COLUMBIA — They win Sunday, they’re in the NCAA tournament.
But South Carolina may have to at least get to Sunday's championship game of the SEC tournament to feel really solid about playing in any postseason event.
While NIT “bracketology” (a fuzzy projection at best) has the Gamecocks solidly in as a No. 4 seed, the Gamecocks’ overall record is concerning. At 16-15, they’re in line with a couple of historical markers.
Since the NCAA took over the NIT in 2007, it dropped the rule of having to be a game over .500 to participate. But also since then, it’s only taken a team that finished .500 once. North Carolina, 16-16 after the 2010 ACC tournament, was selected for the NIT.
Otherwise, the NIT has mostly hovered around 17-15 or 16-14 as its cutoff. If the Gamecocks don’t win a game in the SEC tournament they’ll be 16-16, just as the Tar Heels were nine years ago. Unlike UNC then, the Gamecocks didn't win the national championship the year before.
USC didn’t make the NIT last year after finishing 17-16, in part because the tournament gives automatic berths to all regular-season champions that don’t win their conference tournaments and aren't picked for the NCAAs. Twelve of the 32 NIT slots were taken before the Gamecocks even got to the table.
This year is shaping up the same way. There are already eight slots taken due to upsets — Lipscomb, Campbell, Hofstra, Wright State, Loyola Chicago, St. Francis (Penn.), South Dakota State and Belmont — with 15 mid-major tournaments left to play. While Belmont might still squeak into the NCAA tournament, it's a pick-’em for other bubble teams.
Gonzaga didn’t win the West Coast tournament, but was going to the NCAAs anyway. That means there had to be room made for WCC champ St. Mary’s, which pushed another NCAA bubble team into the NIT.
Clemson is likely out of the NCAA picture after losing in the first round of the ACC tournament, which probably puts it in the NIT and takes away another spot. As the expression says, it flows downhill, and without a strong performance in Nashville this weekend, the Gamecocks may be up to their ankles in the overflow.
The Gamecocks’ sole focus is to win and keep winning. Frank Martin is 5-6 in the SEC tournament, going 1-1 last year, and hopes to at least reach Saturday's semifinals since the Gamecocks haven’t yet gotten there during his tenure.
“You got to play three games in three days, and it’s three hard games. The regular season is about coaches and players trying to figure out who we are as a team. And it’s a constant fight, every day,” Martin said. “Postseason’s about the players. It’s no longer about my wishes or my desires or who can my team become.”
The Gamecocks haven’t reached the semifinals since 2006, which was the end of an 11-year stretch when they reached the semis six times. USC has twice reached the championship game (1998 and 2006) and lost by 30 points the first time and by two the second.
USC did all it could to give itself the easiest path toward winning three games in three days, earning the fourth seed for the double-bye and in the same bracket as regular-season champ LSU. Playing the No. 1 seed Tigers is no picnic, but there’s also no telling where LSU’s head is following the suspension of coach Will Wade.
“Around this time of the year, everybody’s tired,” SEC Sixth Man of the Year Hassani Gravett said. “For us, it feels really, really good to have these days off and have that extra energy boost we’ll have with the double-bye.”
Saturday would be a first for Martin’s Gamecocks. Sunday would likely cement a postseason berth.
Win 40 minutes Sunday and the NIT can have whoever it would like, since the Gamecocks will be headed elsewhere.
Freshman A.J. Lawson, who has missed the last three games after severely spraining his ankle against Alabama, should be ready to play Friday.
“I feel like I’ve been healing very quickly,” Lawson said Tuesday. “I’m trying to get on the court as much as I can, do more things, and as the day goes on, see how it goes.”
Lawson has to get his conditioning back after missing so much time, but as Martin said following the regular-season finale, Lawson probably could have played then. It will depend on his pain tolerance and his ability to run the floor.