Despite South Carolina's loss to Vanderbilt two days ago, the Gamecocks still heavily figure into the NCAA tournament picture. As the regular season winds down, more and more predicted brackets pop up and more and more have USC sitting in an eight- or nine-seed spot.
"I think we're playing to beat Tennessee," coach Darrin Horn said on Monday. "Those are things that are completely beyond our control. I have no idea of what the thoughts are of the committee. All we can do is try to play well on Thursday against Tennessee."
Horn re-re-re-emphasized the message. Bubble talk, playing for seeding, all of that doesn't come around the corner of Assembly and Blossom.
Simply because it's going to do more harm than good.
"There was a time when everybody told our guys we weren't going to be any good," Horn said. "Then we win a few, have a couple of big wins, and everybody's telling you how great you are. Any of those things can become distractions."
The Gamecocks (20-7, 9-5 SEC) have leaped from a media-predicted fifth-place finish in the SEC East to their current position. They host Tennessee on Thursday and first place with a game to play is on the line.
With their gaudy record and high-profile wins (Baylor, Florida, two over Kentucky), USC's tournament projection shot up along with its RPI -- 43, according to the NCAA figures released on Monday. USC seems to be a natural for the field of 65.
Right now. But the season doesn't end right now.
"If we had took care of business tonight, we wouldn't have to worry as much about that game," guard Zam Fredrick said after the Vanderbilt loss. "We're going to treat every game as a must-win and we're going to play our game with no pressure."
Fredrick brought up a great point. He and the rest of the country know that the NCAA tournament selection committee, besides looking at record, RPI, strength of schedule, etc., also looks at how a team finishes. At present, USC lost its last game.
With Tennessee wanting first place too and at least a piece of the divisional title going to the winner, Thursday is going to be a huge game. Then the Gamecocks have to finish on the road at Georgia -- a 2-12 team, sure, but a 2-12 team that won both those games at home.
See the problem? A 1-2 or an 0-3 record in the last three games wouldn't impress anyone, and depending on how the other so-called bubble teams do in that stretch, it may knock USC from automatic contention to struggling to stay alive. While it's not necessary to know an NCAA berth is in hand going into the conference tournament, it does help.
Horn has preached all season about next game, next game, next game. Don't worry about what's after that because it's beyond your control.
If the Gamecocks can beat Tennessee, they'll seemingly have an NCAA spot secured, at least, according to the "experts." They're not thinking about that.
They're thinking about the next opportunity to win, which is against Tennessee.
"We were in a position not to have to worry about anyone else, until tonight," guard Devan Downey said after the Vanderbilt game. "So now we've got to take it back."