COLUMBIA (AP) - Last season's surprise Final Four team in South Carolina will need another huge surprise at the Southeastern Conference Tournament if it hopes to return to the tournament this year.
The Gamecocks (16-15, 7-11 SEC) followed a strong season in 2016-17 with a stunning run through the NCAA Tournament to reach the school's first Final Four in men's hoops.
That was fun, this is now.
Much of that team, including starters in Sindarius Thornwell and P.J. Dozier and senior sixth-man Duane Notice, left after the celebrations died down . Add in a season-long suspension to point-guard heir apparent Rakym Felder and South Carolina coach Frank Martin was left to cobble together a unit with eight of 15 players on the roster hitting the court for the Gamecocks for the first time.
And after an up-and-down season, the 11th-seeded Gamecocks will need a five-wins-in-five-days miracle for a second straight trip to the NCAA Tournament. They open against 14th-seed Ole Miss (12-19, 5-13) on Wednesday night in St. Louis.
Martin states his team is better than two months ago, pointing to victories over then-ranked opponents in Kentucky and Florida and over top-SEC seed Auburn in the past six weeks as evidence. The Gamecocks have also lost six straight during that stretch, including blowout defeats at Texas A&M and at home to Gators.
So heading into the week, Martin's hopeful his players channel the better moments in St. Louis. As for their chances to come out on top: "Who the heck knows?" he said.
South Carolina will need to finish out games more consistently than it has down the stretch.
The Gamecocks held a seven-point halftime lead and were still ahead 47-43 with seven minutes to go at Mississippi State on Feb. 24 before falling in overtime. This past Saturday, South Carolina was down just 49-45 with 12 minutes to go at No. 16 Auburn before falling 79-70.
"If we find a way to win those games, then we're talking about a five-game winning streak and not the things we're talking about," Martin said.
Through it all, the Gamecocks have continued learning how to play alongside each other. Grad transfer Frank Booker, who had played at Oklahoma and Florida Atlantic before joining the Gamecocks this season, reached career highs of 25 and 27 points his last two games.
Wesley Myers, another graduate transfer from Maine, has started 11 games at point guard and his third in scoring behind forward Chris Silva and Booker.
Although Myers was not part of last year's NCAA run, he believes everyone on the team can draw on that experience to find motivation for the SEC Tournament.
"We've kept that mindset that we can move forward and push past every opponent," he said.
Silva took part in the NCAA surge and sees a team still finding its footing as it heads to the postseason.
"The issue of us being so young and so new. We have to learn," said Silva, the Gamecocks leader with 14.1 points and 7.8 rebounds. "Sometimes, we play so good."
Martin understands the odds are not with his team heading into the SEC Tournament. The last back-of-the-pack, longshot to come in was Georgia, which won four games in the 12-team league to take the 2008 tournament title and the automatic NCAA berth.
South Carolina will need one more additional win to make the magic happen this week.
"We're not there to win five games," Martin said. "We're there to beat Ole Miss."
He's confident that his players will give a strong effort, no matter how far the Gaemcocks advance in the SECs.
"Our record doesn't reflect how much better we've gotten," Martin said.
More AP college basketball: http://collegebasketball.ap.org and http://www.twitter.com/AP_Top25
More Articles to Read