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March 15, 2009Zam Fredrick and Branden Conrad will get another chance to make their last home games a pleasant experience.
South Carolina received a bid to the NIT on Sunday, around three hours after learning their hopes for the NCAA tournament were gone. The Gamecocks (21-9) will host Davidson (26-7) at 7 p.m. on Tuesday.
"My big thing this time of year, whether you're in the NCAA or NIT, is that now that the conference tournament is over, you truly are going to play your last game if you don't win," coach Darrin Horn said on Sunday evening. "When you've got seniors as a part of your program, and we've got two special ones in Zam and Branden, you want to keep playing with them as long as you can."
Fredrick and Conrad were honored as seniors on March 5 before the Gamecocks' game hosting Tennessee. At the time, it was thought to be the last home game of the year.
Instead, following an 86-70 thrashing that eventually cost USC sole possession of the SEC East championship, the Gamecocks' NCAA tournament resume took a severe blow.
While upsets in conference tournaments began springing all over the country, USC won its regular-season finale (and tied the Volunteers for the East title in the process). Despite getting a first-round tournament bye, though, the Gamecocks couldn't take advantage of the extra day off.
USC was beaten 82-68 by Mississippi State in the second round, setting up two days of anxiously viewing the nation's other tournaments and hastily re-computing NCAA chances. The Gamecocks read and heard all about the SEC probably only being a three-team league this year, and with regular-season champ LSU and Tennessee certain to have two spots, the third was up for grabs.
After beating USC, the Bulldogs made a surprising run past LSU and into the championship game. They beat the Vols 64-61 two hours before the NCAA selection show, clinching an automatic spot in the tournament.
That more or less drove the final nail through the Gamecocks' dreams. They'll be playing in a tournament in late March, but not in the tournament they wanted.
"Obviously disappointed," Horn said of the team's feelings. "More so for our players. Specifically Zam and Branden, because they won't get another chance.
"This is a team that accomplished an awful lot this year. I think it exceeded a lot of expectations. And history would tell you if you're 10-6 in the SEC, and divisional co-champ, that there's a great possibility that you're going to have a chance to play in the tournament, and that just wasn't the case this year."
No eligible 10-6 SEC team since 1992 had ever been left out of the NCAA tournament until Sunday. USC and Auburn each got left behind while Mississippi State, Tennessee and LSU were picked.
Horn was surprised at how low the three teams that did get in were seeded. Regular-season champion LSU was the highest as an eighth seed. Co-East champ Tennessee was ninth and MSU was 13th.
Georgia was seeded 14th in the NCAAs last season after storming through the SEC tournament, a 13-16 regular-season slate contributing to that. But Mississippi State was 19-12 in the regular season, won this year's tournament and got only one seed better.
When that number flashed onto the TV screen, Horn said there was an indication the evening probably wasn't going to be celebratory.
"When we saw the seeds for the other SEC teams, I can't speak for everybody else, but there's a little concern when your tournament champion gets a 13," Horn said. "If you had told me a year ago you'd be 10-6, coaching an SEC team with the wins that we had -- we played pretty consistent for the most part throughout the year, no really terrible losses. Apparently, it didn't even look like we were really on the board, and I was surprised by that."
The Gamecocks were gathered at Horn's house to watch the selection show and when they didn't get the news they wanted, the coach simply told them they had the chance to keep playing when a lot of other teams didn't.
"We hung out for a little bit afterwards and my comments to them were that we had a great year," he said. "Obviously we're disappointed because ultimately we all want to get into the NCAA tournament. But we feel like we still have basketball left to play, and we're going to try to make the most of that."
USC's NIT history is stellar. The Gamecocks are by far the winningest NIT team in the SEC, going 21-8 in their 10 previous appearances. This will be their fifth trip to the NIT since 2001 and their last three appearances (2002, 2005, 2006) resulted in a runner-up prize and consecutive championships.