The Gamecocks struggled this season on the hardwood, coming in 13th out of 14 SEC teams - the same place they finished the 2012-13 campaign, despite adding one additional win to their conference tally. But college basketball provides nearly every team one thing at the end of each season - a chance.
For Carolina, that chance comes in the SEC Tournament in Atlanta, where they begin action on Wednesday evening against the Auburn Tigers. A win there sends them through to face off with the Arkansas Razorbacks on Thursday afternoon, a team keenly aware of its place on the NCAA Tournament bubble. The winner of that game faces what would be a very well-rested Tennessee Volunteers group on Friday afternoon, and the Vols are also no stranger to the bubble, as they find themselves in most bracketologists' last four in or first four out (both teams are in as it stands, per SBNation guru Chris Dobbertean).
How have the Gamecocks fared against these teams? Not very well, going a combined 0-4 with an average margin of defeat of 11.8 points per game. However, three of those four games were on the road, and the Gamecocks had chances to win when they hosted Auburn and when they lost on the road to Arkansas.
So are the odds incredibly long? Of course. But this is a conference tournament that's given us roofs falling in and a team winning four games in three days - in the same year! - so long odds mean nothing in the face of conference tournament season. How can the Gamecocks get it done?
Date, time, TV: Wednesday, 7pm, SECTV
Previous meetings: Regular season match-ups: Feb. 5 loss at home, 79-74; Feb. 27 loss at Auburn, 83-67.
Basic information: The Gamecocks and Tigers open the tournament against one another in a familiar setting for each team, as they've both played on the opening day of the tournament since 2009, when the Gamecocks earned the second seed in the East (and promptly lost to Mississippi State to end their chances at an NCAA Tournament bid).
Important players: Auburn relies on Chris Denson and K.T. Harrell for their offense, as the two combined to score over 52% of the Tigers' points this season, with the former averaging 19.2 points per game while the latter scores 18.4 points per game. They did the same against the Gamecocks, scoring 58% of Auburn's points in the two games against the Gamecocks.
The other two guys the Tigers rely on are Allen Payne (6'6" power forward) and freshman point guard Tahj Shamsid-Deen, both of whom play extensive minutes, again, along with Denson and Harrell. That will prevent any chance Auburn has of going a long way in this tournament, but in the first game of the competition, fatigue won't yet be a factor. Payne contributes mostly on the defensive end, with a very impressive steal percentage of 2.6% (more impressive given that he's a big man), while Shamsid-Deen keeps the offense running by both hand out assists and avoiding turnovers.
Chance of victory: 46.7%.
What we expect: South Carolina and Auburn are two teams that match-up evenly against one another, though not always in the most entertaining of ways - both teams get to the line a ton and foul a lot, which means this game could drag out well over two hours. There's no reason to suspect the Gamecocks can't come out and beat the Tigers. The game should come down to the last four minutes, and it's anyone's guess as to how that turns out.
Date, time, TV: Thursday, 3:30pm, SECTV
Previous meetings: Regular season match-ups: Feb. 19 loss at Arkansas, 71-64.
Basic information: Arkansas sits squarely on the bubble with a 21-10 record in the regular season, 10-8 in the SEC, for a fifth-place finish in conference. Outside the SEC, they played a very soft non-conference schedule, with only five games against remotely competent competition - 2 at home, and 3 in Hawaii. While they went 3-2 against that slate - with wins over NCAA-bound SMU, as well as bubble teams Minnesota and Clemson, and losses to Cal and Gonzaga - they swept through the rest of their non-conference schedule, with no road games and no real tests, with a possible exception of Louisiana Lafayette.
Important players: The Hogs are the opposite of Auburn - while the Tigers keep four guys on the court typically for at least 30 minutes a game, the Razorbacks play 10 players at least 8 minutes a game in their up-tempo offense. They primarily rely on freshman forward Bobby Portis (12.4 ppg), as well as guards Rashad Madden (12.7 ppg) and Michael Qualls (11.8 ppg).
In their one match-up, Carolina held Portis somewhat in check with 9 points, and limited Madden to just 3 points in 22 minutes. But Qualls went for 20 points in 31 minutes on 7-14 shooting, along with 8 rebounds, to ultimately lead the Razorbacks to the win, despite Brenton Williams' 29 point effort.
Chance of victory: 27.0% (chance to reach quarterfinals: 12.6%).
What we expect: Arkansas represents a tough match-up for anyone in the SEC Tournament that plays the day before while the Hogs sit on a bye - their up-tempo style and deep bench means that whoever it plays will need to dig down deep into its bench to keep fresh against the Razorbacks. Pomeroy gives the Hogs a 71.7% chance of winning this game, and given the fatigue issues, it seems the odds should be even higher.
Date, time, TV: Friday, 3:30pm, ESPNU
Previous meetings: Regular season match-ups: Feb. 8 loss at Tennessee, 72-53.
Basic information: The Volunteers have put together one of the silliest seasons anyone can remember, playing like one of the best teams in the country, yet entering this game with a 20-11 record (11-7 in the SEC). They ended conference play on a four-game winning streak, but will need at least one more win in the SEC Tournament to feel good about their chances of going dancing.
How well did Tennessee play relative to its opposition despite its record? They won each of their 9 non-conference victories by at least 9 points, including neutral-site wins over Xavier and Wake Forest, as well as a 35-point home win over ACC champion Virginia. Meanwhile all of their losses were by 9 points or less - at Xavier, versus UTEP, at Wichita State, and at home to N.C. State.
In conference play, the Vols kept up their misfortune, as they lost all but one of their conference games by single digits (Florida blitzed them by 26 points in Gainesville). On the other side of the ledger, they won each of their 11 games by at least 7 points, with only two wins coming by single digits. Their average margin of victory was 18.9 points, against an average margin of defeat of just 8 points. If you take out the Florida game, the latter average drops to just 5 points. The Vols are really good. And if they don't win this game, they may be NIT bound.
Important players: Tennessee relies on its two potential NBA Draft players - Jarnell Stokes in the paint and Jordan McRae on the outside. McRae takes over 31% of the Vols' shots when he's on the court and also spends a ton of time at the free throw line (181 attempts this year). He assists on nearly 20% of his teammates' baskets, only turns the ball over on 14% of his possessions (both top 500 rates), and is a one-man wrecking crew for the Vols.
Normally when a guy carries this much weight, it's because his teammates can't carry it. Not so for Tennessee. Jarnell Stokes hits 53% of his shots from the field and also spends a ton of time at the free throw line (also 181 attempts). He's also a ferocious rebounder, grabbing 15% of the Vols' misses and over 22% of their opponents' misses (each rate is in the top 100 for individuals). He's joined in the post by 6'8" senior Jeronne Maymon, who shoots 52% from 2 and also scores in bunches from the free throw line (128 attempts).
Chance of victory: 12.6% (chance to reach semifinals: 1.6%).
What we expect: A team with terrific interior players and a guard that can get inside and get fouled? Tennessee is a nightmare match-up for Carolina. Given the fact that if this game takes place it'll be the Gamecocks' third consecutive day playing while the Vols will be taking the court for the first time in almost a week, and it's nearly impossible to see a way past the quarterfinals for the Gamecocks.