From a straight talent perspective, South Carolina wasn't supposed to be much of a threat this year. It happens in basketball - the great players are only there for a maximum of four years, and if a player is truly great, he won't be replaced at the drop of a hat. At least, not at a program like USC, which has had flashes of greatness but is overwhelmingly mediocre.
The Gamecocks entered the season knowing they only had one legitimate scoring threat in Malik Cooke, who is more of a role player than a guy that has to carry the team, and that former leading scorer Bruce Ellington wasn't going to be joining the team until the SEC season. The rest of the roster was tagged as "hopeful" - developing players such as Anthony Gill, Damontre Harris and Damien Leonard would be looked to as contributing whatever they could whenever they could, with an eye on big days as juniors and seniors.
The goal was improvement. A bad year was expected last year, and happened. When Murphy Holloway abruptly left and Ramon Galloway was given freedom to transfer, it took away two pieces that were being counted on to make this year a quest for restoring hope in the program. The record may be bad, but if there was improvement, that can ease a lot of tensions.
Some of the players improved. They may not be future All-Americans, but they can be solid producers.
The record did not, and that's what is so galling. Especially compared to three other nearby programs that were expected to have struggling years, but have done what the Gamecocks hoped to do - improve.
GEORGIA lost three starters from an NCAA tournament team, including stars Trey Thompkins and Travis Leslie. Jeremy Price was no slouch, with 9.3 points and 5.0 rebounds per game, and while Gerald Robinson Jr. was a returning stud and freshman Kentavious Caldwell-Pope was a McDonald's All-American, the Bulldogs had a lot of young talent around them.
Georgia finished 14-16, 5-11 SEC, but had some notable wins late in the season. The Bulldogs beat then-No. 11 Florida (which is on a three-game skid heading into the SEC tournament) and also topped then-No. 20 Mississippi State (which began a five-game losing streak for those Bulldogs).
Those were big wins, but Georgia still dropped eight of its final 12 games. Yet, with five freshmen on the roster this year and three more in-state players on the way for next year, to defeat a couple of Top 20 opponents was an encouraging sign.
TENNESSEE had every excuse on the planet to have a lousy season, after the fallout from the Bruce Pearl era ended and the Volunteers surprised many by bringing in a bit of an unknown coach in Cuonzo Martin. Nobody expected Tennessee to extend its string of six straight NCAA tournaments (and it won't, without a run through the SEC tournament), but the Vols turned into a solid team.
Despite losing to College of Charleston and Austin Peay, the Vols regrouped to finish 10-6 in the SEC, tying for second place and earning the No. 2 seed for the SEC tournament. Tennessee lost four starters and had to load up with walk-ons and transfers, yet surged to the finish line.
The Vols swept Florida in two games, beat then-No. 11 Connecticut and split with Vanderbilt. After losing three straight before UConn, UT won nine of its final 12 games, including four straight and eight of nine.
With only two seniors, one of whom is Renaldo Wooldridge, a mere four-game starter, and six freshmen, the future is bright in Knoxville.
CLEMSON was another team coming off a string of NCAA tournament appearances, and knew that this season had the possibility of being rough. Gone were seniors Jerai Grant and Demontez "Buddy" Stitt, and while this year's senior class was a solid group, none outside of guard Andre Young were really stars.
The season began roughly, the Tigers losing at home to College of Charleston, Coastal Carolina and USC. Then after blasting a good Florida State team to begin the ACC 1-0, Clemson dropped three straight.
Still, the Tigers won five of their final seven games and finished 16-14, 8-8 ACC. They are probably out of the NIT without a strong run in the ACC tournament, but have a five-man signing class on the way. It's highlighted by Irmo's Jordan Roper and four-star forward Jaron Blossomgame from Georgia.
The jury is still out on how productive USC's young players will be, but what's known is that the Gamecocks didn't show improvement in their overall record. They had individual improvement, and the team hasn't given up through the losing, but there isn't a lot to show for it.