon." When they lost their first game to Alabama, it was like folks had the Tweet on standby – "See? Told you. They’re soft, they haven’t played anybody, now that the real competition is here," etc.

That’s still dogging USC as it goes through the season. No big deal, as Martin has told his troops – win enough, the rest takes care of itself. Kentucky on Saturday was a bad game, but the Wildcats are playing very well right now and as usual, are peaking at the right time.

USC lost an opportunity Saturday but is still in good shape for its goals. Two more wins clinches an NCAA berth. At 8-4 in the league, the Gamecocks are behind Kentucky and LSU at 9-3 – keep in mind that to win a title, not necessarily the No. 1 seed in the SEC tournament, all USC has to do is tie for first. Of this crucial four-game stretch that would decide the season, I thought USC would do well to win one. It won two.

The Gamecocks won’t be ranked on Monday, but they’ll still be in very good shape to do what they set out to do. It may sting that they didn’t show up for the Kentucky game and might have cost themselves a title shot, but as long as they get to the NCAA tournament, that’s a tremendous year. And that’s a title shot as well.

They’ve answered all year after a loss. They’ve re-discovered themselves when folks wrote them off and won the next game. Tuesday at Mizzou is another opportunity.

Hickory came out of that timeout and won the championship. USC will be OK.

Although the Gamecocks should keep that picket fence play handy, just in case.

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