Another losing South Carolina basketball season has come to a close.
With a loss to Mississippi State, the Gamecocks went one-and-done in the SEC tournament for the fifth consecutive year, and the sixth time in seven years since they made the tournament final in 2006. Since then, they have won one SEC tournament game, in 2008.
USC’s 14-18 record in coach Frank Martin’s first year (4-14 in the SEC regular season) marks the Gamecocks’ fourth consecutive losing season – the sixth time that has happened in their history. The only time USC has had five straight losing seasons: 1918-19 to 1922-23, when it went 31-54 (.365).
Here’s a look at how the past four years stack up against USC’s other four-year runs of losing records, in terms of records and winning percentages …
1927-28 to 1930-31 … 23-52, 9-34 Southern (.307, .209)
1952-53 to 1955-56 … 40-60, 14-42 Southern/ACC last three (.400, .250)
1957-58 to 1960-61 … 28-72, 13-43 ACC (.280, .232)
1962-63 to 1965-66 … 36-59, 17-39 ACC (.379, .304)
1991-92 to 1994-95 … 39-71, 17-47 SEC (.355, .266)
2009-10 to 2012-13 … 53-71, 17-49 SEC (.427, .258)
USC obviously needs to start winning in the SEC before it can worry about the NCAA tournament. The Gamecocks are 6-30 against conference competition the past two seasons, if you count their one-and-done trips to the SEC tournament.
But over the past 40 years, almost no major conference teams have been as futile in the NCAA tournament as USC. Since the Gamecocks last won a tournament game, in 1973, they have danced five times – 1974, 1989, 1997, 1998 and 2004 – and never made it past the first round.
In 1997, they lost as a No. 2 seed. Consider that since the tournament expanded in 1985, No. 15s are 6-106 against No. 2s. In 1998, USC lost as a No. 3 seed. No. 14s have fared slightly better against No. 3s, but are still just 16-96 all time. So of the 224 first-round games involving No. 2 or No. 3 seeds, there have been 22 losses by the high seeds, and USC has two of them.
If you’re into NCAA tournament trivia, these are the No. 15 seeds that lost in the first round (and this means the real first round, not the opening round games in Dayton that are now foolishly called the first round): Syracuse, Arizona, South Carolina, Iowa State, Missouri and Duke.
And these are the No. 14 seeds that fell to No. 3s: South Carolina, Indiana, Notre Dame, Illinois, North Carolina State, Stanford, Missouri, Nebraska, Arizona, Villanova, Oklahoma, Georgia, North Carolina, Kansas, Iowa and Georgetown.
As you can see, the Gamecocks have some blue-blood company in those groups. If you looked carefully, you would notice that just three teams have ever lost in the first round as both a No. 2 and No. 3 seed – South Carolina, Arizona and Missouri.
Moreover, since the Gamecocks last won a tournament game in 1973, every single other team currently in one of the six major conferences has done it, except Northwestern (which is the only major conference team to never make the tournament) and Nebraska (which has never won a tournament game in six trips).
No other major conference team that has won in the tournament is even close to USC’s drought. Rutgers hasn’t won since 1979, Oregon State since 1982 (though it’s officially 1975 because its two wins in 1982 were vacated), Texas Christian since 1987 and Colorado State since 1989. All other current major conference teams have won a tournament game since 1990.
And with five trips to the tournament since 1973, USC has had more chances than almost all of those teams. Rutgers has three appearances since its last win, Oregon State five (since 1982), TCU one and Colorado State three.
In order to get out of that dubious seven-team group of major conference teams that hasn’t won a tournament game since 1990 (Northwestern, Nebraska, South Carolina, Rutgers, Oregon State, TCU and Colorado State), Martin obviously needs to get more talented players.
Based on his current roster and the recruits he has signed, here is what his current roster will look like for next season, provided nobody with eligibility remaining leaves after this season, which is far from a certainty …
SG Justin McKie
PF Desmond Ringer
SG Sindarius Thornwell
SF Michael Carrera
PF Laimonas Chatkevicius
SF Mindaugas Kacinas
PG Tyrone Johnson (will be eligible after first semester)
PF Carlton Geathers
SG Damien Leonard
PG Bruce Ellington
G Eric Smith
G Brenton Williams
G Brian Richardson
PF RJ Slawson
As you can see, there are 14 players on that list, but just 13 are scheduled to count as basketball scholarship players, because Ellington is on a football scholarship. The NCAA scholarship maximum is 13.
Martin severely lacked size this season because Geathers missed the entire year with a knee injury, Slawson was mostly a non-factor and Chatkevicius was learning the college game. Martin wasn’t helped by USC’s two best post players, Anthony Gill and Damontre Harris, transferring to Virginia and Florida after he was hired. Those were two strong Darrin Horn recruits.
Martin will have room to add size in the 2014 class. Though Martin emphasizes that size is not the end-all, be-all for him, he has noted that a big guy protecting the rim does cover up for a lot of perimeter defensive errors. A capable big man would also help Carrera on the boards. He was USC’s leading rebounder this season, despite being just 6-5.
Martin already has one commitment for the class: point guard Marcus Stroman of Columbia. If every single current scholarship player with eligibility remaining returns next season – which, again, is not likely to happen – then USC would lose four scholarships from next year’s five-man senior class. Remember, Ellington does not count in that group, if he continues to play football, and it seems likely that he will.
One of those four vacated spots will be taken by Stroman, if he follows through on his commitment. That means, at this point, that Martin has three more spots available to fill in the 2014 class, which will be an incredibly important class for him as he tries to build a program.
Again, that number could grow from three, if current underclassmen leave. If Martin can land more elite recruits like Thornwell (No. 43 overall, according to Rivals) and Johnson (who was No. 52, then spent 2011-12 and half of 2012-13 at Villanova before transferring), then USC could be on its way toward contending in the SEC and breaking that NCAA tournament drought.
Martin said late in the season that the USC rebuilding job poses more challenges than he initially thought it would, but that he’s OK with that. Countless times this season, he has said that cultural change — from perennial losers to learning how to win — does not happen overnight.
To that end, you probably won’t see USC go out and win the SEC regular season next year. But with a strong 2014 recruiting class, Martin could demonstrate some significant progress in Year 3, if he can sell recruits on the chance to contribute immediately. This summer will be a critical time for him to get some 2014 guys who could help turn USC’s program around.