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South Carolina Basketball: Analyzing the 2012 Schedule Part 3

USC's Damien Leonard works for a shot over UT's Skyler McBee
USC's Damien Leonard works for a shot over UT's Skyler McBee

This year, the second Friday in October falls on October 12. For a lucky few of you, that will be the day you board your flight down to the Big Easy so you can watch the football team play LSU the next day. To the extent the rest of you are even thinking about October 12 at all, no doubt most will be concerned with matters of such great import as how much ice, beer and Bojangles you'll need in order to watch the Cocks in the comfort of your man cave.

But for the handful of college hoops aficionados among you, the second Friday in October means something else entirely - Midnight Madness and the opening of fall basketball practice. The regular hoops season starts just four short weeks later on November 13 - when ESPN will once again air its 24 hour Tip-off marathon - although there will be a couple of pre-season tourneys (which do count to regular-season records) starting the weekend before.

With these dates fast approaching, some of us were getting a little antsy that the university had not yet released the non-conference slate - going on a month after the SEC published the 2013 regular-season schedule on August 10 (when most other conferences and schools had this all figured out in July). Fortunately, a little late is better than not at all, and the Athletic Department released the Gamecocks' Men's Basketball 2012-13 Non-Conference Schedule a few days ago. As we did with the SEC season in Part 1 and Part 2 of this series, let's now go ahead and break down the out of conference games.

First, here is our thirteen game, non-conference schedule (along with the exhibition):

October 30 vs. Kentucky Wesleyan (exhibition)
November 11 vs. UW-Milwaukee
November 16 vs. Morgan State
November 19 vs. Rider
November 21 vs. Elon
November 24 v. Missouri State (@ Puerto Vallarta, Mexico)
November 25 vs. SMU or UA-Little Rock (@ Puerto Vallarta, Mexico)
November 29 @ St. John's
December 2 vs Clemson
December 7 vs. Jacksonville
December 19 vs. Appalachian State
December 22 vs. Manhattan (@ Brooklyn N.Y.)
December 29 vs. Presbyterian
January 5 vs. South Carolina State

The first thing that jumps out at you about the schedule is the absence of any top-tier match-ups. In fact, we only play two teams from "Top Six" conferences (St. Johns and Clemson) and gone from the calendar are teams like Ohio State, North Carolina, Michigan State and Providence - as well as major-conference tilts with the likes of Southern Cal, Miami, Boston College and South Florida - that we were used to seeing with Coach Darrin Horn.

More overall and team-by-team analysis will follow after The Jump!.

Lest you think the rest of the match-ups are all patsies, however, think again. True, we do bring in eight small-conference teams, but we've also scheduled at least three tough "mid majors" who will test us in the early going. (UW-Milwaukee, SMU and Manhattan). Frankly, a weaker-than-usual slate in November-December is good news for Carolina when you consider our personnel problems. First, our three best players from the 2011-2012 team will not be returning: F Malik Cooke (graduation); F Damontre Harris (transfer to UF); and F Anthony Gill (transfer to UVA). Second, PG Bruce Ellington will still be with the football team through December (and there is no guaranty he will even return to the hoops squad). Third, we lost an important reserve and veteran in F Carlton Geathers until at least February after he suffered a summer league knee injury. "Our list of allies grows thin," indeed.

Even with Frank Martin's recruiting successes in the spring signing period (when things looked really bleak), we're looking to start the season with six upperclassmen who've never played for Martin (Sr PF Lakeem Jackson, Sr G Lashay Page (transfer from Southern Miss), Jr F RJ Slawon, Jr G Eric Smith, Jr G Brenton Williams and Jr. G Brian Richardson), one sophomore (G Damien Leonard) and Martin's freshman class - two of whom appear not to have qualified (G Tarik Phillip and G. Thaddeus Hall). In other words, we're just not built to compete with the big boys yet - or even other middlin' 'big conference' squads.

The last time I can remember the Gamecock roundball-cupboard so bare was at the start of Eddie Fogler's first season in 1994 - and at least Eddie still had seniors Emmett Hall and Jamie Watson on the team to soften some of the impact (though the comparison is not totally apt, Hall and Watson would be analogous to Harris and Gill in terms of skill-sets, minutes and points). Martin is starting even deeper in the hole than Fogler ever did.

The next thing you notice about the schedule is the big number of the home games - we play only four games away from the Colonial Life Arena, and three of those are holiday tournament games (the Thanksgiving Hoops for Hope Classic in Puerto Vallarta, and the pre-Christmas Brooklyn Hoops Holiday Invitational in the Nets' sparkling, brand new Barclays Center). We only have one true "away game" at St. Johns. The remaining nine teams all come to Columbia, where we can only hope that the fans will return to the Colonial Life Arena to cheer on Martin's squad.

Thus, from an overall perspective, you have to give the program an A for scheduling a non-conference slate that fits our current needs - even if the overall quality of the opponents is in the C- range. The biggest concern isn't if we can finish December well-over .500 (which we should), but whether our strength of schedule and RPI rankings will be high enough to get us into the NIT. Ten or fifteen years ago, 11 or 12 out of conference wins and 6 league victories would pretty much guarantee a NIT bid for a big conference school like South Carolina. But with the fruits of parity caused by the 13 man D-I roster limitations, a lot more mid-majors boast more impressive RPI's than they used to have. You're on the NIT bubble at anything under 18 wins no matter how big your basketball gym, or how large your conference. As a result, we could win 10 games in November-December, and still miss out on post-season if we cannot hold our own in conference play. I guess there's always the CBI - but you still have to boast a winning record. Still, we do face some quality (albeit smaller) clubs in UW-M, etc, so worrying about RPI may be misplaced at this point.

Here are the team-by-team capsules:

Kentucky Wesleyan [Exhibition] 19-10 (10-8 Great Lakes Valley Conference). This will be the fifth straight season we've opened up with the perennial D-II powerhouse KWU Panthers of Owensboro, Kentucky - winners of no less than eight D-II national championships and 13 GLVC championships. As always, this will be a good test game for the Gamecocks. The Panthers are nobody's patsies, though - so don't be surprised if it's too close for comfort.

UW-Milwaukee 20-13 (11-7 Horizon League). The next Panthers team we face will be for keeps - and UW-M is a strong, up-and-coming mid-major starting their eighth season under former Wisconsin assistant Rob Jeter. You may recall Jeter inherited Bruce Peal's Panthers and in his first year took them to the NCAA 2nd round back in 2006; after Pearl's upperclassmen left the program, Jeter struggled a bit - but has posted three-straight 19 win seasons, and a NIT and CBI bid, to close out the last three years. Though Jeter has lost top players Kaylon Williams and Ryan Allen, he return a squad that is heavy with upperclassmen and which ran off nine straight conferences wins - and a conference tourney championship - to end last year's regular season. Expect a tough test out of the gate from this Horizon team. We'll learn a lot about our talent level after this game and we shouldn't be crushed if they edge us.

Morgan State 9-20 (6-10 MEAC). The Bears are coached by the talented but scandal-plagued Todd Bozeman, who was run out of Cal-Berkeley on a rail in 1996 for having paid a player and sexually harassed a female student, and then lying to the NCAA and school about it. Although hit with an eight-year show cause, Morgan State took a chance on Bozeman in '06, and over the course of 2008-201 he paid them back with three-straight MEAC frist place finishes, one NIT and and two March Madness trips. The last two seasons have been disappointments, however - particularly last year's 9-20 slump, which was capped off with a Bozeman suspension in January for allegedly striking a his point guard in a game against SC State. Although reinstated shortly thereafter, the suspension really took the wind out of Morgan State's sails. While the Bears have been known for strong interior play and return a mix of good veterans and talented youngsters, you have to like this game for a "W" for Carolina.

Rider 13-19 (10-8 Metro Atlantic). The Broncs are under first year head man Kevin Baggett - a former assistant under ex-head coach Tommy Dempsey (who left after sevens mostly-successful seasons to take the Binghamton job). Last year was a bit of a letdown for Rider, which despite a 20+ win campaign and a third-place MAAC finish, in 2010-2011, got off to a horrid 3-11 start for 2011-2012 before scratching back to just over .500 in conference play. The Broncs ended with a fourth-place MAAC finish, but they seem to be a team in transition again this coming season. Hopefully we can take care of business against the Broncs at home.

Elon 15-16 (9-9 Southern). None of you will forget - try as you might - our humiliating 58-53 road loss to Elon last November 15, 2011. That defeat seemed to send the team into a tail-spin and if it wasn't the final nail in Darrin Horn's coffin, it was one of the last handful. Despite the Phoenix's impressive start in 2011, Elon suffered a swoon at the end of non-conference play, and yet another slide during the SoCon regular season, to finish with an overall losing record. Fourth year coach Matt Matheny leads the Phoenix to Columbia this year, where we can only hope the Gamecock veterans will be aching to avenge last year's loss.

Missouri State 16-16 (9-9 Missouri Valley). After reaching the 2011 NIT, the 2011-2012 Bears were just middlin' under first year coach and former Purdue assistant Paul Lusk. Having lost their top two scorers and their starting PG from last season, the Bears are looking to a rebuilding year this coming season - but got bad news that SR F Jamar Gulley (expected to be the leading returning rebounder and second lead returning scorer) was lost for the yar with a summer knee injury. I really like our chances against MSU in the first game of the Hoops for Hope Classic in Puerto Vallarta. (Ed. - Wasn't that where the Love Boat always stopped? Do any of you guys even remember the Love Boat? Never mind.)

Southern Methodist 13-19 (4-12 C-USA). Forget everything you may think you know - or if you're like me, don't know - about SMU hoops. The legendary Lawrence Harvey Brown has come out of retirement (again) to take the Southern Methodist job after the star-crossed Matt Doherty was unceremoniously shown the door at Moody Coliseum. At 72 years young, the former UCLA-Denver-KU-Sacramento-Clippers-Pacers-Sixers-Pistons-Knicks-Bobcats coach is a proven winner and will eventually turn SMU around. Plus the Mustangs have made former Illinois State head Tim Jankovich the highest-paid assistant/head coach-in-waiting in NCAA hoops. SMU goes to the Big East next season, and is doing huge renovations on Moody Coliseum, plus has hired two other top assistants (Jerrance Howard and Ulric Maligi) for Brown. The only man to win both an NCAA and NBA championship as a head coach, Larry Brown will bring a lot of excitement to Dallas, and has already landed a passel of transfers and a strong first recruiting class to mix in with Doherty's veterans. If we get to play SMU in Puerto Vallarta (assuming they beat UA-Little Rock), it will be a real statement game with two quality coaches - one already a shoe-in to both the collegiate and Naismith Halls of Fame - taking on herculean rebuilding projects.

St. John's 13-19 (6-12 Big East). Red Storm Coach Steve Lavin had a great run at UCLA (six straight NCAA's) until one losing season in 02-03 got him booted out of Westwood faster than you could say Jim Harrick - such are the expectations at Pauley Pavilion. After a successful stint in broadcasting, Lavin took over St. John's in 2010-2011 after Norm Roberts was fired, and even brought his mentor and Purdue legend Gene Keady on as an assistant. Lavin proceeded to land a strong recruiting class and went 21-12 (12-6) in his first year - losing some tough games but also knocking off ranked Georgetown, 'Nova, Notre Dame, and Duke teams too - before getting dumped in the first round of the NCAA's. Things were looking good for Lavin's second season, until the wheels totally fell off. The Johnnies finished with a losing record and a last-place finish in the ultra-competitive Big East. Things may improve slightly in Queens, but the ex-Redmen lost their top scorer to graduation and two of the most promising freshmen to transfer; so the starting five will likely be all sophomores from Lavin's original class; thus, the pundits think that they'll struggle against Big East competition. That being said, the Red Storm's starters - led by backcourt duo Phil Greene and D'Angelo Harrison - will certainly be favored over the Cocks, and Carnesecca Arena is a tough place to play. This is a SEC-Big East challenge game that will be very tough for us to win, but we definitely could have had a worse draw than St. John's, too.

Clemson 16-15 (8-8 ACC). After a great 20-12 campaign and NCAA second round appearance to cap the 2010-2011 season, Brad Brownell's Tigers slumped a bit last year - finishing seventh in the league and getting dumped in the first round of the ACC Tourney by Virginia Tech [and in the process, the Tigers missed out on an NIT bid, which proves the point above that the NIT doesn't mind passing over so-so, near .500 major conference teams]. Fortunately for us, top scorers G Tanner Smith and G Andre Young, along with C Catalin Baciu, have all graduated, leaving Coach Brownell with only two seniors - big men C Devin Booker and F Milton Jennings - as the only returning starters who have seen real minutes. Brownell did bring in some big body recruits like C Landry Nnoko (6'11"), F Josh Smith (6'7"), but the balance of the squad is about as young and untested as we are. After years of being owned by Ollie Purnell, the Cocks have taken two in a row off of Coach Brownell. He'll be driving hard to get a win over Carolina, but I like our chances to get a third-straight win over the Striped Beasts at the CLA.

Jacksonville 8-22 (6-12 Atlantic Sun). The Dolphins are a long way from the 1970 NCAA runner-up and 1983 Sweet Sixteen teams of yore. If the Gamecocks are clicking, they should easily take care of business over this lower-tier Atlantic Sun squad at Colonial Life Arena. This is the last game before the exam break.

Appalachian State 13-18 (7-11 Southern). Until we knocked off Wofford in December, the Darrin Horn's team had the devil of the time taking care of SoCon teams. App State won't be as tough as Elon (though App did whip a nice College of Charleston team last year in the conference tourney). This should be another "W" at the CLA so long as the Gamecocks don't have any rust (or academic casualties!) coming back from exams

Manhattan 21-13 (12-6 Metro Atlantic). The Jaspers were one of the pleasant surprises in the MAAC last season under first year coach Steve Masiello - a former UK Wildcat and six year Louisville assistant under RIck Pitino. Coach Masiello had also been an assistant at Manhattan from '01-'05 before going to Louisville, so he definitely knows Big Apple hoops. Manhattan returns a lot of young talent, and star G George Beamon (avg. 19.0 ppg and 5.6 rpg last season). Traveling up to the Brooklyn Hoops Holiday Invitational to face this tough team will be a good dress rehearsal for SEC play. You've got to imagine that the Jaspers will fill nearby Barclay's Center - and that any other NYC fans in attendance will be rooting for the hometown mid-major. This will be a tough out for the Cocks, in a great but likely hostile venue, which will tell us a lot about where Frank Martin's team stands.

Presbyterian 14-15 (8-10 Big South) The highlight of the Blue Hose's last season was their epic come-from-behind win over Cincinnati - where PC erased a 15 point deficit and hit the game-winning 3 pointer with 7.6 second left - to shock the # 20 Bearcats at Fifth Third Bank Arena. The Blue Hose are no stranger to knocking off bigger clubs (they did it to Auburn and Wake in 2010) and you may recall they led by six at the half of last year's game - which we won primarily through the efforts of Bruce Ellington (15 points) and Malik Cooke (14 points, 8 rebounds). The wheels came off for Presbyterian during an abysmal January which saw the boys from Clinton, SC start Big South play with a jaw-droppingly bad 1-8 mark, but they finished well-enough at 6-2. No matter what, if you overlook Gregg Nibert's Blue Hose squad in December, they will beat you. Don't say you weren't warned.

South Carolina State 5-26 (0-16 MEAC). The Bulldogs has a season to forget in 2011-2012 under six year head coach Tim Carter. Plagued by injuries, State wilted down the stretch. The Bulldogs return some decent players like Senior G/F Brandon Riley (17.1 ppg) and Junior PG Khalif Toombs (10.9 ppg), but Carolina should be able to put the Bulldogs away in the final tune-up before the SEC season commences four days later - when we travel to Mississippi State.

Non-Conference Prediction

Barring a complete catastrophe, I like us to be competitive in every non-conference game and I favor the Cocks outright for eight games in the early going: Morgan State, Rider, Elon, Missouri State, App State, Jacksonville, Presbyterian and South Carolina State.

I think we'll have tough sledding against St. Johna and Manhattan - both of which are probably better than we are right now, and both of which will be playing before home crowds. I think those are going to be losses, unless we really show out in the Empire State. I'm not counting on it.

The leaves three head-scratcher games; UW-Milwaukee, Clemson and SMU. If we can sweep these three key contests - or at least take two of three - then we'll be sitting on a respectable 9-3 or 10-2 record before SEC play starts.

No matter what, I think we've got to get to 18 wins to even be on the NIT bubble. You can do the math yourself - and it looks pretty tough. Even if we win nine or ten non-conference games, a record of 6-13 or 7-12 in SEC regular season play (or worse) won't get us to the NIT. For any possibility of a NIT bid, we either have to sweep out-of-conference play 13-0 (which I think is a really tall order) and get at least 5 or 6 SEC wins - or otherwise register a best-case scenario of 9-10 SEC wins to go along with a more realistic nine or ten win out-of-conference mark. Can Frank Martin do it? Maybe not this year. He's been dealt a hand that doesn't have a lot of winning cards - yet, at least this year we have a proverbial puncher's chance.

Either way, don't fret. You may think USC has become just a football-baseball school only, but a proud basketball program is your birthright too, no matter how beaten down it has become over the last 40 years. With Martin on our sidelines, there is reason to believe that the Garnet and Black can't once again become competitive in all three of the major men's sports. Along with our fans, facilities and coaching staffs, why can't we be a football-baseball-basketball school?

The answer is obvious - we can and we will - if USC fans will come out to support the roundballers. [Ed. - OK, OK - enough with the Homer-tastic-schtick]. In the meantime, enjoy what looks like could be a nice non-conference run for the Gamecocks.