More than 1,600 miles separate Colonial Life Arena from Arena-Auditorium in Laramie, Wyoming.
On Dec. 5, 2018, South Carolina’s basketball team went all that way to lose to the Wyoming Cowboys.
That Gamecock result — one of 31 this season — might be the most talked about piece in trying to solve USC’s NCAA Tournament puzzle.
Frank Martin’s bunch is the No. 4 seed for this week’s SEC Tournament. The Gamecocks earned a double-bye in Nashville thanks to 11 wins against a league that, according to the latest from ESPN’s Joe Lunardi, could send seven teams to the Big Dance. USC, however, is not one of them.
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South Carolina has 16 wins — including over Auburn, Mississippi State and Florida — and 15 losses — including to Wyoming.
The Cowboys are 8-23 as they enter Wednesday’s Mountain West Conference Tournament as the No. 10 seed. Their NET ranking is 320.
Tennessee coach Rick Barnes has been in this business since the late 1970s. He’s been the head coach of George Mason, Providence, Clemson, Texas and the Volunteers. Barnes was asked Monday about South Carolina’s Big Dance résumé. How should the selection committee view USC? Weigh more the 11-7 SEC run or the 5-8 showing in the non-conference?
“I think they should be evaluated on their non-conference as they went to places a lot of coaches would never go,” Barnes said on a teleconference with SEC reporters. “If I’m not mistaken, they went to Wyoming. I mean, they could have stayed home that game and I think they went to another place that I think most people, me included … I wouldn’t go to Wyoming, but that’s why I always admire Frank. He’s gonna do those types of things.”
USC’s game with Wyoming was the back-end of a home-and-home series with the Cowboys. Martin agreed to it because a longstanding relationship with Wyoming coach Allen Edwards. Edwards, who played for Kentucky’s Rick Pitino and Tubby Smith in college, played for Martin at Miami Senior High School in the 1990s.
“When Allen called (to set up the series), he hadn’t coached a game yet,” Martin said last season. “And he said, ‘Man, it would mean everything to me if I could get an SEC opponent in our building. I said, ‘Why are you calling me? Why don’t you call Pitino or Tubby? You won national championships for them. Why are you calling me?’ “He says, ‘Because they won’t play me.’ And I said, ‘You’re calling me because you know I can’t say no.’”
The agreement meant South Carolina played five non-conference games — at Wyoming, Michigan and Oklahoma State, on neutral floor against Providence and George Washington — away from home. N.C. State, TCU, Clemson and Ohio State — the last four into Lunardi’s latest bracket projection — averaged four neutral or road non-conference games.
“So he does what the committee wants us to do in terms of going to places and being willing to go on the road wherever he has to go do that,” Barnes said. “Regardless (of result), you have to respect that and go look at that because they could definitely have two more wins where people would probably say they’re in the tournament.”
South Carolina’s non-conference strength of schedule, according to KenPom, ranks 97th nationally. That’s the fifth-toughest among SEC schools and second-toughest of the seven-year Martin era. The schedule overall is 22nd in the county.
“If I scheduled like I used to schedule around here,” Martin said, “we’d have 23 wins. This team would have 23 wins this year. But then we’d do a disservice to this conference, we’d do a disservice to our fan base, I’d do a disservice to my bosses. That’s not how I work.”
Nyaires Redding (suspension) and Hunter Maldonado (injury), two Wyoming starters in the USC game, were lost for the season by the end of December.
The Gamecocks followed that loss with a trip to then-undefeated Michigan.
“I really do admire him for doing it because it’s something I haven’t done and wouldn’t do,” Barnes said. “Again, that’s Frank Martin being Frank Martin and I have a lot of respect for him doing it. And I hope the committee looks at it as well because he could have easily stayed at home and had two more buy games and two more wins.”
Barnes’ Vols swept the Gamecocks this season, but he said that wasn’t because of an unworthy opponent.
“The league’s better than it’s ever been,” Barnes said. “And there’s no doubt that South Carolina’s an NCAA (Tournament) worthy team.”
USC can, or course, play its way into the Big Dance by winning the SEC Tournament. That mission begins Friday afternoon against either Auburn, Missouri or Georgia.
Who: South Carolina vs. Auburn, Missouri or Georgia
When: 3:30 p.m. Friday
Where: Bridgestone Arena in Nashville