Brownell (copy)

South Carolina's Frank Martin (right) and Clemson's Brad Brownell hope for strong finishes to gain the best possible conference seeding spots for a shot at NCAA Tournament bids. Bart Boatwright/Sideline Carolina 

Why wait for March Madness?

We get started early with college basketball anxiety here in the Palmetto State.

February Frenzy is right around the corner for a bunch of programs desperate to climb into position for a taste of NCAA Tournament fun.

The shortest month of the year is the most formidable ball screen most teams in South Carolina will see this season, a make-or-break stretch of critical games.

Alas, the NCAA Evaluation Tool (NET) rankings, a system now in its second season, are not kind to South Carolina’s 12 teams. Dick Vitale landing an Academy Award for Best Actor is as likely as any at-large bid.

Of course, February Frenzy is fluid.

Charleston Southern is hot, the College of Charleston is not.

South Carolina and Clemson have nice wins (Kentucky and Duke).

But bad losses (Stetson and Yale).

And tough upcoming games (almost all of them).

For all teams in the state, the purpose of this Feburary exercise is simple: secure the best possible conference tournament seeding, stay healthy and, if possible, find a decent shooter on an intramural team.

In order of NCAA Tournament likelihood:

1. Winthrop

NET ranking: 132

Record: 14-7, 8-0 in Big South (1st place)

Work to do: With a win over St. Mary’s (NET No. 34) and having played Duke close until the end (83-70 loss), guard Hunter Hale and Co. present a balanced scoring attack capable of a Big Dance upset if they maintain consistency.

Projection: NCAA Tournament as a No. 14 seed

2. Furman

NET ranking: 80

Record: 17-5, 7-2 in Southern Conference (2nd place)

Work to do: Stay hungry. Still a young team, including sophomore Jalen Slawson (Pinewood Prep), the Paladins are determined after 25 wins and an NIT bid last season.

Projection: Getting the best of East Tennessee in a SoCon Finals clash for March Madness supremacy

3. College of Charleston

NET ranking: 134

Record: 12-9, 6-3 in Colonial Athletic Association (tied for 2nd place)

Work to do: Escape the mini-slump. The Cougars have lost three of their last four, but with Grant Riller leading the way, the CAA’s preseason favorite can start rolling. Note: the conference tournament is in Washington, D.C., this year and not North Charleston.

Projection: An overtime win in the CAA final

4. Wofford

NET ranking: 142

Record: 13-8, 5-3 in Southern Conference (tied for 4th place)

Work to do: Prove that NCAA Tournament habits didn’t leave for Virginia Tech with Mike Young. This Nathan Hoover-led team is dangerous (see 49-48 loss at first-place East Tennessee).

Projection: A tough out in the SoCon Tournament

T5. Clemson

NET ranking: 81

Record: 11-9, 5-5 in ACC (tied for 7th place)

Work to do: Road wins. With only four ACC teams projected to make the NCAA Tournament, this is a resume essential. Aamir Simms, Tevin Mack and friends should be able to have a winning record on the Tigers’ remaining road trips: Wake Forest, Virginia, Pittsburgh, Boston College, Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech.

Projection: No postseason but an ACC Tournament upset

T5. South Carolina

NET ranking: 89

Record: 11-8, 3-3 in SEC (tied for 7th place)

Work to do: Prove Kentucky wasn’t a fluke. Prime SEC opportunities in a rugged February schedule for Frank Martin’s guys include Wednesday night at Arkansas and at home Feb. 22 vs. LSU.

Projection: No postseason but an SEC Tournament upset

7. Charleston Southern

NET ranking: 294

Record: 11-9, 5-3 in Big South (tied for 3rd place)

Work to do: Beat Winthrop. Torrid CSU — four straight wins — gets a shot at the first-place Eagles on Thursday night at The Buc Dome. And hopefully another in March.

Projection: Another overachieving season for head coach Barclay Radebaugh but no postseason bid

8. S.C. State

NET ranking: 311

Record: 9-10, 4-3 in Mid-Eastern Athletic (tied for 5th place)

Work to do: Finish strong. The Bulldogs are a senior-led team (Damani Applewhite, Zacchaeus Sellers, Tashombe Riley) capable of better things in a league in which every team has a losing overall record.

Projection: Outside shot at an MEAC title

9. Presbyterian

NET ranking: 324

Record: 8-13, 5-3 in Big South (tied for 3rd place)

Work to do: Gain confidence for next year.

Projection: Maybe one Big South Tournament upset

10. Coastal Carolina

NET ranking: 196

Record: 11-10, 4-6 in Sun Belt (9th place)

Work to do: Recapture the Utah magic. Sharpshooting Keishawn Brewton led CCU to an upset of the Utes (NET No. 74 this week) in Conway in November.

Projection: No postseason but a year away from challenging

11. USC Upstate

NET ranking: 317

Record: 8-13, 3-5 in Big South (7th place)

Work to do: Make people in South Carolina know your nickname.

Projection: No postseason for the Spartans

12. The Citadel

NET ranking: 326

Record: 6-13, 0-8 in Southern Conference (last place)

Work to do: Save Duggar Baucom’s job. Hard to believe a winless SoCon slate in Baucom’s fifth season at the Bulldogs’ helm will go over well with administrators.

Projection: The Citadel, Army, St. Francis (Brooklyn) and William & Mary remain the only four programs among the NCAA’s original 160 Division I schools that haven’t made the NCAA Tournament.

But there is hope: William & Mary is in first place in the Colonial.

Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff