Signs of USC turnaround evident even in defeat

Laimonas Chatkevicius (left) and Michael Carrera have blossomed this season.

Players wore downcast expressions and talked in somber tones. The head coach settled behind the microphone with a heavy sigh, and said his team got what it deserved. It wasn't a victory, but the funereal atmosphere following South Carolina's four-point loss to the reigning SEC champions perhaps spoke just as loudly about how far the program has come.

There was no moral victory in losing 72-68 to Florida, not for a team that had been on its longest winning streak in over a decade, and one day earlier received its first AP Top 25 votes since 2009. Almost overnight, expectations in Columbia have changed - expectations for each game, and certainly for a season that suddenly seems to hold the potential for the Gamecocks' first postseason bid in six years.

All of this with essentially the same roster that went 14-20 a season ago. What happened? According to head coach Frank Martin, one year of development has made a difference.

"You can't take year one and year two and combine them," Martin said, referring to this season and last, "because it was two different teams."

Last season, USC had five freshmen trying to find their way in Martin's defensive-minded system. Sophomore Michael Carrera battled injuries which hampered his conditioning. Mindaugas Kacinas and Laimonas Chatkevicius hadn't been present for workouts the preseason summer. The struggle of meshing those disparate pieces showed in a spate of late-game shortcomings - particularly in the grind of conference play.

"We continued to push forward, and at the end of the year we won some of those types of games," Martin said. "And then you go into the offseason, and you have another year of maturation, guys going from 18 to 19. That doesn't sound real complex, but ... it's a tremendous difference in your life, especially when you're training like a high-major athlete trains every day. Guys have a year more of understanding of our system."

That process isn't as easy as it sounds - particularly at a program like South Carolina, which is coming off five consecutive losing seasons and hasn't been relevant nationally since the days of Dave Odom. Although Martin has higher-profile recruits like Columbia's P.J. Dozier coming in next season, this current group has undertaken the hard labor of reversing a decade-long slide.

"I think anytime you take over a program, and you are changing or trying to change a team to have them represent and embody what you believe in ... that is a long process to get your culture established," said Florida head coach Billy Donovan. "I think Frank, with his passion, has probably gone through, the last couple of years, some real ups and downs with some of these guys."

And yet, there were signs of this even last season, when a freshman-laden Gamecocks squad seemed to find its stride. South Carolina is 13-6 since its upset of Kentucky on March 1, a stretch which also includes victories over Mississippi State, Auburn, Arkansas, Oklahoma State, Clemson, and then-No. 9 Iowa State last weekend.

"That's a really good sample that includes conference opponents, non-conference opponents, and the SEC tournament," said Dane Bradshaw, a two-year starter at Tennessee and now an SEC Network analyst. "So they've been coming on strong since the end of last year. But I think because it was only a handful of games, people weren't ready to buy in and say, 'This is a team to watch for next year.' And I think they were OK with flying under the radar."

They're not under the radar anymore. The Gamecocks (9-4, 0-1 SEC) play Ole Miss (9-5, 0-1) Saturday at 5 p.m. in what looms as a key game for a program that started 0-6 in the conference last season. Bradshaw has witnessed a turnaround firsthand - he was part of a Vols team that went 14-17 under Buzz Peterson, and 22-8 the next year under Bruce Pearl. And he knows that players who have been there through the struggle keep a tight grip on whatever success they can find.

"We had been kind of the laughingstock of the SEC. The women's team was always better than us, the football team was always better than us. We were so hungry for success, and we were enjoying it so much, that we never lost that edge and never got complacent, because we knew what it was like to be at the bottom," he said.

He expects USC players feel the same way. "Because these guys have experienced the cellar of the SEC, they don't ever want to go back. That's something that's going to make this team unique. ... These kind of teams early on in the rebuilding stage of the program are really in my opinion the special ones, because they have that appreciation for failure."

Which perhaps is why the loss to Florida - the Gamecocks' fourth straight setback in an SEC opener - stung so much.

"We've got 18 games, and if we don't find a way to win our share of them, there's no culture change whatsoever," Martin said. "But at the same time, our guys have an understanding."

And one game hasn't undone the progress USC has made to this point.

"They probably caught Florida at a tough time where Florida was more desperate for a win than they were," Bradshaw said. "But even then, they remained very competitive. I don't think losing to Florida at home, in my opinion, made me think any less of them."