COLUMBIA — About an hour after South Carolina concludes tonight’s home game against Missouri, the calendar will turn to March, the holiest month of the college basketball season. But regardless of whether the Gamecocks beat Missouri, they will once again enter March as a non-factor on the sport’s national landscape.
South Carolina vs. MissouriWHEN: 9 p.m.WHERE: Colonial Life Arena, Columbia TV: ESPN2RADIO: RECORDS: USC 13-14 (3-11 SEC); Missouri 19-8 (8-6)NOTES: Missouri beat USC 71-65 on Jan. 22 in Columbia, Mo., and since then, the Tigers are 5-4. Their most recent game was a 90-83 overtime loss Saturday at Kentucky. Missouri is 18-1 in home or neutral site games this season and 1-7 in true road games. In SEC play, Missouri is 7-0 at home and 1-6 on the road. Their only road win was 78-36 over Mississippi State, which is 7-19 (2-12) and in last place in the league.
USC (13-14, 3-11 Southeastern Conference) is just clawing, in its final four regular season games and the SEC tournament, to avoid a fourth straight losing record overall. Barring a miracle run in the conference tournament, first-year USC coach Frank Martin will watch the postseason from home for the first time in his head coaching career.
In Martin’s five seasons at Kansas State, the Wildcats won at least 21 games every season, made one National Invitation Tournament and four NCAA tournaments, winning at least one game in each postseason appearance.
This season figured to be the toughest of Martin’s career, since USC went 6-10, 5-11 and 2-14 in the SEC the past three years. It has unfolded mostly as expected, with struggles that have become all too familiar to USC fans.
In 2006, USC lost by two points in the SEC tournament final and won its second straight NIT. In the next six seasons, the Gamecocks had five losing overall records, went one-and-done in the league tournament five times and made one postseason event, the 2009 NIT, in which they lost in the first round, sullying a 21-10 (10-6) season. Their record against SEC teams since losing the 2006 conference tournament final to Florida, the eventual national champion, is now 36-81.
Martin knew the rebuilding job at USC would be tough. But in some ways, it has been more of a challenge than he envisioned.
“There are a lot more things that need to be done than I thought when I got here,” he said. “And that’s OK. I didn’t come here to go on vacation.”
He declined to elaborate on what those things are.
“Those are all things that, when the season is over and as things change, then I’ll elaborate on them,” he said. “As of right now, don’t misunderstand. I’m not unhappy about anything. There has to be a cultural change. Believe me, I understand why there’s a sense of apathy (around USC’s program). I didn’t a year ago. I do now. But that’s OK. Let’s change it.”
Martin understands that engaging fans starts with winning and challenging for an NCAA tournament bid. USC has played in eight NCAA tournaments, but none since 2004. The Gamecocks have never advanced past the second round, and have won a game in the tournament just twice, in 1972 and 1973. They went one-and-done in their next five tournament appearances, including stunning flops as a No. 2 seed in 1997 and No. 3 seed in 1998.
So Martin can’t rely on selling history as he tries to recruit the type of players who can consistently win in the SEC — guys like wing player Sindarius Thornwell, who has signed for next season and is the No. 43 overall recruit in the Class of 2013, according to Rivals.
“All the things that need to change, in my opinion, didn’t just happen overnight,” Martin said. “Something has been building up over a long period of time. It’s been 40 years since the last NCAA win. That creates of a sense of disconnect, because like I’ve said all along, everyone is judged in our sport based on how you do in that NCAA tournament.”
Martin sees reasons for hope. In seven of the Gamecocks’ 11 SEC losses this season, they have been in contention in the final minutes. USC loses just one senior, wing Lakeem Jackson, who is the No. 5 scorer and No. 2 rebounder. Point guard Tyrone Johnson, a Villanova transfer and former No. 52 overall recruit, will be eligible after the first semester next season.
“For things to start changing, we have to continue to play with the resolve and the fight that we’ve played with for the most part of the conference schedule,” Martin said. “What we have to do differently is we’ve got to win these close games.”