USC Men's Basketball

‘We realize we messed up.’ How USC is changing its approach to non-conference games

Stony Brook plays in the American East Conference. It’s located on Long Island, New York. Comedian and show host Joy Behar counts among the school’s most famous alumni.

Wyoming plays in the Mountain West Conference. It’s located in Laramie, Wyoming. Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen counts among the school’s famous alumni.

Why the mindless trivia for a couple basketball programs that delivered South Carolina its two worst losses of the 2018-19 season? Well, because when Frank Martin worked the autopsy report on why the Gamecocks didn’t make the NIT or NCAA Tournament last year, he focused on non-conference results. Interviews were had. Answers were compiled. A conclusion was made.

USC’s young players “didn’t really mentally prepare to play some of these teams because they were schools that they had never heard of,” Martin said.

The line was delivered during a Monday news conference ahead of South Carolina’s Wednesday 2019-20 opener against North Alabama. Tip-time is set for 7 p.m. at Colonial Life Arena.

The UNA Lions are based in Florence, Alabama. They play in the Atlantic Sun. George Lindsey, better known as “Goober Pyle” from the The Andy Griffith Show, graduated from there in 1952.

OK, so the Gamecocks haven’t been carrying around flash cards with fun facts of this year’s non-conference opponents, but the point’s been hammered home: They must approach these early games with the kind of urgency that carried them to a fourth place finish in the SEC last season.

Without it, they could again be left out of the postseason.

“Those conversations are serious,” said Jair Bolden, the junior point guard who sat out last year after transferring from George Washington. “We have a lot of fun on this team, but when we talk about that, we realize that we really messed up those first two months. And we’re locked in. We realize the importance of every single game this year.

“There’s no games that, because it’s non-conference or because it’s not against a ranked team, we can just take the day off because it cost us a postseason berth.”

As much as it rallied in January and February, South Carolina dug itself too big a hole before the calendar turned to 2019. The Gamecocks were 5-7 before winning five of their first six SEC games. It looked great in the league standings, but the résumé damage was done.

Losses to Stony Brook (Nov. 9) and Wyoming (Dec. 5) — teams that finished No. 156 and 323 in the final NET rankings — were daggers. A year later, they’re part of USC’s rallying cry.

“The two games at the beginning basically hurt us,” said redshirt freshman point guard T.J. Moss, a starter for the Wyoming game. “And now before the games, we always say ‘Two games.’ So we can be ready and be prepared to start out right.”

This season begins with five straight home games, none against a team ranked among kenpom.com’s preseason top 200.

“We kind of lollygagged last year, didn’t take stuff serious,” sophomore wing Keyshawn Bryant said before having surgery to a cartilage tear in his knee. “This year we’re making sure to go extra hard. We’re going to play hard off the rip, don’t care who we play.”

After North Alabama, USC hosts Wyoming, Cleveland State, Wyoming and Gardner-Webb. The key, Martin said, is to have the Gamecocks act like it’s a run of Kentucky, Florida, Tennessee, LSU and Alabama.

“That’s the only thing I’ve done differently,” Martin said. “It’s that I try to make them understand not to slight the opponent, but to make them understand that if we had approached things this time of year with the same sense of urgency we did once we got to conference play, we would have been in postseason play last year.”

Game info

Who: North Alabama at South Carolina

When: 7 p.m. Wednesday

Where: Colonial Life Arena

TV: Streaming on SEC Network Plus via WatchESPN app

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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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