South Carolina braces for the defining stretch of its season

The date was January 13, 2016.

The South Carolina Gamecocks had not lost a basketball game this season. At 15-0, they joined the SMU Mustangs as one of only two unbeaten teams in the country. SMU, being ineligible for the NCAA tournament, will unavoidably become a team which will miss the Dance after entering January without a blemish on its record.

South Carolina, though? Come on — the Gamecocks aren’t missing the tourney, even though they did lose to Alabama on Jan. 13 to fall to 15-1.

A power-conference team which starts its season 15-1 simply doesn’t miss the NCAA tournament, right?

Well, it’s not likely… but it’s not impossible, either. It’s certainly more realistic than you might think.

The 2013-2014 Iowa Hawkeyes started their season 10-1 and 15-3. In the third week of January, they were seen as a Final Four threat and a team which could have realistically been a No. 2 seed. It stood near the 3 or 4 seed lines in mock brackets.

The Hawkeyes nosedived over the final few weeks of the season. They had to go to Dayton for the First Four play-in game, which they lost to Tennessee.

The 2014-2015 Texas Longhorns started their season 10-1. They were ranked as high as sixth in the country.

They lost eight of 11 games and barely snuck in as a No. 11 seed in the field of 68.

Just because you start well doesn’t mean you’re guaranteed to get in. You’re likely to, but the past does not offer automatic reassurance or confirmation. You might have to get some work done.

South Carolina fits that category after getting pasted, 69-56, by the Georgia Bulldogs on Tuesday night in Athens. The loss to a relatively ordinary opponent — one which is nowhere near the at-large board — further erodes a resume which has a high number of wins, but a very low number of quality wins. If you consider Clemson (a bubble team) as being in the field, South Carolina has one win over a likely tourney team. If the Tigers are removed from the equation, though, a triumph over Memphis won’t serve as a replacement. South Carolina would have no wins over an at-large opponent.

You can get into the NCAA tournament without beating a single credentialed opponent, but in order to register that feat, you have to be virtually flawless, leaving very few games on the table. After the loss to Georgia, South Carolina has dropped decisions to the Dawgs, Alabama, and Tennessee. None of those teams are tournament teams — not terrible, mind you (Auburn, Missouri), but not great. A few more accumulated setbacks of that nature would leave South Carolina in position to have to win at least one high-end game.

Those opportunties are next on the Gamecocks’ schedule. The biggest point in the season for head coach Frank Martin will unfold over the next few weeks.

South Carolina visits league-leading Texas A&M this weekend. It then hosts LSU and Kentucky. After a breather against Missouri, it hosts Florida. Three of the four biggest games of the season are at home, so the Gamecocks can’t say the schedule didn’t break their way. If they can win two of those four games and remain steady down the stretch, they should be absolutely fine. If they win only one of those four games but mop up against the soft middle and weak underclass of the SEC, they’ll probably be okay.

Anything less, though, could spell trouble — especially if other bubble teams happen to surge in late February and early March, winning all the games they have to win.

South Carolina is still extremely likely to go Dancing, but now is the time for the Gamecocks to make sure they’re worthy of an invitation to the ball. If no results emerge over the next few weeks, a team that was once 15-1 could sweat some NIT bullets when the SEC tournament arrives.

About Matt Zemek

Matt Zemek is the managing editor of The Student Section, covering college football and basketball with associate editors Terry Johnson and Bart Doan. Mr. Zemek is the editor of Crossover Chronicles, covering the NBA. He is also Bloguin's lead tennis writer, covering the major tournaments. He contributes to other Bloguin sites, such as The AP Party.