Gamecocks enter SEC play with momentum

Frank Martin's South Carolina team started 0-6 last season in SEC play.

A seven-game winning streak. A six-game losing skid. One of them will have to give when South Carolina's past and present collide Wednesday night at Colonial Life Arena.

That is when a surging Gamecocks basketball team opens SEC play against defending league champion Florida, which hasn't lost to USC in four years. Thanks to a seven-game win streak which most recently includes an upset of then-No. 9 Iowa State, South Carolina has received a handful of AP Top 25 votes and some mention as an NCAA tournament candidate. But now looms the matter of conference play, which has proven the undoing of Frank Martin's squad the past two seasons.

That was certainly the case a year ago, when a USC team that had won five of its final six pre-conference games stumbled to an 0-6 start in the SEC. Then as now that conference slate opens with the Gators, who may not be looking like their usual selves, but have still won six straight over the Gamecocks.

"For my sleeping habits, I hope we don't start in a hole," Martin said. "But regardless of how I feel privately, it's my job to get these guys excited about the next day, and that's what I try to do."

That should be considerably less difficult now, given that the Gamecocks (9-3) are enjoying their longest winning streak in a decade, and playing the best basketball of Martin's tenure in Columbia. If anything, the bigger mystery is Florida (7-6) which has already used nine different starting lineups and enters the 7 p.m. matchup having lost consecutive games to Florida State and Connecticut.

Forward Dorian Finney-Smith, the Gators' second-leading scorer, missed three games after breaking his hand in two places in the season opener. Guard Eli Carter missed four games with a sprained foot, and only returned Saturday against the Huskies. Forward Chris Walker was suspended the first three games for violating team rules, freshman Brandone Francis is sitting out the season due to academic issues stemming from high school, and guard Dillon Graham decided to transfer.

Although the Gators have played a brutal schedule, this is a long way from the Florida team that was ranked No. 1 when USC traveled to Gainesville a year ago.

"This is going to be a process with this group," coach Billy Donovan said. "It's a good group, they work hard, but they're learning what really goes into this. And I think some of our struggles in a lot of ways have been, in a large part for me as coach, even though you don't like going through it, it's been humbling, and I think it's been really, really good for these guys to understand you aren't just given things. You have to go out there and earn them."

The lone returning starter from Florida's Final Four squad last season is guard Michael Frazier - who lit up the Gamecocks for 37 points and a school-record 11 3-pointers last March in Columbia.

"For them to have won the number of games they have, with the unfortunate situations from transfers to injuries to the suspension at the beginning of the year, with the schedule they've played - they should be commended rather than looked at as not being as good," Martin said. "I think Florida as we move forward will continue to become one of the powers in the country."

The Gamecocks, meanwhile, will be trying to win their SEC opener for the first time since 2011 - and avoid the kind of losing skid which buried them early in conference play last season.

"We have a lot of guys who have come back and have one year under their belts," said USC guard Tyrone Johnson, "and know what it takes to play in this league."