Ron Morris

MORRIS: NCAA Tournament hopes dim for rivals USC and Clemson

CHAD HOLBROOK was the 2-year-old son of Gardner-Webb men’s basketball coach Eddie Holbrook, living in Boiling Springs, N.C. Jack Leggett was a 19-year-old freshman baseball and football player at the University of Maine.

That was 1973, the last time South Carolina and Clemson did not participate in the NCAA baseball tournament in the same postseason.

I am not certain what is most astounding about that fact: That both programs have stumbled so mightily this season, or that USC and Clemson have produced that high a level of success for more than four decades.

“What it does say is we’ve been awfully good for a long period of time,” Holbrook said of both programs. “We’ve both hit a little bit of a bump in the road. But tradition says, and history says, we’ll bounce right back from this.

“I know Clemson’s got great coaches and great players, and I think we’ve got some great coaches here and we’ve got some great players and great players coming in (next season).

“I think this little bump in the road will be a short-lived bump in the road. I think it will be short-lived for Clemson, and I really believe it’s going to be short-lived for us.”

Make no mistake about it, both programs will need strong, strong finishes to secure a spot in the NCAA Tournament, beginning with this weekend’s series. USC split its opening two games against Auburn, and Clemson opened its three-game series Saturday against Louisville with a crucial victory.

Auburn and Louisville represent quality opponents who present a chance for USC and Clemson, respectively, to gain ground in the eyes of the NCAA Tournament selection committee. Auburn entered the weekend having won nine of its previous 10 games and carried an NCAA RPI of 17 nationally. Louisville entered the weekend with a sterling 39-7 record, No. 4 national ranking and No. 5 RPI.

Unfortunately for USC and Clemson, their current RPIs do not bode well for receiving an at-large bid to the 64-team NCAA Tournament. USC entered the weekend with an RPI at 71; Clemson was 76.

Following Saturday’s lackluster loss to Auburn, USC fell to 27-20 overall and 10-13 in the SEC. Clemson improved to 24-21 overall and 13-11 in the ACC.

Normally, a .500 record in either SEC or ACC play coupled with a strong showing outside the league will merit an NCAA Tournament bid. But both clubs have suffered from poor mid-week, nonconference performances throughout the season.

USC has lost non-conference games to College of Charleston (No. 27 RPI), Winthrop, Coastal Carolina (No. 24 RPI), Presbyterian and Furman. Clemson has dropped non-league games to West Virginia (twice), Winthrop, Coastal Carolina, Presbyterian, Charleston Southern and Georgia.

To finish strong and perhaps secure an NCAA Tournament bid, USC and Clemson will need to beat some of the nation’s best teams over the season’s final weekends. After Auburn, USC plays weekend series at Texas A&M (No. 4 RPI) and vs. LSU (No. 5 RPI). Clemson closes ACC play at Florida State (No. 6 RPI).

“It’s going to be a tall order with who we have on the schedule,” Holbrook said prior to the Auburn series. “We’re in a difficult spot. The only way to get out of it is to go on a winning streak and win some games. Out of our last 11, we certainly have to win more than we lose. I think that’s the fairest, most simplistic, thing I could say.”

USC cannot afford to lose any of its remaining SEC series, meaning Sunday’s finale against Auburn carries added importance. The same holds true for Clemson in needing at least one more win against Louisville in the final two games of that series that concludes Monday.

“There is so little margin for error now, so little margin for error because there are good teams everywhere, a lot of parity, a lot of good teams out there,” Leggett said. “There is so little margin for error, a defensive mistake, a missed cutoff man, a wild pitch, not executing on offense one time, you’ll see at the end of the game most times it comes back to haunt you. So, we’ve got to figure out a way to get a little bit better. We’re very close.”

It is an unusual position for both Clemson and USC. In most seasons of late, the Gamecocks and Tigers already had secured an NCAA tournament bid by the final weeks of the regular season. Such is not the case this year.

If things do not go well down the stretch, USC and Clemson could both be staying home during the postseason for the first time in 42 years. That would be truly astounding.