One year after a staggering late-season collapse cost South Carolina the chance to go to the NCAA tournament, the Gamecocks are again beginning to teeter as March approaches.
They fell 81-66 at 13th-ranked Florida on Tuesday night, their fourth loss in their past five games.
There’s no shame in losing in Gainesville against the surging Gators, but South Carolina’s other three recent losses are much less flattering. The Gamecocks dropped games against bubble team Arkansas and fringe NCAA tournament contenders Vanderbilt and Alabama, two out of three of which came at home.
Now 20-8 overall and 10-5 in the SEC, South Carolina has done considerable damage to its NCAA tournament seeding. The Gamecocks project as a No. 7-9 seed at this point, but they’re at risk of plunging toward the bubble if they can’t emerge from this February slide soon.
This rash of late-season losses surely conjures bad memories for South Carolina fans still scarred by missing the NCAA tournament last season. A 21-3 start turned sour in a hurry as the Gamecocks dropped four of their final seven regular season games, fell in the first round of the SEC tournament and then did not have their names called on Selection Sunday.
What’s different this season is that South Carolina has a couple more quality wins to fall back on. Whereas last year’s Gamecocks beat just one opponent in the RPI top 50 and eight in the top 100 all season, this year’s team already boasts 11 top 100 wins including victories over SEC contender Florida and bubble teams Michigan, Syracuse and Tennessee.
When South Carolina was beating NCAA tournament-caliber opponents earlier this season, the formula was elite defense and just enough offense. Frank Martin’s Gamecocks made life miserable for opposing offenses with their aggressive, disruptive defense that forced turnovers and ran shooters off the 3-point line yet boasted enough size and length in the paint not to give up easy baskets at the rim.
In South Carolina’s last five games, however, one of the nation’s premier defenses has experienced significant slippage. The Gamecocks were ordinary against Vanderbilt and Mississippi State and downright bad against Arkansas and Florida, surrendering 1.2 points per possession to the Razorbacks and 1.14 to the Gators.
South Carolina is still forcing turnovers at an impressive rate, but that’s about all the Gamecocks are doing well. The threes that weren’t falling for foes earlier in the season are finding the bottom of the net now and opposing teams are also generating better looks around the rim too.
Florida pulled away after halftime on Tuesday night by lighting up South Carolina for 46 second-half points. Kevaughn Allen scored 26 points and the Gators’ sank 6 of 9 second-half 3-pointers to stay tied with Kentucky for first place in the SEC, three games ahead of the fading Gamecocks.
The remaining regular season schedule for South Carolina isn’t all that daunting as the Gamecocks host Tennessee and Mississippi State before finishing on the road at Ole Miss. Two wins in those three games would erase any shred of doubt regarding South Carolina’s worthiness of an NCAA bid even before the start of the SEC tournament.
But while South Carolina has a chance against those middling league foes with an average defense, it won’t last long in the NCAA tournament if it doesn’t start generating stops at an elite level again.