basketball

Win over Wolverines jumpstarts most important stretch for Gamecocks

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If the Gamecocks make the NCAA Tournament, Sindarius Thornwell will lead them there
Chris Gillespie, Gamecock Central

Year after year, we’ve been lectured by the NCAA Tournament selection committee around the Ides of March about the importance of non-conference strength of schedule and the number of quality wins over those opponents.

Nearly nine months ago, South Carolina felt the wrath of the committee, who sidestepped the Gamecocks for a coveted at-large berth because their non-conference schedule was perceived as weak. That impressive 11-7 conference mark in the SEC? Didn’t amount to a hill of beans.

The importance of a team’s non-conference schedule (and the amount of quality wins vs. said opponents) is why Wednesday’s 61-46 dismantling of Michigan in which the Wolverines were held to 19.2 percent shooting (10-52 FGA; 2-26 from 3-point range) could be critically important for the Gamecocks come March.

Not just Wednesday night’s game, played before an announced crowd of 13,051 at Colonial Life Arena, but upcoming contests against Syracuse (Saturday at Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn), Vermont, Seton Hall, Clemson and Memphis before the end of the year.

Michigan is the type of quality win that will pop up on your TV in February when the nonstop talking heads (no, not the popular 1980’s musical group) at ESPN start comparing resumes of possible at-large teams.

Whenever they start discussing South Carolina, the Michigan game will appear under the ‘Best Wins’ Column.

Indeed, the selection committee’s annual mandate proclaiming non-conference strength of schedule (and wins) as possibly the No. 1 factor in splitting hairs between potential at-large candidates makes the next five weeks the most important stretch of the 2016-17 season for the Gamecocks.

Frankly, starting Wednesday night, how the Gamecocks fare between now and the Dec. 30 trip to Memphis could constitute a make-or-break scenario as far as securing an at-large NCAA Tournament berth is concerned. They must win their share of the aforementioned list of games, or probably settle for the NIT again.

Nobody wants that.

“This is the kind of win that you tuck into your back pocket and say, ‘I hope this helps our basketball team at the end of the year,’” Frank Martin said afterwards.

Martin, of course, isn’t about to talk to his team about the long-range implications of Wednesday night’s win. Coaches and players focus on the short-term with a win-now philosophy. So, once the final buzzer sounded Wednesday night, the crowd cheered and the alma matter was sung loudly and proudly, the Gamecocks started scouting Syracuse.

“We have to get on an airplane and deal with 18,000 people in Orange and they’re not Clemson fans,” Martin said. “They are a Final Four team with a coach that has a thousand basketball games. They are going to play a 2-3 zone that I’ve played against. It morphs into whatever you do on offense. It’s unbelievable what they do with it.”

Certainly, if the Gamecocks want to grab the selection committee’s attention in March, beat Syracuse on Saturday (2:30 p.m., ESPN3) at Madison Square Garden in front a largely pro-Orange crowd. After that, wins over Seton Hall, Clemson and Memphis wouldn’t hurt either.

Lander? Not so much.

Perhaps the swollen importance of December non-conference games represents a flaw in the system. But when you play in a conference such as the SEC that is widely slandered and smeared in March, these games are crucial because the Gamecocks are facing nationally prominent programs.

Right now, though, USC is just worried about Syracuse.

“My job is to get these guys prepared to go play a little bit better than Syracuse,” Martin continued. “After Syracuse, I don’t even know who we play. That’s how blind I am to the future. You have to play them all. We didn’t all sign up to do this for a game or a week or a month. We signed up to do this for a season.”

We’ll find out in about 3-1/2 months how Wednesday night’s win is viewed by the committee.

“I hope like heck all of these games add value to our end result, which is how many wins we have at the end of the season,” Martin said. “You have to play good teams. If I was into running away from stuff or not dealing with difficulty, I wouldn’t have taken this job. We’re going to go play people. Hopefully, we’re good enough that it’s relevant when you put the whole thing together at the end of the year.”

NEXT FIVE GAMES

11/26 vs. Syracuse, 2:30 p.m. (at Brooklyn, NY)(ESPN3)

12/1 VERMONT, 6:30 p.m. (SEC Network Plus)

12/4 FLORIDA INTERNATIONAL, 2 p.m. (SEC Network Plus)

12/12 vs. Seton Hall (at New York City), 9 p.m. (TBD)

12/17 at USF, 1 p.m. (CBS Sports Network)

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