It could've been so different.
South Carolina just finished the season with wins in 6 of their last 11 games. Had it sustained that clip over the entirety of conference play, the Gamecocks could be preparing for a trip to the NIT this week. Instead, they've said goodbye to Brenton Williams and hello to an interesting off-season, where at least one player will leave the program and perhaps more will be announced in the coming weeks to make room for new recruits.
While there were obviously a number of story lines and twists and turns to the Gamecocks' 2013-14 season, what was the one moment that swung the year from one that could've seen substantial momentum built toward year 3 of the Frank Martin era, to one that was salvaged only at the very end, with a win over Kentucky and a run in the SEC Tournament? It came back in January, on a Wednesday night in College Station.
The season had already seen its share of ups and downs. The Gamecocks had lost their three biggest non-conference road tests (at Oklahoma State, Baylor, and Clemson), and dropped two tough home games in the non-conference portion of the schedule (Manhattan and USC Upstate).
Wins in Hawaii gave Carolina a 7-6 record in non-conference play, and while a 9-9 record in the SEC seemed far-fetched at the time, Carolina did enter the conference having won 5 of their last 6, thanks to a 2-of-3 showing on the island and blitzes of Akron and Marshall at home (though a too-close-for-comfort game against S.C. State - 82-75 - right before SEC action began led to much cause for concern).
In any event, the conference schedule got off to a slow start as well, though the loss in Gainesville was understandable, and Carolina played very competitively in a home game where they came up just short against LSU, a 71-68 loss. With two decent performances under their belt, the Gamecocks made their way to College Station, where they were set to try to knock off an A&M team that didn't appear to be particularly strong, despite an upset victory earlier that week over Tennessee.
Leading 37-34 with 1:30 to go in the first half, the Gamecocks had played a solid opening period in College Station. Brenton Williams pulled down a missed dunk by the Aggies' Alex Caruso and got the ball to Tyrone Johnson running in space. With the Aggies rushing back on defense, Johnson head-faked his defender and put his head down to charge toward the basket. And as he stepped to his left to make his move, he felt the foot of an official. Johnson went crashing down, the ball rolled out of bounds (and was cruelly awarded to A&M), and both the game and the season took a drastic turn.
The Gamecocks were fortunate only to the extent that they just needed to ride out 66 seconds before they went into the half to try to re-group. In that time, they were able to hold onto their lead, going into the locker room up 39-38.
But Carolina couldn't stop the Aggies at all in the second half. Forced to drastically expand their bench due to the Johnson injury - combined with foul trouble from Sindarius Thornwell and Duane Notice - the Gamecocks kept pace offensively but simply couldn't guard the ball against the Aggies, who scored 75 points in just 64 possessions, a 1.163 points/possession rate that amounted to their second-best performance in conference play all season. Despite Carolina posting over one point per possession against a pretty good defense, the Gamecocks lost 75-67in College Station, their third-straight conference game to start the SEC slate, and their second point guard in four weeks.
While Johnson certainly shared in the rest of the team's struggles at times, it was clear throughout the remainder of the season that the Gamecocks simply didn't carry a fourth point guard on the roster, leaving the team entirely reliant on Notice (and at times, an out-of-position Thornwell) to run the point. While they of course retained some talent on the floor, it's quite fair to say that the loss of Johnson represented a loss of at least a few points a game in the team's fortunes the rest of the year, not to mention a massive shift in their game plan and outcome in College Station that particular night.
How much did that shift the Gamecocks' season? Let's look at some games that Tyrone Johnson didn't participate in that could've gone the other way:
|v.||Ole Miss||L 75-74|
|@||Ole Miss||L 75-71|
While every team loses close games throughout the year (and wins some, too - the Gamecocks overcame Alabama and Vanderbilt in the immediate aftermath of Johnson's injury), it seems reasonable to suggest that they may have pulled a couple of more wins from the woodwork in this stretch. And if they'd grabbed three? Depending on who they had come off, that means Carolina goes 8-10 in the regular season and gets a bye into the second day of the SEC Tournament with a 15-16 record.
The lack of a first-round game against a weak opponent means that 1-1 is the most-likely result of that hypothetical tournament, and still leaves Carolina under .500 for the year, but moves them well out of the bottom of the conference and shows marked improvement between year 1 and year 2 for Frank Martin and his club. In fact, 8-10 would've been the best SEC record since the 2008-2009 team split the division with Tennessee at 10-6, and the third-best SEC record for the Gamecocks since the 1997-1998 team ended the season 11-5. In Carolina's 23 seasons in the SEC, it would've marked their 6th-best conference winning percentage ever (regular season games only):
That's not to suggest we want to judge our present success against our past lack of it. But it's also a real reminder of how much this program has struggled, and what progress really looks like when you take a step back and remember what we're really dealing with in Columbia. In nearly a quarter-century of basketball, just under .500 is one of the best efforts you'd have seen had the Gamecocks been able to put it together this year.
Alas, it wasn't to be, and the biggest mis-step on that path this year was that of an official on a Wednesday night in College Station.