The Gamecocks find themselves facing a schedule this season that gives them plenty of opportunities to show what kind of basketball team they are. This schedule is as far removed from the kinds put together by Dave Odom and Darrin Horn, where Carolina reeled off victories while not learning anything about itself as it barreled toward the harsh reality of conference play.
Under Frank Martin, the Gamecocks have ensured four of their 12 non-conference games will come against major competition, and with the Charleston Classic, as many as half of those games will come against high-major schools. In addition, with the rest of the SEC improving (at least, on the whole) from last season, the conference presents both opportunities and hurdles, depending on the type of team the Gamecocks have put together. A very strong team could find itself at 13-5 easily against this league. A middle-of-the-road team will find itself stuck somewhere between 7-11 and 11-7, likely in the same muddle with as many as 10 other teams, with only a few schools separating themselves at the top (Kentucky, Florida) and bottom (Vanderbilt, Mississippi State) of the conference.
Last season, the Gamecocks bit off a bit more than they could chew in the out-of-conference schedule. They played three major non-conference games, all of which were on the road - at Baylor, at Oklahoma State, and at Clemson. Carolina went 0-3 in those games, and when coupled with troubling home losses to a decent Manhattan team and a less-than-good USC-Upstate squad, found their post-season hopes in tatters before they even reached SEC play.
This season, they've put together an interesting schedule. At once, it seems likely this schedule makes it more difficult for USC to make the NIT, but easier to make the NCAA Tournament. If the Gamecocks are good enough, they'll have plenty of chances to rack up wins over solid programs; they'll play 4-6 such games out of their 12 non-conference games against such competition, with 1-3 of those coming as neutral site games, all the more likely to impress the committee. On the other hand, if they're as bad as they've been the last two seasons, that kind of schedule could leave them at 6-6 going into conference play, and a team that goes 6-6 against this out-of-conference schedule won't be good enough to get to 9-9 in an improving SEC.
First, the minor home games. Instead of Manhattan or USC-Upstate, the Gamecocks don't play any minor opponents that you'd expect to trouble them. Unless something goes incredibly wrong, you can safely expect Carolina to win their four easy home games - North Florida, UNC Asheville, Coker, and North Carolina A&T.
Second, Carolina brings three major-conference teams to the Colonial Life Arena, and if they want to make themselves known around the college basketball world, they'll need to win two of the three. Their best chance for a win comes against in-state rival Clemson, who need to replace their best player, K.J. McDaniels, while also trying to improve from yet another mediocre campaign under Brad Brownell.
The Gamecocks also welcome two top-25 aspirants from the Big XII - Oklahoma State, who destroyed Carolina last year, and Baylor, who barely snuck past the Gamecocks. The Cowboys lose Marcus Smart and other major contributors from last year's NCAA Tournament squad, but still return LeBryan Nash and Phil Forte, along with impact LSU transfer Anthony Hickey. As for Baylor, they need to replace Cory Jefferson and Isiah Austin in the post, but return superstar point guard Kenny Cherry along with a lot of other talent.
Lastly, Carolina plays five non-conference games away from Columbia, and likely needs to get to at least 3-2 if they hope to have a big season. The trip to Marshall is winnable, but any time a high-major travels to a mid-major you expect the team and fans to be up for the game. A neutral site game in Brooklyn against Iowa State gives Carolina an excellent chance to pick up a major scalp, but the level of talent the Cyclones bring makes that a challenging proposition.
If the Gamecocks split those, then they'll need to get to at least 2-1 in Charleston. They're helped by the draw, with the easiest possible first-round opponent in Cornell. That leaves a likely match-up with Penn State in the semifinals (they play Charlotte in the first round). The Nittany Lions continue to improve under Pat Chambers, and outstanding senior guard D.J. Newbill will present a major challenge. Carolina finishes the tournament against either Akron, Southern California, Drexel, or Miami (FL). If they draw Miami and win, it's a very solid victory. Any of the others represent chances to add a win, but not a quality one.
Under the new scheduling model, the SEC schedule breaks into three segments - the teams you play twice, the teams you play at home, and your road games. Obviously, an optimal schedule pits you against the easiest teams in the league twice and the mediocre teams at home, while you take your lumps on the road. Carolina draws a mixed bag on each front.
First, the Gamecocks get home-and-away games with five SEC opponents - Georgia (as always), Tennessee, Kentucky, Arkansas, and Alabama. Obviously, no one wants to see Kentucky twice. The Arkansas draw also represents a tough break, as the Hogs are one of the few non-Florida, non-Kentucky programs that seem certain to contend for a spot in the NCAAs this year. Georgia played well in conference play last year, but they're not assured to play much better than last year's overachieving group. As for Tennessee, they're under a heavy transition after losing Cuonzo Martin to California, and represent the Gamecocks' best chance for a sweep.
On the road, Carolina draws Vanderbilt, LSU, Auburn and Mississippi. The Commodores should struggle this season as they try to re-group under Kevin Stallings, and Auburn still needs at least another year under Bruce Pearl before they find their feet. There are no sure losses on the road, but no sure wins - much like in the non-conference portion of the schedule, a good team can look at this and think 4-0, while a bad team likely goes 0-4.
At home, the Gamecocks welcome Texas A&M, Missouri, Mississippi State, and Florida. Mississippi State continues to try to re-build under Rick Ray, and Missouri finds itself needing to re-build under first-year coach Kim Anderson. Billy Kennedy reeled in SMU transfer Jalen Jones, but its still an open question of how much better the Aggies can be after the woeful offense they put on the floor last year (though they paired it with an outstanding defense). And of course, the Gators will be one of the best teams in the nation again this season, giving Carolina both the chance at a great win, but also a likely loss on its home floor. The home schedule seems like it leaves less room for variance than the away portion - Carolina seems assured of a win and a loss (Mississippi State and Florida, respectively), and should find itself favored in the other two games.
By the end of the year, we'll know how good the Gamecocks are this season. Of their 30 scheduled games, only five should be clear-cut victories for most major-conference programs (the four low-major home games, along with Cornell in Charleston). The other 25 could be won or lost on any given night by a good team, and the Gamecocks could very well be a good team.
So let's assume that they are, for the moment. For a good team, the path to the NCAAs is clear - take no more than three losses in the non-conference portion of the schedule, split the four road-only games in the SEC, get to 3-1 against the home-only opponents, and find a way to 6-4 in the five home-and-home series. That likely means sweeping Tennessee and taking one off of Kentucky, but again, that's achievable if you're an NCAA quality team. That leaves the Gamecocks at 20-10 (11-7 in SEC play), and against this schedule, that's squarely in the bubble conversation.
If Carolina isn't so good, then you quickly see how this all falls apart quickly. A bad team isn't beating Florida, Iowa State, or Kentucky (either time). In the best-case scenario, it would play about .333 ball in the other 21 games (let's give them 7-14), and a 12-18 record represents a huge step back for the Gamecocks.
So what's most likely? If the Gamecocks can go 12-13 in their 24 competitive games (we'll write off the game at Rupp), they'll be 17-13 on the season, and probably 8-10 or so in the SEC. You're not going dancing with that resume, but it sets them up nicely for the NIT, as well as taking another step forward in the massive re-building project undertaken by Frank Martin. That's damn fine progress given where he started, and given the last few years, any post-season basketball should be welcomed by the denizens of Columbia in whatever form it comes.