COLUMBIA — For a good while Saturday afternoon, it appeared as though South Carolina’s basketball team, which is not expected to be very good this season, would receive a legitimate challenge from South Carolina State, which is expected to be worse.
The Gamecocks pulled away and won 80-69 to conclude their non-conference schedule, improve to 10-3 and equal their overall win total from last season. At the very least, their record cannot be any more flawed than last season’s 10-21, because they would need to lose all 18 of their Southeastern Conference games to equal that dubious distinction.
First-year coach Frank Martin obviously will not be judged in the long run on games like Saturday’s. USC’s performance in Southeastern Conference play matters above all else. Now, Martin can prepare the Gamecocks for their SEC opener Wednesday at Mississippi State, an undermanned team that USC has more than a decent chance of beating.
While Martin knows that his first non-conference schedule — largely crafted by his predecessor, Darrin Horn — is one of college basketball’s least impressive, he certainly won’t give back any of USC’s 10 wins. A team coming off three straight losing seasons, and a 13-35 SEC record in that time, needs all the experience with success it can get.
“When you’re trying to deliver a message to players, when you’re trying to get them to do certain things and you’re trying to hold them accountable to playing a certain way and the demands that you place on them, and you don’t win games, they hear from so many people,” Martin said. “See, back in the day, you could hide. You can’t hide anymore, because of the Internet and social media and text messages and all that stuff.
“Well, by winning, you kind of quiet all that outside noise and it allows the focus to stay on what you’re trying to do. That’s important that it happens eventually. Or else, you know what they do? They say, ‘Well, shoot, this isn’t working. Why should I keep doing this?’ So I think it’s given us some confidence.”
Entering Saturday, USC’s strength of schedule ranked 343rd of the 347 Division I teams. It was not helped much by playing South Carolina State (4-10). USC lost its toughest non-league games, to St. John’s and Clemson, and its other nine wins so far have come over teams whose records entering Saturday were a combined 43-81.
Still, USC is off to a better start, strictly from a record standpoint, than last season, when it went 8-6 in non-league play before nose-diving to 2-14 in the SEC regular season and ushering Horn into unemployment, albeit with a buyout that pays him $800,000 this year for not coaching.
The SEC expanded to an 18-game schedule this season with the addition of Missouri and Texas A&M. The way Martin’s first league schedule worked out, he could start 2-0, since next Saturday’s SEC home opener is against struggling Auburn. Martin must finish 6-12 in the SEC to avoid USC’s fourth straight losing overall record, which last happened in USC’s first four years in the SEC, 1991-92 to 1994-95.
Perhaps the Gamecocks’ inconsistent performance Saturday — they led by six points with 7:08 left — was inevitable because they had just eight scholarship players available. Starting freshman wing player Michael Carrera is nursing a sore hip. Starting shooting guard LaShay Page is academically ineligible for the rest of the season.
Point guard Bruce Ellington is with the team for the rest of the season now that his duties as a football wide receiver are complete. But Martin rested him Saturday. He will play at Mississippi State. It is unclear if Carrera will. With the loss of Page’s vocal senior leadership, the Gamecocks could use Carrera’s assertive presence on the court.
“(Page) is a big absence, but we know we have to play without him,” said shooting guard Brian Richardson, who scored 15 on Saturday — his fifth straight game in double figures.
USC, with a small margin for error, will need Richardson and leading scorer Brenton Williams to keep playing well. It will need the lone remaining senior, Lakeem Jackson, to lead now more than ever.
With Martin’s first team still experiencing changes, he was asked if the Gamecocks are ready for SEC play.
“I guess we’re going to find out now,” he said. “We don’t get to hide here. So we’re going to find out exactly how this is working.”