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Previewing Day 1 of the SEC Tournament: USC-Alabama

<em>Alabama Head Coach Anthony Grant </em>
Alabama Head Coach Anthony Grant

One of the things I've always admired about the SEC baseball tournament - yes, you read that right - is that only ten teams get invited to Regions Park in Hoover, Alabama; the two cellar-dwellers don't get to show up "with nothing to lose." A powerful motivator, don't you agree? A way to separate the proverbial sheep from the goats? Exactly.

By comparison, the peripatetic SEC Basketball Tournament invites the whole barnyard gang - no matter how terrible a squad was during the regular season, they get their ticket punched to attend the league's post-season.

It's a bit of a travesty, frankly. Why should the two bottom-feeders take up court-time? Or burden the fans (including their own) with their unworthy presence?

Some of you will point to the 2008 Georgia team (for those of you who have trouble keeping track of the last several years, that was when Coach Dennis Felton's UGA hoopsters [13-16, 4-12] broke through from the bottom-seed of the SEC bracket and beat Arkansas in the championship game at the Georgia dome). Humbug, I say. Quasi-miraculous as the Dream Dawgs' run may have been, their morbid regular season showing should have debarred them from the tournament. [There was no happy ending - the Bulldogs were promptly bounced in the first round of the NCAA's, and Dennis lasted just another year before he was kicked to the Peach State macadam].

By the same dint of logic, our beloved twelfth-seeded Cocks (10-20, 2-14) should be sitting at home right now. Instead, they are slated to play the fifth seed Alabama Crimson Tide (20-10, 9-7) today at 3:30 in game 2 of the Tourney.

I almost feel sorry for the Tide. Not because I don't expect them to win the game. I do. In fact, the entire basketball world is favoring Big Al today. No, I feel sorry because with the Gamecocks' putrid 192 RPI, Anthony Grant's Tide (RPI 32) won't do much to burnish their NCAA seeding by beating us.

The Tide were cruelly excluded from last year's March Madness (one of the reasons which led to the single-division format adopted this season). This year, most prognosticators think the Crimson Tide is a lock to be the fifth of five SEC teams to get an invite to the Big Dance, if anything keeps them out this year, it might just come down to their double-head-scratcher 2 point loss to South Carolina this past January 25th in Columbia - our only high-quality win of the season (if you don't count edging Clemson ahead of that).

Think Coach Grant is letting his team forget that bitter loss? No way. Each Tide will player will know from the top of his head to the tips of his sneakers that two losses to USC might mean "hello NIT."

Is it really that dire? Probably not - you'd think the Tide could still make the NCAA's even with a second, stunning loss to the Gamecocks - but why risk it, or get a crappy seed, Grant will be pounding into his players. Look for Grant's team to pour it on, and good, lest the grandees of the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee get any ideas of taking just four SEC teams. Bama's end-of-the-season loss to Ole Miss - marked by poor shooting - has also left a bad taste in their mouth which they'll want to wash out against us.

We all know that USC's offense is lousy, so the real question is whether Bama's O can solve Darrin Horn's fluid man-match-zone D - and out-hustle the Cocks to clean up their own glass. Tide senior F JaMychal Green (13.8, 2nd Team Coaches' All-SEC) says that' they've been working hard on both effort and the Carolina defense. Look for Green and Soph PG Trevor Releford (12 ppg, also 2nd team Coaches' All-SEC) to pace the Crimson Tide this afternoon.

All that being said, the Gamecocks have a proverbial puncher's chance, even if we didn't deserve to make the trip. Bama is known to drop into extended funks where they go stone-cold from the floor (something we're used to) and they looked sluggish against Ole Miss - something that has to worry Grant. The Cocks may not have Bama's talent, but we're still playing hard and scrapping. If Malik Cooke can score near 20, and Damontre Harris shows up and avoids early foul trouble, then we should be in the game; Damien Leonard and Bruce Ellington must try to control their penchant to take the poor three pointer. We've got to hold our own in RBs and not let the Tide score on major runs.

I don't figure many USC fans to make the trip, even if simply for an excuse to sample the ... um ... .err ... delights of the French Quarter (get your head out of the gutter, man, I meant the beignets at the Cafe du Monde!). With a lot on the line, and the easier drive from Tuscaloosa to the Big Easy, expect the Tide faithful to be there in big numbers for the afternoon session. Will the Cocks get support-the-underdog help from the other schools' fans at the New Orleans Arena today? Maybe, but I doubt it will matter unless we're in the game late - and I don't think Carolina lightning will strike twice against Alabama this year. Plus, Grant's fortitude in suspending Green, Releford and junior G Andrew Steele during the heart of SEC play, not to mention a season-suspension for junior F Tony Mitchell - even at the risk of just missing the NCAA's for a second-straight year - has won him many admirers including me.

Prediction - Alabama 76 South Carolina 62.