A week from now, the Gamecocks could be a virtual lock for its fifth consecutive No. 1 seed, maybe even No. 1 overall. Or they could pretty much be in the exact same spot.
Such is the challenge presented to USC as it faces No. 1 Connecticut at home on Thursday, then travels to No. 2 Mississippi State on Monday. It’s the toughest two-game stretch in all of women’s basketball this season, and maybe even the past decade — in the past 10 years, only one other team, Ohio State, has faced the AP poll’s No. 1 and No. 2 back-to-back, and that was at the very beginning of the 2015-2016 season.
“Fun? I don’t know about fun,” USC coach Dawn Staley said last Friday, laughing. “They’re tough games that we welcome. Obviously, we want a national championship, we want to play the best competition out there, and here it is on competition row, this week. We’re looking forward to just focusing in and playing each game as they come and see where the chips fall.”
Win both games, and South Carolina likely would vault from No. 7 in the latest poll to the top 3, at least. Mississippi State and UConn are a combined 42-0 this season and the current favorites for the national title, and managing to knock off them both would make a lot more people consider the possibility of back-to-back titles for the Gamecocks.
Lose both contests by at least respectable margins, and it’s unlikely USC would be penalized by much, if at all. UConn and MSU already have taken down highly-ranked opponents this year such as Oregon, Notre Dame and Georgia, and all of those teams have hardly dropped at all or even risen in the AP poll and in the NCAA selection committee’s rankings.
Split the difference, and the Gamecocks would still probably move up in the polls and maintain their status as a No. 2 seed.
All in all, the next two games present a big opportunity and almost no downside for South Carolina. When the NCAA revealed its top 16 rankings on Jan. 18, it became immediately apparent the selection committee values strength of schedule almost as highly as wins and losses, and no team in the top 20 has played or will play more ranked opponents this year than South Carolina.
So by next Tuesday, South Carolina could have its first losing streak since 2013 and still be in line for a top 10 ranking. And that’s to say nothing of what kind of experience this back-to-back will the Gamecocks’ younger players.
“It’s kinda strange but it’s the perfect time to get it in because this gives our young girls an opportunity to see how the tournament is,” senior star A’ja Wilson said. “You’re playing against great teams day in and day out, it’s NCAA Tournament time and also SEC Tournament time. I’m excited for this stretch. Gotta stay healthy and gotta stay mentally prepared at all times.”
South Carolina faces Connecticut on Thursday. Tipoff for the game, which will be televised on ESPN, is scheduled for 7 p.m.