USC Men's Basketball

Does USC really have a shot at the NCAA Tournament? Top bracketologists weigh in

Frank Martin recaps win over Auburn

Frank Martin recaps South Carolina's 80-77 win over the Auburn Tigers at Colonial Life Arena Tuesday Jan. 22, 2019, in Columbia, SC.
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Frank Martin recaps South Carolina's 80-77 win over the Auburn Tigers at Colonial Life Arena Tuesday Jan. 22, 2019, in Columbia, SC.

Joe Lunardi admits it’s not healthy, but, hey it’s his job.

ESPN’s go-to source for NCAA Tournament projections wakes up each morning during college basketball season and finds the team atop each conference. He wants to think as a member of the selection committee. The easiest part of their mission every March is to slot the 32 league winners in their field of 68. Lunardi then mimics that practice with a daily bracket update.

Last week, Lunardi woke up, logged on and was taken aback.

Where did this SEC leader come from?

“There was South Carolina in first place,” Lunardi said. “Like, in a power league, I would never have a team that slides into first without me really noticing it not on the board already as an at-large (selection).

“Like if Virginia slides past Duke or if Duke slides past North Carolina in the ACC, I probably have already considered those teams. I had to go looking for South Carolina, I’m like, ‘I don’t even know what they did in the nonconference. I don’t know who they played, I don’t know anything.’ ”

The Gamecocks are perhaps the most surprising team in the country since league play got rolling earlier this month. After a 5-7 nonconference run, they’re 5-1 in the SEC with wins over ranked Mississippi State and Auburn.

This is not a typical pattern. Among college basketball’s top six conferences — ACC, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, Pac-12, SEC — there are 21 teams with at least five league wins. Twenty of them are at least five games above .500 against nonconference competition. South Carolina is the lone exception.

“I don’t ever remember a situation like this,” Lunardi said. “I can remember more of the other way around, where you got some team that’s 17-2 having played eight cupcakes and the pendulum swings and all they do is go down in league play. It’s not the nonconference record is terrible and then they start to play up to the competition.

“It’s very highly unusual.”

Following Carolina’s win over the Tigers on Tuesday, Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said the Gamecocks “can play their way in or out of the (NCAA) tournament.” He stressed that USC won’t be penalized for its poor nonconference record because many of those losses came against “teams that have a chance to win their league.”

South Carolina to the Big Dance? This year? Can it really happen?

The State on Thursday asked the nation’s leading bracketologists — Lunardi and Jerry Palm of CBS Sports — to get a feel for USC’s chances as it enters Saturday’s game at Oklahoma State.

An uphill battle

It’s important to note that the selection committee views South Carolina’s record as 9-8. The Dec. 31 win over Division II North Greenville, for all intents and purposes, doesn’t count.

“You evaluate South Carolina as a 9-8 team with the schedule they played so far and you don’t really put thought into the fact that they’re 5-1 in the league or they’re 4-7 outside the league,” Palm said. “It could be the other way around and it’s still the same.

“You just put yourself in a position to be talking about a team that you didn’t think you’d be talking about, necessarily. There’s still a ways to go and 9-8 is not good enough. They have to do more to make the tournament and, really, they’re three more wins away. You need to get to four games above .500 before you really start thinking about them as a potential tournament team.”

Once an afterthought, Lunardi has now placed the Gamecocks on his board — at No. 90.

NET, which has replaced RPI this season as a main metric to help measure teams for the tournament, has USC at No. 102 as of Friday morning. It was No. 214 before the league-opening win at Florida on Jan. 5.

The victory in Gainesville and the home edging of Auburn serve as Carolina’s two “quadrant one” wins. A win in Stillwater could give it a third.

For comparison’s sake, Gonzaga, the NET No. 5, has three Q1 wins.

“South Carolina has five quad one and quad two wins overall,” Lunardi said. “That’s more than a lot of teams that project their way in the field at this point. So you got to take them seriously.

“But they’re not close, really, as an at-large.”

What about that nonconference schedule?

As has been well-documented, the Gamecocks played some of the country’s best teams in November and December. USC nonconference opponents Virginia, Michigan, Wofford, Stony Brook and Norfolk State are in Lunardi’s latest bracket projection. Palm has the same, minus NSU.

But that part of Carolina’s schedule currently ranks just as the nation’s 69th-toughest, according to the NCAA.

Also, the Gamecocks lost to the Cavaliers, Wolverines, Terriers and Seawolves.

“You have to play the right schedule and win enough games.,” Lunardi said. “Like if it was all about scheduling, we would select the field on Nov. 15 just based on teams’ schedules.

“The argument sounds good, but it doesn’t really make sense. ‘I’m going to get the craziest schedule. I’m going to play Duke and Virginia every Wednesday and Saturday for 15 straight weeks. But I’m 3-27 in five-point losses.’ ”

Stony Brook is 17-3 and in first place in the American East. Still, Palm said, that Nov. 9 Carolina loss to the Seawolves is damaging. The Dec. 5 loss at Wyoming could be a killer. The Cowboys, at 5-14, have a NET of 311.

“If you think about it, you win those two games and you’re 11-6 and we’re having a very different conversation about South Carolina,” Palm said. “They’re in the bracket right now if they beat Wyoming and Stony Brook. Those games do matter.”

A magic number?

Alabama made last season’s Big Dance with a 19-15 record. Vanderbilt did the same a year earlier.

“Those are the worst records to ever get at-large bids,” Palm said.

If four games over .500 is a benchmark to at least be considered for the field, South Carolina would like to be either 18-13 or 17-14 entering the SEC Tournament. Such an overall record would give them around a 13-5 or 12-6 conference mark.

The Gamecocks have three quadrant one win opportunities over the next couple weeks with a home-and-home with Tennessee and trip to Kentucky.

KenPom has USC favored in just two of its remaining games — home against Texas A&M on Feb. 16 and home against Georgia on March 9.

“There are opportunities to pick up the kind of wins that they need, that’s true,” Palm said. “The problem is you have to play good enough to beat all these teams. “

Since the SEC went to an 18-game schedule, three teams — Georgia in 2013-14, Alabama and Kentucky in 2012-13 — have missed the NCAA Tournament with a 12-6 league record. Then again, the SEC — with six teams in this week’s AP Top 25 — is considerably stronger this season.

“I think 10-8 (in the SEC) puts South Carolina in the discussion,” Lunardi said. “I would think what a winning SEC record would mean is that most, if not all of the other things that would need to fall into place for them, would have happened. Because it would be very hard to get to that record without evening out a lot of their flaws.”

NEXT GAME

Who: South Carolina (10-8) at Oklahoma State (8-11)

When: 2 p.m. Saturday

Where: Gallagher-Iba Arena

TV: ESPNU

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