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March 13, 2009

USC-MSU Hoops Extra: Has the Bubble Burst?

TAMPA, Fla. -- Has South Carolina's bubble burst?

With two days remaining until Selection Sunday, it's too soon to tell, but the opinion seems to be, "Yes."

As teams like Baylor, Cleveland State, Northern Iowa and Oklahoma State began winning in their conference tournaments and improving their records and all-important RPI, the Gamecocks lost their one last chance to impress the NCAA selection committee. USC fell 82-68 to Mississippi State on Friday in its only game of the SEC tournament, meaning its lot is cast and there's no bringing it back.

The Gamecocks have 21 wins, including 10 in the SEC. Their RPI is in the nation's Top 50.

But their strength of schedule is in the 90s, they only had one win over a team in the RPI's Top 50 and eight of the 21 wins were against teams ranked outside of the RPI Top 200.

"Everybody thinks they're good enough," Dominique Archie said. "They've got their opinion. We've got our opinion."

One factor USC has in its corner -- since the SEC split into divisions 17 years ago, the NCAA tournament has never failed to take any SEC team with 10 wins in the league (an 11-5 Georgia team in 2002-03 was on probation and ineligible for the tournament). The Gamecocks' 10th and final SEC win was at Georgia to finish the regular season.

But the SEC as a whole has been considered one of the weakest if not the weakest of the six power conferences, which is hurting USC and the other bubble schools which are trying to get in.

"I've been saying for a long time, I don't see how you don't take one of the top three or four teams from the SEC In the NCAA tournament when you go back and look at our overall season," USC coach Darrin Horn said. "I think that we've proven that we're definitely worthy of that."

Regular-season champion LSU (26-6) is a virtual lock to make it and Tennessee (19-11) is as well, despite its record not being that gaudy. The Volunteers played an aggressive schedule, though (Georgetown, Gonzaga twice, Temple, Marquette, Kansas), and USC didn't.

Consideration must also be given to Florida (22-9), which is in the same boat as USC schedule-wise, and Auburn (21-10), which leaped into the picture recently. Should Mississippi State (21-12) keep winning, it could be there too.

First, the Gamecocks have to hope they look better than Auburn and Florida in the eyes of the committee. They beat the Tigers and split with the Gators, and those two have more losses than USC.

Second, they have to hope there are no more upsets in the smaller conference tournaments. When Cleveland State won the Horizon League tournament, it beat Butler. Butler, a Top 25 fixture all year long, has to be in consideration for an at-large spot. The teams that are supposed to win -- say, Memphis in Conference USA -- must win for USC to have a shot.

Third, the Gamecocks have to hope that any of the other on-the-bubble teams lose immediately.

It's all doable, but none if it is directly controlled by USC. That's why it was so important for the Gamecocks to win a game or two in Tampa, so its resume would look good and it could be argued that they wouldn't be punished for winning.

Instead, they lost, and the big wins on the schedule aren't looking as big anymore. Sweeping Kentucky in the regular season became less impressive to the committee when it became all but definite that the Wildcats will miss the NCAA tournament. And the SEC East co-championship, shared with Tennessee, is really just a trophy in the eyes of the committee.

So it's back to the wait. Nothing for the Gamecocks to do except relive what they could have done different.

"You're asking me, I think we've done enough," Mike Holmes said. "We've worked hard."



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