No. 13 seed South Carolina (12-19, 5-13) v. No. 12 seed Auburn (14-15, 6-12)
When: 7 p.m.
Where: Georgia Dome
Series: Auburn leads 22-14
Last meeting: Auburn win, 83-76, on Feb. 26, 2014 in Auburn, Ala.
In tournament play, everything changes.
The slow arc of a season becomes the final drop of a roller coaster, how you handle the pressure of the moment determining whether you ever play basketball with this group of guys again.
"Going in to the playoffs, every team understands that their next loss could be the last time that team ever plays together," USC head coach Frank Martin said. "Postseason play is a completely different set of emotions than you have during the regular season.
"That's why the teams that make runs in the NCAA Tournament, for the most part, are the ones with upperclassmen because they've been through it, they understand how to manage those emotions, they realize. The reason I coach the way I do during the regular season is because when you get to the postseason, nobody ever quits on a play.
"Everyone understands this thing is over. We don't practice tomorrow, I don't get a chance to showcase my talents again. It's a completely different mindset and emotion that you have to deal with. For most of our guys that play, it's going to be the first time they deal with it. We're going to get Auburn's best shot."
It's a situation Martin thrives in and an environment he builds his team to succeed in.
"You prepare as a staff all summer, in September with how you think you'll be able to play with your personnel," Martin said. "Then you spend October-November-December kind of defining roles and getting guys to understand.
"Then you enter January, and if you look at my coaching career, it's our plan, it's the way I work, our teams usually play its best basketball at the end of the year."
Martin said the difficulty this year was that the plan got thrown out the window when he lost point guards Bruce Ellington to the NFL Draft and Ty Johnson to a broken foot at Texas A&M on Jan. 15.
"When we enter January, we usually take a huge step forward from December to January," Martin said. "It was hard to do this year, because A&M at A&M was like the second or third conference game of the year, and all of a sudden you're down.
"Bruce makes a decision and you think you don't really have to move too much stuff around, we're good. And then you're midstream, and you have to (change)."
Martin compared his situation to football.
"Think about being a passing team and your first- and second-string quarterbacks are great passers and you lose both of them midseason," Martin said. "Now you have to go to your third guy and your third guy is a runner, not a passer.
"Now you have to revamp everything that you spent all summer all offseason trying to put together. We did that. It hasn't been pretty at times, but as young as we are, our players' commitment to adjusting on the fly was pretty good. It gets me excited about coaching moving forward here."
Martin is also excited that his team rebounded after losing its first six conference games to win five of its last seven went 4-4 down the stretch, including winning two of its last three to win five SEC games, one more than the Gamecocks did last season.
"Outside of Auburn at Auburn, the second half of conference play, you could argue we could have won every single one of those games," said Martin. "Florida at home the other night, it's hard to say we could have won that one.
"It's been a season of learning, a season of challenges. Different things, whether it be winning or losing games, Bruce making his decision, Ty (Johnson) getting hurt, three games into conference play having to revamp how we play offensive basketball because now you have guys playing places you didn't expect them to play so you have to change midstream.
"When it comes to kids, I couldn't be prouder."
Three keys to victory
SUSTAIN MOMENTUM: How the Gamecocks played against Mississippi State on the road - building a lead, weathering a comeback, remaining poised - should help. A team that may just be excited to play again with its coach back on the sidelines could be dangerous. Play like you played Saturday in a tough environment and see where you're at tonight.
TRUST THE BENCH: Sometimes, a lack of superstar talent can be a good thing. Besides Sindarius Thornwell, USC is a team so even you can essentially use any one of about 10 guys off the bench and not see much difference. Use that depth to wear Auburn down physically. You have fouls to give on that bench - give Auburn a fight it will remember.
STOP DENSON AND HARRELL: In Columbia, guards Chris Denson and KT Harrell scored 25 points apiece. In Auburn two weeks ago, Harell had 11 and Denson had 22, so some progress was made but it was slowed due to Thornwell having rolled his foot in practice the Monday before. Fully healthy now, the Gamecocks need to clamp down on those two and cut Auburn off at the head.
Probable starting lineups:
G - #0 Sindarius Thornwell, 6-5, 206 Fr. (13.5 ppg, 4.2 rpg)
G - #1 Brent Williams, 5-11, 172 Sr. (15.2 ppg, 1.9 rpg)
F - #24 Michael Carrera, 6-5, 214 So. (6.3 ppg, 5.7 rpg)
F - #25 Midaugas Kacinas, 6-7, 210 So. (5.5 ppg, 4.9 rpg)
F - #21 Demetrius Henry, 6-9. 215 Fr. (4.1 ppg, 3.5 rpg)
G - #13 Tahj Shamsid-Deen, 5-10, 163 Fr. (9.7 ppg, 1.5 rpg)
G - #1 KT Harrell, 6-4, 216 Jr. (18.4 ppg, 3.9 rpg)
G - #3 Chris Denson, 6-2, 181 Sr. (19.2 ppg, 4.4 rpg)
F - #2 Allen Payne, 6-6, 225 Sr. (7.6 ppg, 5.4 rpg)
F - #0 Asauhn Dixon-Tatum, 7-0, 226 Sr. (5.9 ppg, 6.1 rpg)