USC men still have doubters

Frank Martin’s South Carolina team plays No. 22 Kentucky on Saturday in another game for first place in the SEC.

Moments after his team’s biggest home victory of a breakthrough season, South Carolina men’s basketball coach Frank Martin took a seat in the media room and got something off his chest.

“You have two teams that are that good, first- and second-place in the league, and neither team is ranked. That’s the frustrating part, how neither one of those two teams is ranked nationally. It makes no sense,” Martin said in his opening comments Wednesday after the Gamecocks beat LSU in a game for first place in the SEC.

“In what other (power five) league in the country is the first-place team playing the second-place team, and neither team is ranked?”

The answer is — none, at least according to this week’s rankings. But such is life in the SEC, where the Tigers still carry the stigma of an early loss to College of Charleston, and the Gamecocks still rank below Western Carolina in strength of schedule. Despite all USC has achieved this season, the team and the league still seem to have more doubters than Colonial Life Arena has seats.

South Carolina will try to alter that perception again Saturday, when it plays its third straight game against a first-place opponent, hosting No. 22 Kentucky at noon. After wins at Texas A&M and over LSU, a triumph would give the Gamecocks (21-3, 8-3 SEC) sole possession of first place in the league, with head-to-head victories over both the Tigers and Wildcats.

Nationally, USC’s run to the top of the league has received considerably mixed reviews. The Gamecocks fell out of the Top 25 last week after splitting road games at Georgia and Texas A&M, even though their victory came over an Aggies squad ranked No. 8 at the time. A mock NCAA Tournament selection conducted by national media members Friday had USC as a No. 8 seed.

While the Gamecocks continue to sport a solid RPI of 22nd, their strength of schedule — now 127th, according to CBS Sports — continues to color many perceptions of them. The SEC stands fifth in conference RPI, although CBS analyst Jerry Palm projects the league to receive five NCAA Tournament bids — including USC, which Friday he had forecast as a No. 5 seed.

Kentucky coach John Calipari points out that Texas A&M and Florida both beat ranked opponents in the Big 12-SEC Challenge, in which LSU missed a last-second shot that would have tied then-No. 1 Oklahoma. But those early-season losses — LSU to Wake Forest, Georgia to Chattanooga, Arkansas to Akron and Ole Miss to George Mason, to name a few — have proven difficult for many to forget.

“We’ve lost some non-conference games that hurt our league. And we do it every year. At some point we’re not, and this league is going to go to one, two, or three,” Calipari told reporters Friday in Lexington.

“But those non-conference losses, if you give (pundits) a chance to go back to those ... they’ll go back to that. ... Sometimes it’s self-inflicted. But we’ve got good coaches, we’ve got good teams. We’re beating each other up, which should not hurt our league. It should help our league.”

As for the Gamecocks, they’re not using disrespect as a rallying cry. Players have insisted that they don’t even look at the SEC standings, much less projected NCAA brackets or conference rankings, particularly with a sold-out game against the Wildcats (18-6, 8-3) at hand.

“Our biggest job is to make sure we respect ourselves first,” guard Duane Notice said Friday. “We know we have respect for each other, and we know what we do on the court and off the court is going to contribute to turning some heads, whether that be now or later. And at the end of the day, we’re just worried about ourselves and how we can get better.”

The Feb. 20 men’s home game against Florida is sold out, USC announced Friday. It is the team’s third sellout of the season, joining the Jan. 30 game againt Alabama and Saturday’s contest against Kentucky. Tickets remain for men’s home games against Tennessee and Georgia.