After last night's win over Ole Miss, South Carolina is now in position to finish the season on a high note. The NCAA tournament is out barring a highly improbable SEC Tournament Championship, but a winning record and an NIT berth may still be possible. It's customary to knock the NIT, pejoratively known as the Not Invited Tournament, but for a young team like ours, especially one that's struggled at points, an NIT spot would arguably have to be considered success. A very minor success, but a success nonetheless.
So, what are our chances? Well, right now, they're not looking great. Carolina is currently a lowly 118th in Ken Pomeroy's RPI. Pomeroy also projects us to lose each of our remaining regular-season games, which would leave us with a record of 14-15. That won't get us anywhere, of course, even if we win a game or two in the SEC Tournament.
All is not lost, though. RPI is probably the most important factor here, and to get into the NIT, we probably need to finish with one in the 80s or high 90s. Nevada was got in last year at 91. However, Nevada also had 20 wins, and in recent years the NIT seems to favor teams with high win totals and low RPIs over teams with low win totals and high RPIs. Back in the old days, we would have gotten in for sure because we're an SEC team with a traveling fan base, but nowadays the NIT is more interested in showcasing deserving mid-majors. North Carolina got in last year at 16-16, but they had an RPI in the 60s. (Many also believed that they benefited from being, well, North Carolina, and that the NIT had gone back on their word not to cater to undeserving major-market teams. I'm not sure if that was the case, though, as UNC did have a legitimate NIT RPI, and they made it to the finals, proving they deserved to be there.) I'd say that we need to shoot for an RPI in that 60s range to be comfortable.
Can we get that high? It wouldn't be easy. At 118th currently, we're going to have to make up a lot of ground, fast. However, our schedule should give us a modicum of opportunity. Games against Georgia and Tennessee both provide good shots at upsets. I can't say that I'm very optimistic about the game in Athens, but the home game at Tennessee look winnable, depending on which UT team shows up. (UT is the conference's most high variance team, playing like a top 10 outfit some nights and a borderline NIT team themselves on other evenings.) Pomeroy projects a 69-66 Vols victory in that game, so it's not out of reach. Our other game is at Mississippi St., which is probably our best chance at victory; unfortunately, a win there probably won't do much for us in terms of RPI or perception. The last chance to improve our chances is in the SEC Tournament. We'll likely be the East's sixth seed, which means we'll face the West's third seed. That should mean another game against one of the Mississippi schools or perhaps Arkansas. A win in that one, I think, is essential but won't do much for us, but what would really help is getting far enough to play a good team and winning there.
All in all, while there's a chance, I'm not high on our chances right now. The Auburn loss really hurt us, and it would have been nice to have finished that comeback against UGA, too. We'd probably be in a great position to make the field had we won those two. As it is, though, I think we're going to need to win two out of the next three as well as at least one and maybe two in the SECT. Possible, but nothing this team has done in recent weeks makes me very confident that it's likely.
It should be noted that there are also two other post-season tournaments, the CBI and the CIT. However, the CIT caters to mid-majors, while major-conference teams have been reluctant to accept the CBI, and Horn has voiced his opposition to doing so in the past. Not sure if that's how he still feels, but I don't see one of these as likely.
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