COLUMBIA — Another week, another AP Top 25 in which the South Carolina men’s basketball team received only a handful of votes. Head coach Frank Martin can only shrug his shoulders.
“We haven’t done anything around here in so long, media folks outside of this region don’t pay attention to us,” Martin said Monday. “It is what it is. They haven’t watched us.”
South Carolina, ranked as high as No. 19 earlier this season, received just 12 votes in the new poll released Monday, well behind the 104 accumulated by 25th-place Texas. The Gamecocks (22-5, 9-5 SEC) are tied for second in the SEC with No. 21 Texas A&M and unranked LSU, one game behind No. 16 Kentucky.
The USC women, who have already clinched a third consecutive SEC championship, remained No. 3 in that poll Monday, 10 points behind No. 2 Notre Dame. National recognition has never been an issue for head coach Dawn Staley’s team, which has beaten 10 ranked opponents this season.
For the Gamecocks men, though, it’s been an uphill battle. USC’s 22 victories are the program’s most in a decade, and it’s guaranteed at least a .500 conference mark for just the sixth time since joining the SEC. But some unexpected road losses and the low national profile of the SEC — sixth in conference RPI, according to CBS — have made it tough for the Gamecocks to make any headway in the poll.
“We lose at Alabama and the rhetoric is, ‘What a bad loss.’ Are you kidding me? In the RPI, they’re (48th). But the opinion out there is, that’s a bad loss,” said Martin, whose team hosts Tennessee at 9 p.m. Wednesday.
“We lose at Missouri and it’s, ‘I knew they were a fraud. They’re no good.’ And yet, Penn State beats Iowa at home, Minnesota beats Maryland at home and Texas Tech beats Oklahoma at home, and it’s because those leagues are so good. We haven’t earned the right to be ranked, because a lot of the ranking with the media is based on prior history.”
The good news for USC is that rankings don’t factor into selecting the field for the NCAA Tournament, which the Gamecocks are trying to reach for the first time since 2004. South Carolina’s RPI remains a solid 31st, and USC is projected as a No. 6 seed by Jerry Palm of CBS and a No. 7 seed by Joe Lunardi of ESPN.
But the SEC’s reputation has at times been evident in March Madness. Since the tournament expanded to 68 teams for 2011, eight-member teams with double-digit conference win totals have been left out, including 11-7 Texas A&M last season and 12-6 Georgia in 2014. No wonder USC’s focus has been more on the conference title picture, which the Gamecocks are back in the middle of thanks to Kentucky’s loss at Texas A&M last week.
“We still have the dream and the goal of winning the SEC,” said guard Duane Notice. “… But in terms of the bracketology for the March Madness tournament, we haven’t talked about that.”
Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes on Monday called guard Kevin Punter “day to day” with a stress fracture in his right foot. Punter, the SEC’s second-leading scorer at 22.2 ppg, sat out the Vols’ upset of LSU on Saturday, and scored 36 in a victory over USC in Knoxville on Jan. 23.