Photo: Victoria Richman / The Daily Gamecock

Semester Preview: South Carolina MBB eyeing NCAA tournament birth

After last year’s record-setting season that saw the South Carolina men’s basketball team just miss the NCAA tournament, the goal of this year’s team has been to make the tournament.

Returning key players such as Sindarius Thornwell, Duane Notice and PJ Dozier, these Gamecocks started the year hot, winning their first eight games and soaring as high as No. 16 in the top 25 rankings. This start included wins over non-conference foes such as Michigan and Syracuse, both of whom were ranked at the time, as the team tried to avoid what many called the pitfall of last season: a lack of quality non-conference wins.

Yet just as things seemed trending toward a definite NCAA tournament birth, news broke that shook Gamecock nation: leading scorer and star Sindarius Thornwell was suspended indefinitely. In his absence, the team struggled, going 3-3. In this time though, a new star emerged, as Dozier stepped up and recorded four straight games of at least 20 points.

As South Carolina entered SEC play, Sindarius Thornwell was reinstated to the team. Behind his and Dozier’s lead, South Carolina was able to beat Georgia, ending their four-game losing streak to Georgia dating back to the 2014-15 season. They then followed up this win with a win over Texas A&M.

As South Carolina gets into the heart of SEC play, there are three upcoming games that could have major impacts on their NCAA tournament hopes.

The biggest two games of the season for the Gamecocks will occur back to back, as South Carolina is set to play Florida on Jan. 18, followed by Kentucky on Jan. 21.

Florida, currently ranked 24th, has big wins over Miami, Seton Hall and Saint Bonaventure. They are winners of their last four games, and could likely come into the South Carolina game winners of six straight. Look to this game to be a major measuring stick of just how good Frank Martin’s team is.

Even bigger than the game against Florida, though, is South Carolina’s showdown against the Kentucky Wildcats. Unlike Florida, this game will not be a home game for the Gamecocks, who will be forced to play in Rupp Arena on a Saturday night in front of what will likely be a sold out Kentucky crowd. The Wildcats feature what many say is the best backcourt in the SEC, with Malik Monk and De’Aaron Fox starring on this star-studded Kentucky team.

Already with wins over then 7th-ranked North Carolina, and 13th-ranked Michigan State, this Kentucky team has already shown itself to be one of the best teams in the country. This game for the Gamecocks could be either a tournament clincher or morale breaker, depending on the outcome.

One other game that could be huge in the eyes of the selection committee come Selection Sunday is South Carolina’s matchup with Arkansas on Feb. 15. This late season matchup could potentially pose two of the top 5 teams in the SEC against each other, and could have the potential of popping the losing team's bubble. Arkansas is 12-3 so far, with a win over Tennessee and a close loss to Florida to kick off SEC play. The Razorbacks, although not ranked now, have the potential to crack into the top 25 by the time they come to Colonial Life arena in med-February.

Most importantly, for an invitation of March Madness, Duane Notice must break out of his shooting slump. Before the Texas A&M game, Notice was a combined 1-20 from three-point range in the previous four games. Against A&M, Notice showed a glimmer of his of his normal three point shooting prowess, going 4-9 from three. For South Carolina to beat the Kentucky's of the college basketball world, Duane Notice will need to play like the sixth man of the year that he was last season and provide a third offensive threat besides Dozier and Thornwell.

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