- Andy Katz, ESPN Senior Writer
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South Carolina is making plays to win games.
And as a result, the Gamecocks are a real threat to win the SEC East and make the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2004.
On Saturday afternoon in Lexington, Devan Downey hit a turnaround jumper with three seconds left to give the Gamecocks a 78-77 victory over Kentucky.
Let's see now: South Carolina has won four straight games, has wins over Florida and at Kentucky, and on its nonconference résumé has a quality road win at Baylor. At 16-4 (5-2 SEC) and with a road game at Florida pending Tuesday night, why not start discussing South Carolina as a possible NCAA team?
If you want to know what I learned most on Saturday, it is just that: The Gamecocks under first-year coach Darrin Horn are in play for a bid.
"You should take us real serious," Downey said by phone from Lexington on Saturday. "We're playing real hard and I feel like we're one of the real bright spots in the SEC."
The Gamecocks always had the backcourt of Downey and Fredrick to get excited about, but there were questions: Would they have balance? Could they defend? Would they be tough enough to win road games? They started the SEC 1-2 after getting swept at LSU and Tennessee. But something was clicking in the loss to the Vols that started this roll. South Carolina trailed by 15 at the half, only to outscore Tennessee 51-39 in the second and lose by three.
"We could have won that game," Downey said. "We don't want anyone to give us credit. Don't bother talking about us. We'll just keep winning."
Horn was an assistant at Marquette when the Golden Eagles began to fly under Tom Crean. He then took over at Western Kentucky, guiding the Hilltoppers to the Sweet 16 last season. He knows an NCAA team when he sees one.
"Based on what I see, we're right there," Horn said.
Horn said he knew when he took the job that he had the guards necessary to win in the SEC. The offense doesn't run through the bigs, but they have become more than serviceable for the Gamecocks.
"I believed from day one that we had special guards," Horn said. "I knew we had enough length and athleticism. I knew we could be an NCAA team if we were committed."
The win over Florida was clearly a confidence boost. And the fact that the SEC is so competitively balanced has fostered a feeling that the league race is wide open.
"In years past you had Florida as the best team in the country two years in a row," Downey said. "What we don't have in the SEC is a dominant team. There's no team on the schedule that you have to play a perfect game to beat. The SEC is very competitive and on any given night anyone can win."
Would Downey have believed that the Gamecocks could be playing Florida in Gainesville for an outright lead in the SEC East?
"Yes, because I believed in my teammates," Downey said.
Well, the flock of followers for this squad is likely to grow after Saturday's results.
What else did I learn Saturday?
• UNC is lying in wait to take over the ACC. North Carolina took its lumps early with losses to Boston College and then at Wake Forest. But the schedule is in its favor. The Tar Heels got a scare at Florida State, surviving on a Ty Lawson 3-pointer and then coasted past NC State 93-76 Saturday.
There are no guarantees (did anyone see BC coming?) and beating Miami and Virginia Tech on the road isn't a lock. But even if the Tar Heels lose one of their two games against Duke, then at three league losses they can be right in play for the ACC title. Duke still has to visit Clemson, BC, Virginia Tech and Carolina, as well as host the Tar Heels. Wake Forest still has to visit a desperate Miami team this week and play at Duke in a few weeks. And after losing to previously winless (in the ACC) Georgia Tech on the last possession Saturday, the Demon Deacons are hardly a guarantee on a given night.
• BC is back in the NCAA picture. Rakim Sanders' tip-in with one second left to beat Virginia Tech 67-66 put the Eagles at 5-3 in the ACC, 17-6 overall. BC is hardly a lock in any of its remaining games. The Eagles lost four straight after the Carolina win, but have now won four in a row, including two on the road. Road games, regardless of venue -- Virginia, Wake, Miami and NC State -- will be a chore. But the Eagles have put themselves back in play, so an upcoming homestand against Clemson and Duke could have NCAA-bid ramifications for the Eagles.
• Miami is in trouble. The Canes have lost three in a row -- two of those were in overtime, but it doesn't matter. Miami is 3-5 in the ACC, 14-7 overall and faced with a grueling four-game stretch of Wake Forest, at Duke, North Carolina and at Florida State.
• Kansas may have a better chance to catch Oklahoma than Texas. The Longhorns' overtime loss to Kansas State puts Texas down two games to Oklahoma. The Sooners own one win over Texas so far. OU still has to go to Austin on Feb. 21, but the Longhorns are hardly unbeatable, even at home. Texas also has to go to Kansas. KU, which like OU is undefeated in the Big 12, does have five more road games. And the Jayhawks get only one shot at Oklahoma and the game is in Norman, two days after OU visits Texas. Playing the teams in the Big 12 North twice was always a scheduling advantage for the Jayhawks, and now that Texas has lost to one of those squads, the advantage shifts to KU even more.
• Why is Baylor a lock again? The Bears aren't. Baylor dropped to 3-4 (15-6) in the Big 12 with its 89-72 loss at Missouri. The Tigers moved to 5-2 (18-4), improving their chances considerably for a possible NCAA bid. Baylor hasn't done anything to distinguish itself in the Big 12 so far -- losing to four teams that are all ahead of it in the standings. Baylor better beat Kansas on Monday night in Waco.
• Bye bye, Badgers. Wisconsin fell to Northwestern 66-63 for its sixth straight loss. The CBI isn't even a lock at this juncture.
• Purdue is out of its funk. The Boilermakers have won six in a row after losing their first two Big Ten games, including a victory over Minnesota on the road. But to hang with Michigan State before the home-and-home series begins in a few weeks, the Boilermakers must get by two gritty road games at Ohio State and Illinois next week.
• Michigan can't rely on its nonconference résumé. The Wolverines beat Duke and UCLA prior to the Big Ten schedule. But Michigan is now 4-6 in the league, 14-8 overall after losing five of its past six.
• Connecticut at Louisville on Monday should be one of the biggest games of the season. These are two of the hottest teams in the country. Louisville looked unstoppable in the first half against West Virginia on Saturday, only to then hold on when the Mountaineers mounted a comeback. UConn slapped back upstart Providence behind Hasheem Thabeet's triple-double. This could be a Final Four preview, or at least a possible showdown for the Big East title.
• But we'd be fools to count out Marquette or Pitt. What was most apparent Saturday is that the Big East title is a four-team race with Louisville, Connecticut, Pitt and Marquette. Pitt was convincing in the second half against Notre Dame while Marquette just ran away from Georgetown. Marquette isn't being discussed as a possible No. 1 seed, but what would happen if the Golden Eagles did win the Big East?
• Georgetown and Notre Dame have to win games. Yes, the Hoyas and Irish have been playing a tough slate, maybe tougher than most teams in the country, but they're still losing games and both are 3-6 (12-8 overall). That has to change soon if they're going to get a bid.
• Oops, maybe Kentucky isn't the best team in the SEC. The Wildcats still have the best two-punch combo in the league in Jodie Meeks and Patrick Patterson. But losing at Ole Miss and at home to South Carolina in the same week has suddenly made them look more pedestrian in the league. The good news is that all four teams in the SEC East tied with two losses -- Florida, South Carolina, Kentucky and Tennessee -- may end up making The Dance.
• LSU needs to continue to separate itself in the West. The Tigers beat Arkansas to improve to 5-1. Ole Miss had a great week, beating Kentucky and then knocking off rival Mississippi State to drop the Bulldogs to a game behind LSU. But the Tigers are clearly the best hope for an at-large berth out of the West with a 17-4 record. The problem is that LSU lost every critical nonconference game it played (Texas A&M, Utah and Xavier). That's why LSU has to show it is so far and away the best team in the SEC West to have a shot, and even that may not do it since the West is so muddling, its maddening right now.
• UCLA and Washington could be set for a Pac-10 title matchup Feb. 19. UCLA smacked the Bay Area schools this weekend while Washington showed it is a conference contender, not pretender, by following up a poor defensive performance in a loss at Arizona with a solid one in shutting down Arizona State in Tempe. The Huskies remain tied with the Bruins at 7-2, although Washington already beat UCLA in Seattle.
• Arizona State is in serious trouble. The Sun Devils got swept by the Washington schools and didn't look good in either game. The Sun Devils are 5-4, 16-5 overall and visit Oregon State next week. Yes, going to Oregon State is suddenly a tough gig. The Beavers' revival is coinciding with a complete collapse by the rival Ducks. OSU beat Oregon in the "Civil War" game Saturday. That means the 2007-08 Pac-10 winless Beavs are now 4-5 and tied with Arizona and Wazzu for sixth in the conference.
• Arizona is very much alive. The Wildcats still have quality wins over Kansas and Gonzaga to shout about from the nonconference slate, and sweeping the Washington schools puts them back in play at 4-5 (14-8 overall), with a trip to the Oregon schools pending.
• Gonzaga will run away with the WCC. Saint Mary's just isn't the same team without Patty Mills. It's not close. The Gaels lost a lead and the game at Gonzaga on Thursday and got crushed at Portland 84-66 on Saturday in their first full game without Mills (broken right hand). Saint Mary's better hope Mills gets back in time to win a game or two in the WCC tournament and show the selection committee that the Gaels can be competitive in the NCAAs.
• Utah's win over Gonzaga was no fluke. Utah took advantage of a reeling Zags squad in late December, but the Utes are clearly clicking in the Mountain West. Quick: Who had Utah as one of the teams to beat in the Mountain West in the preseason? Utah is 5-2 in the league, 14-7 overall, and already has a win over BYU. Co-leaders UNLV and San Diego State, two teams that beat the Utes at home, still have to visit Salt Lake City.
• Northeastern knows how to handle success. The Huskies beat Delaware handily at home Saturday after a sweep of Old Dominion and VCU on the road to maintain their lead in the Colonial.
• Buffalo is having a banner sports year. The Bulls' football team had an epic season by winning the MAC title game and earning a bid to the International Bowl in Toronto. Now the Buffs' basketball squad is the class of the MAC with a 56-43 win over Toledo to move to 6-1.
• Get used to Northern Iowa as your Valley representative. The Panthers may still need to win the conference tournament, but it's hard to dismiss their chances at this point. UNI collected its 10th straight win with a 61-57 triumph at Indiana State and is 10-1 in the Valley -- with a three-game lead in the loss column over Illinois State, Bradley and Creighton.
Andy Katz is a senior writer for ESPN.com.