In Part 1 of this series we checked in on the SEC basketball schedule issued this past Sunday, and looked over some of the changes the powers-that-be in Birmingham had brought to the table in order to accommodate the expanded, 14 team league. We also tried to gauge how the Gamecocks would fare during the first half of conference play, and came up with a highly optimistic, best-case scenario of 5-4.
In this segment, we delve ahead to the second half of the schedule, starting with hosting Tennessee on February 10th:
|Feb. 10 vs. Tennessee
|Feb. 14 vs. LSU
|Feb. 16 at Alabama
|Feb. 20 vs. Ole Miss
|Feb. 23 at Georgia
|Feb. 28 vs. Missouri
|March 2 at Texas A&M
|March 6 vs. Mississippi State
|March 9 at Vanderbilt
This first thing you'll notice about the back half of the sked is that we get our first two game home-stand, after alternating home-and-away for the first nine games. We really have nothing to complain about here - we don't have to play two consecutive away games during conference play, which is good for a young team like ours.
The next thing you'll notice is that the six February games will likely make or break our goal of getting to the NIT in year one of Frank Martin's tenure - when we host potentially winnable games against Tennessee, LSU and Ole Miss, and play potentially winnable road games against Alabama and Georgia, before finishing up with Mizzou at the CLA. A 3-3 record over that stretch is not an unreasonable hope - if we can attract strong home crowds at the Colonial Life Arena, and perhaps steal an away game against the Bulldogs or Crimson Tide.
Unfortunately, during the key run to the end of the season, we get hit with two of the dreaded Thursday/Saturday game combos that go a lot of SEC coaches riled up last year -2.10 /UT and 2.14/LSU, followed by 2/28/Mizzou and 3.2 A&M. That will be tough for a young team, but we'll just have to adapt as best we can. The good news is that during the final two games versus MSU and @Vandy - which could be critical to our post-season hopes - we get two practice days between them.
Read the predictions after The Jump! Also take a Fan Poll on how well you expect the Cocks to do in SEC play in '13.Tennessee 19–15 (10–6 SEC) Cuonzo Martin's Vols were an even bigger surprise than Haith's Mizzou Tigers - since no one thought UT would be able to muster much of a winning squad after the Bruce Pearl debacle - which seemed to be demonstrated by Tennessee's 3-6 start. But a favorable NCAA ruling made all-world recruit 6'8" F Jarnell Stokes eligible for conference play, and G Trae Golden and F Jeronne Maymon emerged as stars - allowing the Vols to finish on a 10-3 run at the end of league play, and earn an invitation to the NIT - sweeping the season series with USC in the process. The Vols ended with a bit of a whimper losing to MTSU in the second round of the NIT, but their only significant loss to graduation was F Cameron Tatum. Tatum will be missed, but Golden, Stokes and Maymon, along with Carolina-killer G Skylar McBee should form a solid nucleus, and unlike a lot of other SEC clubs, will not be in complete rebuilding mode. Whether the Vols get back to the NCAA's remains to be seen, but they'll be a tough nut to crack - with very strong D - and they haven't lost to USC in their last 11 tries. Even though we get them at the CLA, they'll probably extend the streak to 12. Prediction - Loss
Louisiana State (Game 2). When we looked at the first half of the season, we let the inner-homer call a big road "W" over the Bayou Bengals at the Pete. If we were being circumspect, we'd favor LSU when they pay a call at the Colonial Life Arena. Alas, I just can't muster the circumspection. The Tigers will have played Mizzou, @MSU, Vandy and @Alabama in the four games prior to ours - and will be on back-to-back road games. Unless new coach Johnny Jones has a surprise team, you have to think the Purple and Gold will be 1-3 during that stretch and ripe for the pickings. I give the slight edge to USC at home. Prediction - Win
Alabama [21–12 (9–7 SEC)]. Despite high expectations, Anthony Grant's 2011-2012 Tide squad was streaky through the early going and conference play (losing to USC 56-54 at the end of a 4 game losing patch being the worst among them), and beset by multiple suspensions - Tony Mitchell, JaMychal Green, Trevor Releford, and Andrew Steele. It was a testament to Grant's coaching chops that he held the team and fans together, and managed to earn a NCAA bid after a 7-3 end to the regular season (and a revenge win 63-57 over the Cocks at the SEC Tourney). Alas, the Tide fell in the first round to Creighton in one of those tough 8-9 games, but Grant has brought in strong recruiting classes over the last two years. Tony Mitchell and JaMychal Green are both gone, but Grant should be able to build a decent squad around G Trevor Releford. I don't see us pulling the upset when we visit Coleman Coliseum; the Crimson Tide will have played @Auburn, hosted LSU and played @Georgia before we meet them, so there's no reason why they shouldn't be ready to defend home court - though you never know if they will be swooning again, either. Prediction - Loss
Mississippi [20–14 (8–8 SEC)]. Ole Miss fans have been waiting with varying degrees of patience for Andy Kennedy's good-enough-for-the-NIT squads to break through to the NCAA's, and they're hoping it will be before the new basketball facility in Oxford is ready in 2015. In the meantime, the Rebs will go into 2012-2013 relying heavily on Rebel-turned-Gamecock-turned-Rebel-again senior F Murphy Holloway of Irmo, SC and 6'9" senior C Reggie Buckner, along with 6'2" junior 2G Marshall Henderson. Losing Terrance Henry and Steadman Short to graduation (along with Maurice Aniefiok and Jelan Kendrick to transfer) will not help with depth, but Kennedy has brought in some young talent. If they can put together consistent guard play with their strong frontcourt presence, Ole Miss might just break through after four straight NIT bids. We did play them close at the Tad Pool last year, and we will have to work hard to beat them at the CLA. I'll give us the win based on home court and the fact that the visitors have a short turn-around after hosting Georgia the week before. Hopefully, the boys will be keyed to play Murph - though half the team doesn't know him from Adam's housecat. Still, it's an edge. Prediction - Win
Georgia (Game 2). In Part 1, we predicted that we would likely split our two games with UGA, and there's no reason to change that, although if Mark Fox's club is struggling in the second half of the season, we need to try and pounce. In their four games leading up to the USC rematch, the Peanut State Pups will have hosted TAMU and Alabama, and played @ Ole Miss and @Arkansas. How the Dawgs will have fared over that stretch is anyone's guess, but they could have built a bit of momentum just as we might. Either way, we may hope to steal at "W" at the Steg, but history tells us it will be an uphill battle. Prediction - Loss
Missouri (Game 2). In Part 1, we concluded that the 2012-2013 edition of Mizzou basketball wouldn't be as strong as Coach Haith's senior-laden squad from last year, but good enough to beat us. Perhaps we can eke out a surprise win when we host the Tigers for the first time at the CLA, but I'm not holding my breath either. Prediction - Loss
Texas A&M 14–18 (4–14 Big 12). After four straight NCAA appearances under Mark Turgeon - who decamped for the Maryland Terrapins at the end of the '10-'11season - the Aggies had a big downturn in 2011-2012 under new head coach Billy Kennedy, winning just 4 conference games and ending on a 1-10 streak. To be a bit fair, the losses were against some top squads - including Frank Martin's K-State Wildcats, not to mention ranked Baylor, Mizzour and KU clubs. Worse, Charleston, SC native PG Khrys Middleton entered the NBA draft and will play for the Pistons, not the Aggies, in '12-'13. Leading scorer G Elston Turner returns, but what kind of team TAMU will put on the floor is a bit of a mystery (compounded by the fact that the Aggies are the only SEC school currently without an SB Nation affiliate - can you believe that?). It had to be a long season for Kennedy, as his old Murray State squad was everybody's darling last year going 31-2 and securing a 6 seed in the NCAAs. While Frank Martin and the staff at least know where the visitor's entrance is in Reed Arena, none of the Gamecocks past or present have played at College Station; thus, even though A&M is likely going to be a lower division team in the SEC, it's still an away game in a new and hostile arena. Prediction - Loss
Mississippi State (Game 2) As with LSU, the homer in me had us beating Rick Ray's rebuilding Bulldogs in Starkville for the regular season opener, and the homer thinks we can sweep 'em when they come to Columbia. In the four games before our second tilt of the season, the Maroon and White will have played @Bama, home vs. UK, @Vandy and hosted the hardwood version of the Egg Bowl against TSUN (aka The School Up North aka Ole Miss). Hopefully, they'll be reeling a bit. Prediction - Win
Vanderbilt (Game 2) Even veteran clubs have trouble with the baseline benches, funny sight-lines and generally unfriendly confines of Memorial Gymnasium. Plus, Kevin Stallings' Vanderbilt teams tend to improve their level of play down the stretch. Despite traveling to Gainesville for a big game the Thursday before we arrive in Nashville, the 'Dores will be looking to burnish their NCAA credentials and/or improve their SEC Tourney seeding. It would be a monster upset to knock off the Commodores in the final regular season game and I just don't see it happening. Prediction - Loss
Second half prediction - 3-6
If you combine these back-half numbers with my first half projection (5-4), the result is a SEC regular season of 9-10, which seems indefensible for a squad (a) under a new coach; with (b) so many newcomers; and considering it's for (c) a program that hasn't broken the six win mark in three years, and (d) has only notched nine league wins just once since 1998 (and that was Darrin Horn's first campaign ['08-'09] when we went 21-10 (10-6) SEC).
Realistically, the three second half "wins" I predict over MSU, LSU and Ole Miss could just as easily go against us. If we go 2-7 in the first half (my pessimistic projection) we would be staring down the barrel of another sub-5 win SEC season - our third in three years. We might even duplicate last year's 2-win season (except it would be worse from a percentage standpoint because we play two more conference games this year).
That being said, Frank Martin has never had a sub-20 win season as a head coach. While twenty wins may seem pie-in-the-sky for the Gamecocks, Martin should bring more fan support to the Colonial Life Arena, and his intense coaching style should motivate the players. And, as we've seen, a lot of other squads are in rebuilding mode, too - only UK, UF and Vandy are clearly top-shelf (Mizzou, Tennessee and Alabama could be knocking on the door).
Consequently, is a 9-10 SEC campaign farfetched? Maybe - but it's not as farfetched as it would be if Martin was still in Manhattan, Kansas. If anyone can pull the rabbit out of the hat by coaching up Darrin Horn's veterans and melding them in with a slew of newcomers, it's Frank Martin. And that's good enough for me.
Stay tuned for Part 3 where we analyze the November-December schedule as soon as the university figures out our out-of-conference slate (which could come out any time over the next couple of weeks).