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January 31, 2012

WBB: USC on solid ground as February nears

February approaches and South Carolina loves the look of it.

For the first time in three years, the Gamecocks know that they come into the season's penultimate month well ahead of the curve in terms of what they have to do to get to the NCAA tournament. While the past two years have been about entering the month hoping to do enough during it to get onto the selection committee's bubble, this year USC knows that it would have to do a good bit to work itself off of it.

At 17-5 and 6-3 in the SEC, USC has seven games left to play, beginning on Thursday with a game at No. 8 Tennessee. A 4-3 record down the stretch probably assures USC of a top-five finish in the SEC, with a very good chance of taking one of the top four bye slots for the SEC tournament. That would mean the Gamecocks would only have to win one game in Nashville, Tenn., to reach the tournament semifinals, which would be the final feather in the cap.

The Gamecocks finished a 2-0 week and turned to the other criteria to judge where they are. Not surprisingly, they're in good position.

According to realtimerpi.com, USC checks in with a No. 39 rating. While the strength of schedule is a mere 76, the Gamecocks shouldn't suffer from that, as long as they keep winning.

The latest edition of "Bracketology," run by ESPN's Charlie Creme, has USC as a No. 7 seed and playing in Norfolk, Va., against James Madison. Duke and High Point round out the other side of the four-team pod, while the rest of the 16-team bracket features some interesting names.

Heavyweight Connecticut is the No. 1 seed in the projection, with Arkansas the No. 8 seed. The Gamecocks play the Razorbacks on Feb. 9 and again on Feb. 26. Penn State, which gave USC its first loss on Nov. 20, is also in the bracket.

Projections are nice to see and while they can't be counted on as 100 percent accurate, they're usually very close to what the bracket ends up looking like. What USC has to do is avoid being one of the "last four in" or "first four out," which as a projected No. 7 seed, it's in no danger of doing.

The Gamecocks also shouldn't be in any danger of overlooking what they have to do, not after the last two Februarys. From stepping on an inbound line to an early entry into the lane to losing two straight overtime games, USC has run the gauntlet of finding ways to shoot itself out of consideration.

With a quality record, the Gamecocks can afford to stub their toe a bit. Their strength of schedule isn't the best (a hat-hanging win, over North Carolina, is negated due to UNC's RPI of 114), but it can get better.

USC plays two Top-10 RPI teams going forward (Tennessee and Kentucky) and has four games against teams in the top 42 (Arkansas twice, Georgia and Florida). The Gamecocks have beaten No. 36 Vanderbilt twice, and lost to No. 34 LSU and No. 9 Kentucky.

Despite some other losses to teams in the Top 100 of the RPI, USC is in fine position, and could stabilize it over the next seven games.

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