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March 11, 2009

USC's focus only to get better

The bubble talk and tournament scenarios and postseason awards swirled around the South Carolina practice facility, but inside, nothing had changed.

Well, that's not entirely correct. Some new pictures had been hung in the rafters of the building, but on the court, it was the same.

Win the next game. Don't worry about what you can't control.

Sort of.

"It'd be hard-pressed for me to figure out how you don't put a divisional champion in the NCAA tournament from a BCS league," Gamecocks coach Darrin Horn said on Monday, previewing his team's upcoming trip to the SEC tournament. "But again, our focus is the same as it was heading into Saturday's game. We want to play like we're capable of playing. If we do that, we feel like we can give ourselves an opportunity to be in games and have a chance to win them."

USC responded from two straight losses by filleting Georgia in its last game, finishing the regular season 21-8, 10-6 in the SEC and, as it would turn out, co-holders of the SEC East championship. Then the coaches' SEC postseason awards were released, honoring Devan Downey (first-team all-conference and all-defensive team), Dominique Archie (second-team all-conference, all-defensive team), Zam Fredrick (second-team all-conference) and Brandis Raley-Ross (SEC Sixth Man of the Year).

The recognition was nice, but it didn't take away from the upcoming goal. While the accolades piled up, the national media's opinions didn't change.

Many say the Gamecocks are still on the NCAA tournament bubble. They're in in some predictions, out in others. Some say they need to win one game in the SEC tournament, some say two.

Horn and his team say, "Whatever."

"I'm not a bracket guy," he said. "You've got to play who they give you. If you don't play well, it doesn't matter what the other team's doing."

The Gamecocks will practice Wednesday and Thursday in Tampa, Fla., the latter while the first day of the tournament rages. Georgia and Mississippi State play at 3:15 p.m., sending the winner to face the Gamecocks at the same time on Friday.

USC doesn't have a specific game plan for each opponent and wouldn't prefer one over the other. To the Gamecocks, it's keep doing what they've been doing.

"There's no need to listen to that; we can't control that," Downey said after the regular-season finale. "I wish I could tell you, but we can't control it."

USC got what it wanted in the finale, a 68-51 win at Georgia, besides the obvious W. The Gamecocks weren't in the funk that limited them in the previous two games and put the Bulldogs away with a sizzling run in the second half.

Also, deprived of Raley-Ross after a one-game academic suspension, USC found two pieces of bench strength. Evka Baniulis hit consistent shots in a hostile gym "for the first time since Baylor," Horn said, and Branden Conrad, despite only playing one minute since Dec. 18, contributed 16 solid minutes.

"I think we're in a good place," Horn said. "We were concerned not just with losses, but with how we had played. I think we got out of that. We looked more like the team that was co-East division champs."

Now comes the hard part. Bubble scenarios aside, it's going to be tough for the Gamecocks to win in the tournament. It's still a road game and previous things learned against opponents go almost completely away -- each team is thriving on adrenaline and emotion at playing for the ultimate prize.

A conference championship and a trip to the NCAA tournament.

"We've got to stay focused on the things that make us good," Horn said. "Hopefully we learned our lesson. We'll grow from that and build on what we did Saturday."



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