COLUMBIA -- South Carolina starts an important stretch of their season this week, needing a strong conference tournament to elevate itself into the bubble conversation before Selection Sunday.
But to some of the other coaches in the SEC, the Gamecocks (16-15, 11-7 SEC) have already done enough to work their way into a tournament spot.
“I think our league is worth eight or nine teams. No one’s done a better job coaching his team than Frank Martin. When you look at the kind of December they had, for him to regroup those guys and now he’s down to seven players, Frank’s done a great job. There’s no doubt in my mind that they’re an NCAA Tournament team. Everybody’s going to look at their entire body of work, but when you look at their entire body of work and you think about what they’ve done in this league — because this is the best this league has been,” Tennessee’s Rick Barnes said. “The league’s better than it’s ever been. There’s no doubt South Carolina’s an NCAA-worthy team.”
Barnes, who coached against Martin in the Big 12 before both coaches ended up in the SEC, is no stranger to how well Martin’s teams play, especially down the stretch closer to conference tournament time.
The Gamecocks are sitting currently at fourth in the SEC and have a current double-bye in the conference tournament, meaning they’re guaranteed a spot in the quarterfinals and need just two wins in two days to make it to the championship game.
The struggles came before winning all those games in conference, in November and December. Dealing with injuries and a lot of new faces, the Gamecocks struggled for consistency in nonconference play and went just 5-8 in games outside of the SEC.
Yes USC has two losses to teams outside of the NET 150 — Stony Brook and at Wyoming — but Barnes, who even said he wouldn’t have traveled out west for that game, said the NCAA committee should take into account Martin was one of the only coaches willing to schedule as hard as he did with trips to Wyoming and Michigan.
“You have to respect him for that and look at him for that. They could have two more wins; people would say they’re in the tournament because of that,” he said. “I’d like to think the committee will look at that. They went to Wyoming and there’s another one he went to that I looked at and admire him for doing that. That’s something I wouldn’t have done. That’s Frank Martin being Frank Martin.”
But it’s not just Rick Barnes heaping praise onto the Gamecocks before the SEC Tournament starts.
South Carolina is widely considered one of the toughest matchups in the conference that could make some noise in Nashville this weekend with one of the best players in the SEC manning the paint.
“South Carolina’s a tough team. Obviously they have a lot of experience with Frank taking his team to the Final Four. Whenever you have a guy like Silva inside, that’s a guy that can obviously be SEC player of the Year,” Alabama’s Avery Johnson said. “His strength, the way he’s developed and now they have guys that can shoot the three, they’re tough. They’re a tough team.
“I think it’s all about momentum. They’re a team that struggled in non-conference but put together a nice run in conference play and that can help you going into the SEC Tournament. You better bring your hard hat when you’re playing against South Carolina.”
Martin gave his team Sunday and Monday off before starting preparations for one of three teams they could see in the quarterfinals.
They could face either No. 12 Missouri or No. 13 Georgia, who play Wednesday, or No. 5 Auburn, who plays the winner of Wednesday’s game Thursday.
Against those teams this year, the Gamecocks are 4-1 with the only loss coming at Missouri. They beat Auburn, who comes into the tournament ranked No. 22 after upsetting Tennessee this weekend.
Frank Martin has done well against Bruce Pearl, winning four of the six games against Auburn since Pearl took over as head coach.
“When you say it’s all about matchups, sometimes it’s a canned phrase but I think there’s a lot to that. I would say our matchup with Frank has been a difficult one. I’d go as far to say it’s them matching up against what we do. They’ve been more successful. Whether it’s the way they defend, their physicality, obviously Frank does a great job. If we get to that point, we’re going to have to evaluate what it is we do and how we do it and find some things that have to be more effective than they’ve been historically over the last five years,” Pearl said.