David Cloninger

Commentary: Anatomy of USC’s burst bubble

Don’t blame Sindarius Thornwell for this.

I realize how that’s some will view it, because in a way, they’re right – Thornwell doesn’t turn the ball over against Georgia Friday, doesn’t foul J.J. Frazier for the game-clinching free throw, maybe he makes a shot to win or USC wins in overtime and we’re not talking about this.

Where they’re wrong is saying that was the only thing that cost South Carolina a spot in the NCAA Tournament, something that seemed destined after the Gamecocks began 15-0. No, the Gamecocks lost this spot in plenty of other ways.

An NCAA Tournament team cannot lose to the worst team in the league, on the road or not, especially when said team lost one of its best players right before tipoff. An NCAA Tournament team cannot stumble to the finish like the Gamecocks did, losing six of their final 11, including three times to a Georgia team they still finished higher than in the SEC.

Yet, it still should’ve been enough. The Gamecocks won 24 games, and whether that Francis Marion game counts in the committee’s eyes, the sheer number of wins should’ve had them in. Power conference teams with those numbers aren’t left out. They just aren’t.

Until Sunday.

Which is where USC was left wondering, other than the really bad losses, what it did wrong.

The answer: Nothing. The committee decided the Gamecocks’ schedule wasn’t impressive enough and they only defeated one team (Texas A&M) that mattered. I get that – the SEC, once again, beat itself up so that only two teams (A&M and Kentucky) were going to be considered “good.” But USC can’t help who it plays in the conference.

What it can help is who it plays in nonconference, and that’s where the resume took a massive hit. Although the Gamecocks beat everybody they played, none of those teams had great seasons, which meant USC got little to no credit for beating them.

Here’s the rub – like in football, basketball teams have to schedule years in advance. When USC began putting this schedule together, the teams on it were much more impressive. When it came to game time, they weren’t.

▪  Norfolk State won 20 games in 2014-15. Second-leading scorer and leading rebounder RaShid Gaston transferred to Xavier. The Spartans finished 17-16 this year.

▪  Oral Roberts won 19 games in 2014-15. Korey Billbury, who averaged 14.4 points and led the team in rebounding, graduated and transferred to VCU.

▪  Drexel lost Damion Lee, who graduated and transferred to Louisville. Now, with Lee, the Dragons only won 11 games and without him they won six. But perhaps they would have won a few more games with him this year and given USC a few more RPI spots.

▪  Clemson got itself into the NCAA discussion by winning five straight ACC games in January. The Tigers went 5-8 down the stretch and blew an 18-point second-half lead to a bad Georgia Tech team in the ACC tournament.

▪  St. John’s made a coaching change and star shot-blocker Chris Obekpa transferred to UNLV. The Red Storm won 21 games a year ago. This year, they won eight.

▪  Memphis has been one of the country’s best teams over the past decade. Yet three players left after last year, including likely conference player of the year Austin Nichols to Virginia. The Tigers reached the American Conference championship game, but had a bad regular season.

When the Gamecocks made the schedule, it looked pretty nice. Circumstances beyond their control made it look pretty bad, even when USC didn’t lose. Their resume was left with numerous holes, and wins over a 20-win Tulsa team (that got in!) and a Hofstra squad that went 24-9 were ignored when those two teams didn’t win their conferences.

Combine that with so many teams pushing themselves in the tournament that the committee didn’t expect, and all of a sudden USC’s resume was back to being discussed. The Gamecocks, despite Frank Martin, myself and plenty of other folks who have studied this tournament for 30 years, went from being a no-doubt team on Friday to out of luck on Sunday. There was no way it could happen, based on history … yet it did.

USC was belted with a cold dose of irony. It set a precedent this season.

Just not the one everyone thought.

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