USC Men's Basketball

South Carolina an NCAA tournament team? Frank Martin, Kermit Davis make the case

Of the NCAA tournament field Joe Lunardi projected and posted to ESPN.com on Tuesday morning, South Carolina has wins over five of those 68 teams.

The latest came Tuesday evening when the Gamecocks rallied past Ole Miss 79-64 at Colonial Life Arena.

“South Carolina’s got a really good team,” said Rebels coach Kermit Davis. “They looked like an NCAA tournament team tonight, for sure.”

For sure? Perhaps he’s got a point.

USC, with a 9-4 record, is now into sole possession of fourth place in the SEC standings. That normally fits the profile for an at-large bid to the Big Dance. But then there’s the overall record (13-12 when you don’t include the Dec. 31 win over Division II’s North Greenville), something that doesn’t scream for a ticket to March Madness.

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Critics will nod to losses to Stony Brook (NET ranking: 151) and Wyoming (317) as reasons why Carolina shouldn’t yet be included in NCAA tournament discussion. (Neither Lunardi nor CBS Sports’ Jerry Palm even list the Gamecocks on the bubble.)

When presented a platform to discuss his team’s postseason chances Tuesday, USC coach Frank Martin first hesitated and noted the Gamecocks’ next game — “I’m on to Mississippi State, man” — but then came around.

Sure, South Carolina didn’t perform well in November and December, but it wasn’t always at full strength. Home losses to national power Virginia and rival Clemson came without Maik Kotsar. The 20-point loss to Wofford came a day after Justin Minaya’s injury. Keyshawn Bryant, Minaya’s replacement, played that game with protective goggles to help with headaches.

“Why don’t people give us credit, like they give other people, when their good players are hurt?” Martin asked. “But no one picked us to be where we’re at, so no one’s gonna give us credit for the other stuff.

“Meaning, when you play Virginia and Clemson and your starting power forward is out. When you play Wofford and your starting small forward tears his knee 10 minutes to go (in practice) the day before the game and his backup hadn’t practiced in three days with headaches and has to play with sunglasses. No one ever says anything about that. They just say, ‘Yeah, they stunk. That’s why they lose. They don’t belong.’

“We had a bad game at Wyoming. I wish I could give you an example or a reason for why we played bad that day. We had a bad game there. But all those other games, we had adversity.”

South Carolina missed the Big Dance in 2015-16 despite 24 regular season wins. Those Gamecocks went 11-7 in the SEC. These Gamecocks, starting with a trip to Starkville on Saturday to face the Bulldogs (18-7, 6-6), have five opportunities left.

“Let me just throw a number out there,” Martin said. “(If a team wins) 12 league games in the SEC and doesn’t get in the NCAA tournament, I think that would be a travesty. I think that would be as sad as sad can be.”

KenPom.com gives Carolina at least a 41 percent chance to win four of its final five league games before the SEC tournament in Nashville.

USC’s only SEC losses have come against Tennessee (twice), Kentucky and LSU, all teams ranked in the top 13 of this week’s AP Poll. It’s beaten Auburn (projected No. 8 seed by Lunardi), Florida (No. 12), Mississippi State (No. 7), Norfolk State (No. 16) and the Rebels (No. 8).

“If they can get to the (NCAA) tournament,” Davis said, “they sure can win games in the tournament.”

A Big Dance trip would be Carolina’s second in three years.

“That’s our goal,” said senior forward Chris Silva. “We’re trying to get there. It’s just going to take everybody, everybody on the same page. We want to get there. So everybody’s working. We’re hoping we make it there.”

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Andrew Ramspacher has been covering college athletics since 2010, serving as The State’s USC men’s basketball beat writer since October 2017. His work has been recognized by the Associated Press Sports Editors, Virginia Press Association and West Virginia Press Association. At a program-listed 5-foot-10, he’s always been destined to write about the game. Not play it.
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