Frank Martin

Frank Martin's South Carolina basketball team finished fourth in the SEC but enters the conference tournament with a 16-15 record. File/Travis Bell/Sideline Carolina

COLUMBIA — Frank Martin makes a strong case. South Carolina finished fourth in the SEC, and while he isn’t saying the 16-15 Gamecocks are an NCAA tournament team, he is saying they belong in the bubble conversation just like several others.

The problem is, as it was when it happened — none of those bubble teams lost to Wyoming. Yes, it was on the road. Yes, the Cowboys were beset with injuries the rest of the season.

It still happened. And a loss to a team that’s 8-23 and rated 320th in the NET rankings looms as the Gamecocks try to do all they can to polish, buff and spit-shine their resume before Selection Sunday.

“I could have said no to Wyoming, I could have played a buy game at home instead. But no, I put these kids on a plane and flew across the world to go play at Wyoming,” Martin said after the Gamecocks finished an 11-7 SEC season with a 66-46 victory over Georgia on Saturday.

“And we lost, I get it. But at the end of the day, what’s the difference whether you’re 5-8 in non-league play or 6-12 in league play? So the teams that are 6-12 in league play are on the bubble with similar records than us or maybe have two or three more wins because they played six guarantee games?

"Come on, man.”

In a historically weak bubble year, several teams with similar records to USC’s are considered in the tournament. In the latest projections from ESPN's Joe Lunardi, Texas (15 losses), Florida (14 losses, including one to USC), Ohio State (13) and Clemson and TCU (12 each) are in the NCAA tournament.

The Gamecocks aren’t. They’re not projected in a “Last Four In,” “First Four Out” or “Next Four Out.”

They finished fourth in a league that has seven teams projected to be in. They didn’t schedule all the “directional schools” to fill the non-conference season, instead inviting Virginia to Columbia and playing a return game at Michigan.

That gives USC a lot of credit.

But.

The Gamecocks didn’t win any of those big games. While they finished 11-7 in the SEC, they didn’t beat any of the teams that finished above them, and lost to a few teams that finished below them (even when they were down to basically six scholarship players, a loss to 14-16 Missouri stings).

Martin makes some valid points. Indiana, a team that lost 12 of 13 games at one point, is considered a bubble team. Florida is 17-14 and considered in while the Gamecocks are only one game worse (and beat the Gators) but have to win the SEC tournament to get to the NCAAs.

But that’s the situation. It’s not so much finishing fourth in the SEC, it’s who USC did or didn’t beat to get there. It’s not so much scheduling as tough as they did when they lost to Stony Brook, Wofford (excusable considering the Terriers’ season, but by 20 points at home?), 12-19 Oklahoma State … and Wyoming.

USC should know more than any school that it has to leave no doubt when it comes to the NCAA selection committee. It was only three years ago the Gamecocks won 24 games (11-7 SEC) and were a no-doubt tournament team, until they were told they weren’t.

Like it or not, the Gamecocks don’t have the historical pedigree that would overcome a down year (like Florida or Indiana do). It was said when USC began 4-0 in the SEC that it would be a shame if that Wyoming loss was the anchor that dragged a great conference season to the depths.

“We had a bad game at Wyoming,” Martin said. “I wish I could give you an example or a reason for why we played bad that day.”

So it’s left to what it was really left to after that game. The Gamecocks, who fought through crippling injuries to finish fourth in what could be a seven-bid league, have to win the SEC tournament to get to the NCAA tournament.

They start Friday with the only assured promise they’ve ever had.

Win on Sunday, and nobody can keep them out.

SEC Tournament

(Nashville, Tenn.)

Wednesday

Game 1: Missouri vs. Georgia, 7 p.m.

Game 2: Texas A&M vs. Vanderbilt, 9:30 p.m. 

Thursday

Game 3: Florida vs. Arkansas, 1 p.m.

Game 4: Auburn vs. Game 1 winner, 3:30 p.m.

Game 5: Mississippi vs. Alabama, 7 p.m.

Game 6: Mississippi State vs. Game 2 winner, 9:30 p.m.

Friday

Game 7: LSU vs. Game 3 winner, 1 p.m.

Game 8: South Carolina vs.Game 4 winner, 3:30 p.m.

Game 9: Kentucky vs. Game 5 winner, 7 p.m.

Game 10: Tennessee vs. Game 6 winner, 9:30 p.m.

Saturday

Game 11: Game 7 winner vs. Game 8 winner, 1 p.m.

Game 12: Game 9 winner vs. Game 10 winner, 3:30 p.m.

Sunday

Championship: Game 11 winner vs. Game 12 winner, 1 p.m.

 

Follow David Cloninger on Twitter @DCPandC.