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February 20, 2013

WBB: Top-four finish dimming

This would really be much more pleasant to deal with if some of the help that South Carolina was depending on, you know, actually helped.

The No. 15 Gamecocks' chances of nabbing a top-four seed and a two-round bye in the SEC tournament took another slight hit on Monday when Kentucky completed a season sweep of Texas A&M, putting the Wildcats in second place in the SEC and the Aggies in third. All SEC teams have either three or four regular-season games left to play, meaning the window for determining tournament seeding is about the size of a postage stamp.

Had A&M won to create a split with Kentucky, perhaps USC could have been in better position at the end of the year to depend on second tiebreakers. It was a longshot, as the second tiebreaker is record against the No. 1 seed, and USC loses tiebreakers to Tennessee, Texas &M and Georgia, which are all above the Gamecocks in the standings. But at least the Wildcats would have had a third loss, while USC has four, and Kentucky still has to play LSU and Tennessee. The Gamecocks should be favored in their remaining three games, and maybe had Kentucky lost …

It's the "maybes" that are killing USC. While the Gamecocks should do no worse than a fifth seed, which means they would play an opponent that has to play less than 24 hours before, they would still have to play four games in four days to win the title. To be that close to only having to play three games in three days is vexing, even though it seems very likely that USC will keep its marvelous streak going - under coach Dawn Staley, USC has improved its SEC and overall win total every year. If the Gamecocks win out, they'll have 12 SEC wins (10 last year) and 24 overall wins (25 last year), with the SEC tournament and NCAA tournament still to play.

The top-four possibility is still out there, but is growing dimmer with each game. The Gamecocks' best bet is for Georgia (9-3) to lose two of its final four games and for USC to win out, which would overcome the head-to-head matchup that Georgia won.

How likely? Not very. Georgia's toughest matchup is against Arkansas on Thursday, but the game is in Athens. After that, the Lady Bulldogs visit Ole Miss and Mississippi State (two of the bottom four teams in the league) and then finish up at home against Vanderbilt, a 6-6 team that's beset by injuries and is still waiting to see if leading scorer Christina Foggie will return from a knee injury.

Kentucky and Texas A&M, each with two losses, each have to play Tennessee among their remaining games. The Wildcats also have to take on LSU and Ole Miss, each on the road. The Aggies have Ole Miss and LSU at home, then Vanderbilt and Tennessee on the road.

For USC to leap ahead of them and void the tiebreakers, the Gamecocks have to win out and hope that A&M loses three games or Kentucky loses two games. That would force the second tiebreaker, and while USC would lose that, perhaps if Kentucky lost to Tennessee and maybe A&M lost and maybe Georgia lost …

Again, the "maybes" sting. USC lost by two points to A&M, two points to Georgia and four points to Kentucky. The Gamecocks have five losses, and were it not for a 20-point loss to the Lady Volunteers, their 6.4 average margin of defeat would be even lower.

But, there's no use worrying about what could happen. USC has three games left to play. If the Gamecocks win one more, they'll clinch at least a top-five finish, as they would have 10 SEC wins, and LSU and Vanderbilt could at best finish with 10 wins. Each would lose the head-to-head tiebreaker with USC.

The Gamecocks have three games left and should win them all. This week has been about resting up during a midweek bye and preparing for the stretch run.

"We've just got to handle what we can handle," point guard Ieasia Walker recently said.

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