COLUMBIA — One thing Frank Martin has emphasized, perhaps more than anything else since he took over as South Carolina’s basketball coach, is the importance of not only his players learning his up-tempo, aggressive playing style, but also of him learning them.

South Carolina vs. Mississippi State WHEN: 8 p.m. WHERE: Humphrey Coliseum, Starkville, Miss. TV: RADIO: RECORDS: USC 10-3; Mississippi State 5-7 NOTES: The Bulldogs’ first-year coach, Rick Ray, spent the past two seasons as the associate head coach under Brad Brownell at Clemson. The Bulldogs are one of three SEC teams with seven losses, along with 6-7 Auburn and Georgia. Mississippi State’s victories are over Florida Atlantic by 20 points, Alcorn State by 18, Texas-San Antonio by 11, Central Arkansas by seven and New Orleans (one of two Division I independent teams) by 51.

Through 13 non-conference games, mostly against inferior competition, Martin has certainly learned some things about the Gamecocks (10-3). But with non-league play over and USC staring down an 18-game Southeastern Conference schedule, starting tonight at Mississippi State, Martin is prepared to learn much more about his first USC team.

Last summer, Martin said adversity would reveal his players’ character. Though they are bound to face plenty of it during SEC play, they have a legitimate chance of starting 2-0, because after traveling to undermanned Mississippi State, they host struggling Auburn on Saturday.

The Gamecocks went 10-21 last season and 2-14 in the SEC, so a 12-3 (2-0) start would constitute something of a step forward for Martin. But he understands that no victory — tonight, Saturday or the rest of the way in the SEC — is a sure thing for USC.

The Gamecocks could have two players back tonight. Point guard Bruce Ellington, who is technically on a football scholarship as a wide receiver, returns as a full-time basketball player. He missed nine of the first 13 games, including the past three. Depending on how starting wing player Michael Carrera’s hip responds, he could return tonight from a two-game absence.

With shooting guard LaShay Page academically ineligible for the rest of the season, Ellington is USC’s best player. A Berkeley High graduate, he was USC’s leading scorer two seasons ago as a freshman and its No. 2 scorer last season. In Martin’s limited practice time with Ellington, between the end of football’s regular season and bowl practices, the coach also noticed Ellington possesses something critical for a team learning how to win.

“We’re not coaching a group of freshmen that have got their opinions of how things should be done, and an opinion of how good they are, and you’re trying to break them like that young colt,” Martin said. “We’re coaching a group of guys that have been wounded and we’re trying to get them to feel good about themselves again.

“We don’t have that with Bruce. The other guys, we’ve had to manage that (confidence level) a little bit. We have to be careful how we coach them because they’ve played without confidence before. With Bruce, that confidence is never gone. There’s a sense of confidence about him that kind of permeates through our team, and it’s exciting when you see someone like that.”

As Ellington transitions from football to basketball for the second straight year, “he just comes right in like he never left,” said forward Lakeem Jackson.

Ellington will try to translate practice success to tonight’s game against the Bulldogs (5-7), who have lost to Troy, Loyola Chicago and Alabama A&M.

Mississippi State’s first-year coach, former Clemson assistant Rick Ray, is dealing with tough circumstances. The Bulldogs lost their top four scorers and five of their top six. Two of those five ran out of eligibility. Two others turned pro early, including leading scorer Arnett Moultrie. No. 3 scorer Rodney Hood transferred to Duke. No. 7 scorer Deville Smith also transferred. No. 8 scorer Wendell Lewis returned, but is out until at least February with a knee injury.

Last year’s No. 5 scorer, Jalen Steele, is second this year in scoring but has played just four games because of a wrist injury, including the past two games. With Steele’s return, “we’re all the way up to a booming seven scholarship players,” said Ray. “We haven’t had a chance to get better in practice a lot because we’re playing against managers and coaches.”

Said Martin: “Any time that I go home and I might be a little frustrated, you look at what coach Ray has gone through. That first year is never the easiest. For a first-time head coach, he’s probably had to deal with a lot more adversity than anyone should have to deal with, and he’s got them playing extremely hard.”