At halftime of South Carolina’s game at Georgia last Saturday, USC assistant coach Chuck Martin pointed to what was written on a dry erase board in the visitors locker room.
“5-2,” he told the Gamecocks. “You earned the right to be 5-2.”
He then added two more numbers.
“Let’s get to 6-2,” Martin continued. “You’re fighting for second place, man. You’re right there.”
Carolina went out and turned a five-point halftime advantage into a six-point win over the Bulldogs, keeping its good spot in the SEC standings.
The Gamecocks are cognizant of where they stand heading into the second half of the SEC season. Tuesday’s loss to No. 5 Kentucky was damaging by score — the 28-point margin was USC’s worst since taking a 77-43 drumming by the Wildcats on Feb. 14, 2015 — but not much beyond that.
It’s clear that the SEC is mainly a three-team race at the top — and then everyone else. South Carolina, at 6-3, leads the pack after nationally ranked Tennessee (9-0), Kentucky (8-1) and LSU (8-1). It’s also clear that the Gamecocks aren’t close to the level of the Volunteers, Wildcats or Tigers. They’re 0-3 against that tier, dropping games by an average of 24 points.
But finishing fourth place in the league and getting a double-bye for the SEC Tournament is a realistic goal. The combined SEC record for USC’s first nine league opponents is 41-40. The last nine? 33-48. Opportunity exists for Frank Martin’s program to get double-digit SEC wins for the third time in four years. That’s the same standard to get the Gamecocks (11-11 overall) in some form of the postseason for the third time in four years.
A peek at what remains:
Arkansas (5-4), Saturday
The Razorbacks have quietly turned things around after a slow start to 2019. They’ve won four straight SEC games, including a 90-89 thriller in Baton Rouge that broke LSU’s 18-game home win streak.
Arkansas is 38-20 all-time in February under Mike Anderson. It’s taken the last three matchups with the Gamecocks.
But this game is at Colonial Life Arena, where USC has been tough to beat in SEC play. Chris Silva is averaging 19.3 points and 8.9 rebounds over the last seven home games. The senior’s performance is always critical, but particularly with Arkansas’ Daniel Gafford (a combined 51 points and 17 rebounds his last two games) on the other side.
South Carolina’s win probability*: 46 percent
At Tennessee (9-0), Feb. 13
The Volunteers turned a close game into a rout of the Gamecocks in their Jan. 29 meeting. Tennessee is a legitimate national championship contender that has won all but one home game by at least 13 points.
After USC, the Volunteers face Kentucky in the league’s most anticipated matchup of the season. Perhaps Carolina can catch the Vols looking ahead?
South Carolina’s win probability*: 4 percent
Texas A&M (1-8), Feb. 16
While South Carolina likely enters this game coming off a loss, the Aggies could be coming in with a little momentum. Texas A&M gets fellow league cellar-dwellers Missouri and Georgia before it arrives at CLA.
TAMU, though, is 2-6 away from College Station this season.
South Carolina’s win probability*: 66 percent
Ole Miss (5-4), Feb. 19
Staying in the top four of the SEC requires those immediately behind the Gamecocks to stay away. This makes the home games with the Razorbacks, Rebels and Alabama all that more important.
Ole Miss has cooled off considerably since a 13-3 start and a Top 25 ranking. It had dropped five of six games before beating Texas A&M on Wednesday.
South Carolina’s win probability*: 42 percent
At Mississippi State (4-5), Feb. 23
Will Justin Minaya be back by now? A final decision on the injured sophomore’s status could come any day. More than likely, he takes a medical redshirt and isn’t available for key road games such as this one.
Carolina isn’t a deep team and this contest would be No. 27 for freshmen Keyshawn Bryant and A.J. Lawson. How are they holding up at this point?
South Carolina got a career night from Maik Kotsar to beat the Bulldogs in the first matchup, but the junior hasn’t scored more than nine points since.
MSU is 10-2 at home this year.
South Carolina’s win probability*: 14 percent
Alabama (5-4), Feb. 26
The Tide is an interesting study. On one hand, it’s the only SEC team to beat Kentucky and give Tennessee a game in Knoxville. On the other, it’s lost to Texas A&M and got blown out by Auburn.
This might be the biggest toss-up game left on Carolina’s schedule.
South Carolina’s win probability*: 43 percent
At Missouri (2-7), March 2
Should USC take care of business at home, the Gamecocks are 10-5 in the SEC entering a very winnable final three games.
But if Silva stays on the floor and again dominates his post matchup, the Gamecocks are in good shape. If not, a winnable road game turns into a tall task.
South Carolina’s win probability*: 33 percent
At Texas A&M (1-8), March 5
South Carolina’s win probability*: 41 percent
Georgia (1-8), March 9
South Carolina gets to close a regular season at home for the first time in 14 years.
It’s Senior Day for Silva, Hassani Gravett and Tre Campbell as the Gamecocks will try for a sixth straight win over the Bulldogs — and, perhaps, a top-4 SEC seed.
Georgia, as of Feb. 7, is still seeking a road SEC win.
South Carolina’s win probability*: 63 percent
*According to KenPom.com’s calculations