Wiedmer: Vols never will have easier path to SEC semis

Wiedmer: Vols never will have easier path to SEC semis

March 14th, 2014 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

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ATLANTA - Normally, whenever the first game of a basketball tournament session runs long, the teams waiting to take the court for Game 2 grow antsy. And impatient. And sometimes downright irritated.

But not South Carolina coach Frank Martin on Thursday as the Southeastern Conference tournament's early afternoon game between Missouri and Texas A&M went to one overtime, then two before Mizzou finally won.

"I was ecstatic," Martin said from the interview room deep inside the Georgia Dome after his Gamecocks shocked No. 5 seed Arkansas 71-69.

"I was actually praying for a third overtime. We were playing at 9:30 last night and then we had to be back here for a 3 o'clock (actually 3:30) game today. We didn't have as much pep in our step as yesterday [against Auburn], but every time I thought we were about to have an 'uh-oh' moment, somebody stepped up and stopped the bleeding."

But can they have any pep left in their step when they face fourth-seeded Tennessee in this afternoon's 3:30 quarterfinal game? Can a Gamecocks team that was bleeding everywhere after leaving UT's Thompson-Boling Arena with a 72-53 loss on Feb. 8, completely reverse that performance today?

Recalling that debacle -- which the Volunteers led 45-22 at halftime -- Martin said of Vols senior guard Jordan McRae, "I don't think he missed a shot the whole game."

Actually, he missed six of 14 shots but finished with 24 points. Yet can any of that matter at 3:30, at least assuming the early game between Florida and Mizzou doesn't go two overtimes.

Having won six of their last 10 games, having beaten Kentucky and scared Florida for a half, can the Gamecocks actually play well enough to beat a Tennessee team many believe is playing as well as anyone in the country.

"The problem for us," said Martin, "is that we're playing better, but so is Tennessee. You could argue that they're playing better than anyone in our league, including Florida."

You certainly could. The Vols' last five wins have come by nearly 24 points a game. More impressively, they've given up an average of only 50.6 points in those five wins, easily the most impressive defensive run of any team in the SEC, if not the whole country.

But South Carolina isn't exactly winning without toughness.

After scouting the Gamecocks in their win over Arkansas, UT assistant Tracy Webster said, "They just play so hard. They play so tough. They don't quit."

Said Arkansas forward Bobby Portis, normally the toughest customer on the court: "We just got out-toughed."

Added Razorbacks senior Coty Clarke: "They were the more physical team."

Indeed, despite that lack of pep, South Carolina outrebounded the Hogs 40-24 and outscored them from the bench, 34-22.

Yet what any of this means today is hard to say. Fatigue should play a factor. A huge factor. Especially given the talent gap that seems to exist between these two should there be no difference in rest.

"We played really bad at their place," said South Carolina forward Michael Carrera.

Added freshman Sindarius Thornwell, who led the Gamecocks with 17 points: "We weren't focused that first game [against Tennessee]. This time we'll be mentally prepared. We're more mature. We've grown as a team."

It's really all they can say, of course. They're athletes. They're competitors. And Frank Martin's glare could burn a whole through a younger Pat Summitt.

But if Tennessee ever had a path to the SEC tourney semis paved with gold, this is it.

"We've got our hands full," Martin said. "But as I've told our team, 'At this time of year, don't expect an easy one.'"

Yet it is surely easier for the Vols to face a team playing its third game in 44 hours than it is for the Gamecocks to face one that hasn't played in six days. And if it isn't, Arkansas may not be the only SEC school unexpectedly on the outside looking in come Selection Sunday.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com