USC knows winning SEC record no guarantee of NCAA berth

Head coach Frank Martin and South Carolina travel to Mississippi State on Saturday. (AP Photo/Wade Payne)

COLUMBIA — Call them the unfortunate eight.

They all finished with double-digit win totals in the SEC. And they were all passed over by an NCAA Tournament expanded to accommodate 68 teams.

South Carolina’s chances of making the NCAA Tournament improved Wednesday, when the Gamecocks ensured themselves of a winning record in SEC games for just the fourth time in 25 years in the conference. But the league’s lightly-regarded basketball reputation has left plenty of winning SEC squads shaking their heads on Selection Sunday.

Eight have been left out since the tournament field was expanded to 68 for the 2011 season. That includes a Texas A&M team that finished 11-7 in SEC play last season. And a Georgia team in 2014 that won 12 league games and finished third in the standings. And a Kentucky team in 2013 that went 12-6, tied for second, and still wound up in the NIT.

No wonder head coach Frank Martin doesn’t want his Gamecocks (23-5, 10-5 SEC) looking ahead with three regular-season games remaining, beginning Saturday at Mississippi State (12-15, 5-10).

“We don’t need to get wrapped up in what may be happening in March,” Martin said. “That’s still too far down the line. Our mindset has to stay the same way it was last year. That keeps you on edge. It’s my job to keep those kids on edge, to communicate with them, so they continue to listen to our inside voices, and not the outside narrative. That way, our focus stays on what matters.”

Right now, an NCAA bid appears South Carolina’s to lose. The Gamecocks are forecast as a No. 6 regional seed in the latest tournament projection by Jerry Palm of CBS Sports, and as a No. 7 by Joe Lunardi of ESPN. USC’s chances are boosted by a relatively high RPI of 32, compared to an average of 68.87 by the eight SEC teams with double-digit league wins that have missed the event since 2011.

But an end-of-the-season slide can change things, as history shows. Texas A&M finished last season with three straight losses to opponents with an RPI of 72 or worse, and wound up with an RPI of 67 (according to RealTimeRPI.com). Kentucky in 2013 lost three of its last four, two to foes with an RPI of 95 or worse, and then was upset by 10th-seeded Vanderbilt in the quarterfinals of the SEC Tournament.

USC already has road losses at Missouri (RPI 207) and Tennessee (RPI 117), and can certainly help itself by warding off an upset at Mississippi State (RPI 151). And the Gamecocks boosted their NCAA stock in the pre-conference season by avoiding the kind of bad losses in November and December that can come back to haunt a team in March.

Why did Georgia, with a 12-6 SEC record, miss the NCAAs in 2014? Because it lost to Davidson, Temple, and George Washington. Why was 12-6 Alabama team left out in 2103? Because it lost to Dayton, VCU, Mercer and Tulane. Why was 10-6 Tennessee passed over in 2012? Because it lost to Oakland, Austin Peay and the College of Charleston. Why was 12-4 Alabama sent to the NIT in 2011? Because it lost to Seton Hall and St. Peter’s.

Each member of the unfortunate eight suffered from either a low RPI, a scourge of bad non-conference losses, or both. With a solid RPI and a perfect non-conference record, USC appears on the brink of joining another club — the 20 SEC teams that have made the NCAA Tournament since 2011. But the Gamecocks still have some work left in front of them.

“We’re getting close to the finish line, but we can’t worry about the finish line,” Martin said. “We need to worry about staying in the moment as to who we are.”