South Carolina coach Frank Martin said some things following his team’s 94-83 win over LSU on Wednesday night that caught my eye and seemed worth exploring. Call these statements something of a stress release for the typically intense coach. A few remarks he needed to get off of his chest, so to speak.
“This is the part that frustrates me,” Martin said. “You have two teams that are that good, and they’re in first and second place in the league, and neither team is ranked. That’s the frustrating part. How either one of those teams is not ranked nationally. That makes no sense. What other BCS league in the country? The first place team is playing the second place team and neither team is ranked. That’s the part that…you know sometimes you guys are on me if I pay attention to stuff, that’s frustrating to me.”
Where Martin misses the mark here a bit is in his assertion that all leagues are equal. The SEC is in last-place among the six major conferences according to KenPom, last according to Sagarin, and fifth according to the RPI. Teams in the SEC went a combined 19-43 against the other five major leagues in non-conference play. Plus, every league schedule is not equal. For instance, South Carolina has played the third-easiest schedule among all SEC teams so far this season.
Thus far, I think the SEC is likely being properly rated within the context of college basketball, and South Carolina has also been properly rated during its run so far. And regarding his own team, Martin continued on after the LSU game to note that to an extent there is skepticism in their run thus far due to their recent past.
“I can’t complain about our publicity,” Martin said. “We haven’t been relevant for 100 years. You have to earn that. You don’t get that becuase you win a game in February.”
Maybe the first part of that statement is true, even subconsciously. I do think there’s a reasonable, resume-based argument as to why people wouldn’t rank South Carolina. But the resume shouldn’t be the only decider, and the Gamecocks’ 21-3 mark along with their specatcularly balanced team speaks volumes. Just about any other high-major 21-3 team would be ranked.
However, I will respectfully disagree with Martin on that last point. South Carolina has a chance to take a big step toward national respectability on Saturday when Kentucky comes to Columbia to take on the Gamecocks. In fact, it’s not an exaggeration to say that this is the biggest game for the university since Eddie Fogler’s 1997 team won the SEC with a 15-1 record.
The game on Saturday is big on two fronts. One, well, it’s Kentucky. Moving to 22-3 by beating a nationally relevant Kentucky team on what is the biggest Saturday in college hoops thus far this season would definitely put South Carolina on the map in the minds of many. They’re certainly on any smart college basketball viewer’s radar, but this is the kind of win that can help you break through into the ether of casual viewers as well as diehard ones.
The second reason this one is important is because of what comes after Kentucky. If South Carolina can pull out this win, the Gamecocks will be seriously well-positioned to win their first SEC title since that aforementioned 1997 season. They would have six games remaining, only one of which comes against a top-60 KenPom opponent, a home tilt with Florida. On the other side, Kentucky still has road games left against Texas A&M, Vanderbilt and Florida. LSU still has to play at Kentucky and has a pair of home games against A&M and Florida.
The schedule is truly tilted in their favor if they can get past this difficult matchup with Kentucky. And even if it is a bit of a down league (again, apologies Coach Martin), it would be a truly remarkable accomplishment for a South Carolina program with only one NCAA Tournament appearance in the last 18 years to win the SEC. (Saturday, Noon ET, ESPN)
What other important games are there on Saturday? Well, there are a boatload. So here’s a quick rundown on what to expect when things tip off around noon.
Best game: No. 6 Kansas at No. 3 Oklahoma (2:30 p.m. ET, ESPN)
A rematch of the best regular season college basketball we’ve seen in a long time. My CBS Sports colleague Gary Parrish has the longer preview here, but the crux of it is that Kansas can either take a big step toward its 12th-straight Big 12 championship, or it can really put itself behind the eight-ball late. On the other side, Buddy Hield will look to replicate his magnificent 46-point performance in Phog Allen Fieldhouse when the two teams played for the first time. Look for another great game here between two evenly-matched teams.
Second-best game: No. 7 Virginia at Duke (4:30 p.m. ET, ESPN)
This is a big one in the ACC. Virginia has looked like the best team in the league over the last month after a brief stumble on the road. That starts with Malcolm Brogdon, who for my money has been the best player in the ACC this season. Player of the year voters in the league should look beyond the stats Brice Johnson is putting up in Chapel Hill and look at these two play on the defensive end. It’s a night and day difference. On the other side, Duke looks much stronger than it did with wins in four of its last five. This victory would give them two huge wins in hand during this killer four-game stretch with games against Louisville, Virginia, North Carolina and Louisville again. Just a massive chance for both teams, here.
Third-best game: No. 24 Texas at No. 14 Iowa State (8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN)
Iowa State could get Jameel McKay back in this one — provided he is well-behaved over the next 24 hours — and they could really use him. The Cyclones are coming off of a loss to Texas Tech during the week where McKay’s absence was sorely felt. Plus, Prince Ibeh has been terrific inside for Texas, and McKay will be needed to match his physicality. Texas has been great recently, with their only two losses since January 10th coming on the road against Kansas and Oklahoma (with wins on the road against Baylor and West Virginia). This is a dangerous game in Hilton for the Cyclones, who could fall to two games out of fifth place in the league.
Another big SEC matchup: No. 15 Texas A&M at LSU (1 p.m. ET, CBS / CBSSports.com)
Texas A&M is one of the better defensive teams in the country, and they swallowed up Ben Simmons in the two teams’ first matchup. However, since that week, Texas A&M has been in a bit of a free fall in dropping four of their last five games. Now, the Aggies have to go on the road and take on a team with maybe the best player in the country that is also desperate to build its NCAA resume. This is an incredibly important game for a multitude of reasons. Who wins? Nobody knows.
A pair of Big East games: Georgetown at No. 20 Providence(Noon ET, Fox)
No. 5 Xavier at Butler (2:30 p.m. ET, Fox)
Quick thought on each of the four teams here. Georgetown is about as desperate as anyone else in the country for a resume-building win, and they get a nice matchup here. Providence is flailing a bit right now, and it hasn’t been strong at home either. The Friars need one to steady to tide.
Xavier is coming off of a road loss to Creighton, and now has to go to Butler and Hinkle Fieldhouse. Not easy, especially when Butler has won four of five and seems to have gotten back on track after a bit of a midseason stumble. Butler could pretty much cinch up its bid to the Tournament with a win here, so look for this one to be an intense game as the two teams have something to play for.
A wild non-conference game: Gonzaga at No. 16 SMU (10 p.m. ET, ESPN2)
SMU is coming off of a home loss to Tulsa, and has dropped three of its last five. That takes a bit of the luster off of this one for Gonzaga, who absolutely needs this one. The Bulldogs are about as bubbly as you can get, and just have moved ahead of Saint Mary’s for the league’s lead. The West Coast Conference is pretty wild this season, which means I don’t think Gonzaga wants to go into it with doubt on its at-large standing. If they win this one and win out the rest of the way, it’d be tough to keep them out even with a tournament loss.
A pair of Big Ten bubble affairs: No. 18 Purdue at Michigan(2 p.m. ET, ESPN2)
Wisconsin at No. 2 Maryland (6:30 p.m. ET, ESPN)
Wisconsin and Michigan really need wins to steady their Tournament hopes. Michigan is sitting better on the surface at 18-7, but the Wolverines only have two top-60 wins according to KenPom. They could get Caris LeVert back, which would be a massive help for these hopes.
On the other side, Wisconsin has four top-40 wins, but also has some pretty rough losses that have put its resume in doubt. A win over Maryland on the road is unlikely, but it is possible given the six-game winning streak the Badgers are on. Nigel Hayes has been absolutely terrific, and will need to be again against the tough Terps’ frontline.
Other meaningful Saturday games :
- Louisville goes on the road against a Notre Dame team that could use a big win. The Cardinals are coming off of a road loss at Duke. (4 p.m., ESPN2)
- No. 11 Oregon was blown out on Thursday at Cal, and will look to rebound on the road against Stanford in a pretty tricky game. (4 p.m. ET, Pac-12)
- Texas Tech is coming off of a nice win against Iowa State, and will look to cause similar issues for No. 21 Baylor. Should be a fun game. (8 p.m. ET, ESPNU)
- Oh yeah, No. 1 Villanova is also in action. The Wildcats play a downtrodden St. John’s team that is yet to collect a Big East win this season. Good luck, Red Storm! (8 p.m. ET, CBS Sports Network)
A few other games with bubble implications:
AND FOR SUNDAY
Weirdly, Valentine’s Day is also pretty packed with action. Here are some more previews for singles or for couples look for a respite from the Valentine’s Day festivities:
A big one in the Pac-12: No. 23 USC at No. 17 Arizona (8 p.m. ET, FS1)
Arizona can get itself truly back into the Pac-12 race with a pair of home wins over the Los Angeles schools this week. This is the second of those games, a rematch of what was a four-overtime classic in January that saw the Trojans pick up a massive win. A sweep would basically knock Arizona out of the race. But a win for the Wildcats would place them squarely in the thick of the race, with three of their final five games coming at home. A lot of implications in this one.
A Florida showdown: No. 12 Miami at Florida State (6:30 p.m. ET, ESPNU)
The Seminoles are probably on the right side of the bubble right now, but they also probably do not want to fall to 6-7 in the ACC. To avoid doing that, they’re going to have to defeat a tough, senior-laden Miami team that seems to be flying a bit under the radar right now after their strong start to the season. The Canes are sitting at a nice 8-3 in the league and are firmly in the title picture in the ACC. A win here would solidify that even further.
Another big ACC game: Pittsburgh at No. 9 North Carolina (1 p.m. ET, ESPN3)
Pittsburgh is also probably on the right side of the bubble right now, but could really push themselves forward with a win over North Carolina. And if there was ever a time to catch the Heels, it’s right now. Over their last three games, North Carolina has lost to Louisville and Notre Dame, and were pushed by a hapless Boston College team. Oh yeah, Roy Williams also made the decision to bench his entire starting frontcourt for that last game, pointing to some problems effort-wise defensively. I don’t know that Pittsburgh can go into Chapel Hill and win, but this is as good a chance as it’ll get.
A Big Ten matinee: Indiana at No. 8 Michigan State (1 p.m. ET, CBS / CBSSports.com)
To close out, we get another good example of a point I made in the opening: not all conference schedules are created equal. Just look at the teams in this one. Indiana is now 10-2 and in a three-way tie for the Big Ten’s lead. Michigan State is 7-5, sitting at seventh in the league but eighth in the country. That can be traced back to Indiana not only having the easiest schedule in the Big Ten, but the easiest conference schedule in all of the six high-major leagues. Still, the Hoosiers are playing really well right now, and a win here could really put them in a good position to contend near the top of the Big Ten for the full season.
It would be a surprise to see a third team walk into the Breslin Center and walk out with win this season. But hey, weirder things have happened. After all, South Carolina might be the favorite in the SEC.