COLUMBIA — Frank Martin can look at the standings.
Why would he want to?
“How is that relevant in anything? That’s for fans, that’s for 24-hour news cycles,” South Carolina’s basketball coach said Monday, a day before the Gamecocks were set to host Ole Miss in a battle for undisputed fourth place in the SEC. “Like, Bracketology? Really? If it was up to Bracketology in February, we’d have been in the NCAA tournament, I think, four times in my seven years here.”
It’s a double-edged method to madness. The Gamecocks started the season so badly that standings and stretches were boiled to one word for the rest of the year — win. There’s no point in figuring out which games are the most important when winning the SEC tournament was always the most likely path to the postseason.
Martin also learned the hard way why it’s never good to think about the next step until taking the one right in front. His first year at Kansas State, the Wildcats were 8-2 and looking good to make a run at the Big 12 championship. He remembers how sweet he thought that would be as a rookie head coach.
K-State lost four straight and finished third.
“As soon as you say, ‘We’re in fourth place,’ you lose three in a row, you’re not going to be in fourth place anymore,” Martin said. “There’s a place for all that, it’s just not for the people who are in that room every single day, banging their heads against that wall and against each other trying to get better.”
Tuesday’s game will play a large part in the Gamecocks’ postseason fate, though. Not that they’re discussing the standings, tiebreakers and positions that can be claimed.
“Same way we approach every other game in the conference,” center Chris Silva said. “It’s a nice game on the schedule, the most important one right now.”
The Gamecocks and Rebels are each writing surprising success stories, USC rising from a 4-7 non-conference start to be 8-4 in the league and Ole Miss at the same spot under first-year coach Kermit Davis.
Tied with six games to play, the only meeting of the year between the two, Tuesday’s game means a leg up for that vital fourth-place spot. Down two games to third-place Kentucky — USC is really three back of the Wildcats since it lost to UK and the Rebels play the Wildcats on March 5 — and two games up on the sixth-place teams, fourth is a solid spot to be in this late in the season.
Each team wants to make it as easy as possible on itself to potentially win the SEC tournament, and finishing fourth and earning a double-bye would help that. Winning three games in three days is no picnic but it’s easier than winning four in four.
The Gamecocks are nearly locked into having to win the SEC tournament to reach the NCAA tournament. They simply won’t have enough to show the selection committee otherwise.
To get the best draw, and only have to play three games to do so, they need to stay in fourth place. Beating Ole Miss delivers a tiebreaker with five games to go.
Look at them, don’t look at them, the standings will loom these last six games.
“Don’t misunderstand me, I’d much rather be in fourth place than be in 11th place, fighting and clawing to try and get to fourth place,” Martin said. “Whether you’re in fourth or 11th, you think Mississippi cares? They’re going to come in here trying to beat us.”