South Carolina Basketball: SEC Tournament Preview

South Carolina basketball is heading up to Nashville to compete in the SEC tournament. After a solid season with a record-breaking turnaround, Lamont Paris's group has high expectations in the single-elimination tournament.
South Carolina basketball guard Jacobi Wright lines up in an isolation against J.P. Estrella.
South Carolina basketball guard Jacobi Wright lines up in an isolation against J.P. Estrella. / Eakin Howard/GettyImages

South Carolina basketball, an afterthought last year in Nashville, is now one of the top teams in the conference in Lamont Paris’s second year at the helm. Things can change quickly in the college basketball landscape, and the 2023-2024 SEC Coach of the Year is evidence of that. 

Transfer additions B.J. Mack, Ta’Lon Cooper, and Myles Stute were huge parts of arguably the biggest turnaround in D-1 basketball this year. Returners Meechie Johnson, Jacobi Wright, Zachary Davis, and others all combined with that trio to create a cohesive offensive and defensive unit, while freshman Collin Murray-Boyles returned from mono to give both sides of the ball a massive spark in the second half of the season. 

Similar to last season, when the Gamecocks’ tournament hopes were seemingly decided a few weeks before the SEC tournament began, Nashville’s results won’t affect the Court Cocks’ tournament standing. That’s because this time around, South Carolina basketball is already considered a lock to make their first NCAA tournament since 2017, the year they went to the Final Four

At 25-6 overall and a 13-5 mark in conference games, Lamont Paris’s group is having one of the best years in program history. Still, it wasn’t enough for a double-bye into the quarterfinals, as Alabama, Kentucky, and Auburn all ended up with a tiebreaker over the Gamecocks and Tennessee finished a game above in the standings. Depending on who you ask, that’s not solely a bad thing, as it gives South Carolina another chance to stack up a win and get into a groove before their quarterfinal. 

South Carolina’s road to winning an SEC tournament starts Thursday, when they’ll play the winner of 12-seed Arkansas vs. 13-seed Vanderbilt. The Gamecocks defeated both teams by double-digits in the regular season, but both the Razorbacks and Commodores have looked much improved over the past two weeks. Eric Musselman’s Arkansas squad defeated LSU and took Alabama to overtime on the road, while Vanderbilt is fresh off of a home victory over Florida. 

No matter the opponent, South Carolina’s first game of the tournament will be at 3:30 p.m. EST on Thursday on SEC Network. If the Gamecocks were to get past the victor of the first round matchup, they would be guaranteed to play Auburn, who clinched a double-bye into the quarterfinals in part due to the Tigers’ blowout win over South Carolina earlier this season. 

Needless to say, that game would be a much taller task for Lamont Paris’s group, who lost by 40 last time out against Auburn. This time, however, the neutral site could set up a very different outcome. Not to jinx the Gamecocks, but what are the odds that Auburn will shoot 60% from deep for a second consecutive meeting? Granted South Carolina gets past their second round opponent, they have a real chance to change the narrative against Bruce Pearl’s team, who have not had nearly the success away from home as they have enjoyed at Neville. 

What would a prospective win mean for this team? While a loss to Auburn likely wouldn’t harm the Gamecocks’ tournament seeding, a win could possibly move them up to a more comfortable position once Selection Sunday comes calling. Since we’re on the topic of winning, it’s worth noting that an extended run in the SEC tournament could really impact the fortunes of this team.

How would that look in a best-case scenario? If the Gamecocks were to beat both the winner of Vanderbilt/Arkansas and Auburn, they would more likely than not be set up with a rubber match against Tennessee in the semifinals at 1 p.m. on ESPN. The Vols play either Mississippi State or LSU in the quarterfinals. 

The Volunteers are the most complete team in the conference, and two wins over them on the Gamecock resume would be a game-changer. It would of course take a concerted effort to contain Dalton Knecht, but Lamont Paris’s team has done it once already this year, so it’s definitely possible. The bottom half of the bracket includes Florida, Kentucky, and Alabama, and it’s probable that one of those three teams would face off against the Gamecocks in the championship if South Carolina were to make the finals.

Is it realistic to expect the sky to be the limit for this team in Nashville? As a product, sure, but it’s also important to keep in mind that their path to the final is the most difficult of any of the top teams in the conference. Just to even have a chance to lift the trophy, they’ll need to beat either Arkansas or Vanderbilt, Auburn, and, most likely, Tennessee to get to the finals. Possible? Yes. Likely? No.

But the best part of this week is that it really doesn’t matter if the Gamecocks win the SEC tournament, which wasn’t the case around this time last year. They’re an NCAA tournament lock, and even losing in their first game won’t change that or even drop them below a 7-seed. It’s a win-win-loss scenario at worst and a win-win-win-win scenario at best. A poor showing in Nashville would only slightly harm the Gamecock resume, but a great showing could improve it drastically. 

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