COLUMBIA — Could a shocking loss in the SEC tournament somehow turn out to be a good thing?
South Carolina will find out in a week.
The Gamecocks’ quick exit from the SEC women's basketball tournament last week gave them a couple of days off they had no intention of getting. After winning four consecutive conference tournaments, USC at the very least expected to be playing Mississippi State for a fifth on Sunday.
Instead, they watched the Bulldogs win the title, their first, on USC’s “home” floor in Greenville. Yet as much as it stung, it may have actually done the Gamecocks a tremendous favor.
Before their upset loss to 10th-seed Arkansas in the SEC quarterfinals, USC was pegged to be a No. 3 seed in one quarter of the NCAA tournament bracket and projected to be sent to the Portland Regional, meaning if they were to advance to the Sweet 16 they’d be crossing the country to play in it. But the early exit at the SEC tournament knocked USC to a No. 4 seed, which means they are now projected to be in the Greensboro (N.C.) Regional.
USC has a party planned for its fans on Selection Monday next week, when the Gamecocks will find out for sure. If the projections come true, they’ll see a much happier Dawn Staley than they have the past three seasons.
Ever since USC advanced to its first Final Four under Staley in 2015, the coach has complained about the NCAA’s placement procedures for top seeds. The Gamecocks went to Greensboro that year, but the regional sites switched after that with the closest to Columbia being in Lexington, Ky.
All three years, USC didn’t get the Lexington Regional, instead being shipped to Sioux Falls, S.D.; Stockton, Calif.; and Albany, N.Y. All three cases were where USC was highly seeded but other teams were given more favorable treatment due to the NCAA’s archaic and nonsensical rule on travel radius.
The middle trip, to Stockton, turned out fine. The Gamecocks advanced to the Final Four and won their first national championship. The other two were defeats, and all three had a sliver of the fan presence that was in Greensboro in 2015, and what could have been expected if USC had gone to Lexington from 2016-18.
The regionals changed again this year, going back to Greensboro, and they’ll have one in Greenville next year. The Gamecocks knew before the season started that if they handled their business, they’d be going to Greensboro.
Now it seems likely to happen, although it took a stunning upset to do it. But the Gamecocks will also find out just how much that upset hurt them in a week, despite Greensboro looking more favorable.
USC still has to win two games to get to Greensboro, and their “home” regional in Charlotte could be affected. Deprived of playing at Colonial Life Arena due to a men’s NCAA tournament regional, the Gamecocks came to an agreement with Charlotte’s Halton Arena to play there.
But did the loss in the SEC tournament wipe out that opportunity?
“That is out of my pay grade, that’s out of my league,” Staley said after the Arkansas game. “The only thing we can do is show up and play the games.”
USC has dropped two straight games and has nine losses for the season. While still projected to host by ESPN, they could get a curveball thrown at them by the selection committee.
There are two reasons to feel good. One, the Gamecocks haven’t lost to anybody who isn’t somebody. The only non-Top 25 team that beat them was Arkansas.
Two, the NCAA, especially in the women’s tournament, wants people to attend. They know the attendance figures (the Gamecocks have led the country in home attendance for the past five years) and they know fans will come to Charlotte. Those factors should overcome any debate about whether or not USC deserves to host.
All the Gamecocks can do is wait and see if the Arkansas loss cost them a host site in Charlotte but won them a Sweet 16 appearance in Greensboro.