COLUMBIA - South Carolina took its lumps in the non-conference season with frustrating losses to mid-major opponents, the kind that could make a power program blush.
There was a setback against Boise State. A home blowout against Manhattan. A shocker against USC Upstate. They were growing pains for a basketball team with seven freshmen and five sophomores.
For each disappointment, South Carolina coach Frank Martin said there was a bigger purpose.
"I'm happy with our schedule," Martin said earlier this week before SEC play began. "Now that it's over, I'm happy with how our guys handled adversity in the middle of that schedule. But, the one thing I think it did for us, it prepared us for conference play. Now we're going to find out how ready we are for conference play."
The Gamecocks got an early indicator Wednesday when they traveled to Florida, losing by 16 points at the No. 10 Gators. It was a predictable loss, much better than the 39-point drubbing USC suffered in Gainesville last season. Florida is the cream of the SEC, the best basketball the league can offer.
Now, a new challenge begins.
South Carolina (7-7, 0-1 SEC) will host LSU at 1:30 p.m. Saturday for its SEC home opener at Colonial Life Arena in Columbia. The Tigers (9-4, 0-1 SEC) will start a string of 13 unranked opponents for the Gamecocks in 14 games.
Martin revamped his team's non-conference schedule this season, trying to prepare his youngsters for the rigors of conference play. He knows better than to take the SEC lightly.
"I don't care what anybody says, our league is good," Martin said, indirectly answering those who criticize the quality of SEC basketball. "I could care less about what opinion is out there by some expert who doesn't coach, that just copies the opinions of others that don't coach either. Our league is hard."
Before Florida, South Carolina had won four straight games, and five of its past six. It was a momentum boost for the Gamecocks, who've only won four straight games under Martin one other time.
Martin is bringing his team along slowly, making sure he establishes a strong foundation for his program. It begins with beating fellow conference opponents, especially inside the home arena.
"We're going to have to play real good basketball to win one league game, and once that experience is over we're going to have to refocus ourselves to figure out the next one," Martin said.
"We're too young to think big picture yet. We have to stay in small pictures. We have to stay in the moment. We're way too young to understand the whole dynamic of a season. We've got to stay in the game right now."