COLUMBIA — The opening week of March brings with it the push for postseason positioning for both of South Carolina’s basketball teams.
For the SEC champion women’s team, the picture is already taking shape: a No. 1 seed in this week’s league tournament in Jacksonville and almost certainly a top regional seed in the NCAAs. For the USC men — well, things are considerably less certain.
Head coach Frank Martin’s team still appears in good shape for its first NCAA Tournament bid in 12 years, maintaining an RPI of 38th even after Saturday’s loss at Mississippi State. USC is in position to secure one of the top four seeds in the league tournament in Nashville, Tenn., though with two games remaining much remains open to change.
“It’s fun to enter the last week of the regular season and be in the conversation for one of the top four seeds when you take into consideration where we were at two years ago,” Martin said Monday. “… I have no idea what the future holds, nor do I consume myself with that. But it shows why my trust and faith in the group of kids we have in that locker room continues to get stronger.”
The USC men (23-6, 10-6 SEC) are tied with LSU and Vanderbilt for third in the SEC, one game behind Kentucky and Texas A&M. The Gamecocks hold head-to-head tiebreakers for tournament seeding over all those teams save the Wildcats, and try to keep pace this week by hosting Georgia (15-12, 8-8) on Thursday before finishing the regular season Saturday at Arkansas.
Last weekend’s loss at Mississippi State was another missed opportunity for USC, which has now dropped three games against bottom-four teams in the SEC. As a result, Jerry Palm of CBS lowered the Gamecocks to a No. 7 seed in his newest NCAA projection, while Joe Lunardi of ESPN demoted them to a No. 9.
“We all overreact to things,” said Martin, whose team received no votes in Monday’s AP Top 25 poll. “We act like, ‘Oh my God, we stink.’ We don’t stink. We played real hard, we gave ourselves a chance. We’ve got to make layups. We missed nine uncontested layups. Uncontested. … You can’t miss nine layups and expect to win on the road.”
The picture is clearer for the USC women (28-1, 16-0), who remained No. 3 in Monday’s AP Top 25. The Gamecocks open the SEC Tournament in a quarterfinal Friday against either No. 8 seed Missouri or No. 9 seed Auburn. Like last season, USC may have to win the event to ensure itself of the most fan-friendly path to the Final Four — which this season is the NCAA Regional in Lexington, Ky.
With Connecticut likely bound for the regional in Bridgeport, Conn., and Baylor a natural choice for the regional in Dallas, USC and Notre Dame may be left vying over Lexington, 420 miles from Columbia and 329 from South Bend, Ind. The alternative would the regional in Sioux Falls, S.D. USC was the No. 2 national seed in the NCAA Selection Committee’s most recent intermediate ranking.
“I think our players can handle those kinds of conversations because they don’t hold onto things for long,” said head coach Dawn Staley. “Sometimes you have to dangle a carrot in front of them so they can continue to be focused. Hopefully, we’ll have a conversation about that. But I’m not going to put too much pressure on them.”