Sapakoff: Gamecocks are more than an SEC basketball opportunist

South Carolina head basketball coach Frank Martin. (AP Photo/Mary Ann Chastain)

It’s campaign week in South Carolina with Columbia the hotbed. Forget what the polls say. Expect the rough stuff.

If the upstart can separate from a crowded field of candidates, national implications are just around the corner.

Early returns are promising for South Carolina, a 94-83 winner over LSU and projected first-overall NBA draft pick Ben Simmons on Wednesday night at Colonial Life Arena. Surviving a foul-filled tussle puts South Carolina in a three-way tie for first place in the SEC with LSU and Kentucky.

The stumping peaks Saturday when John Calipari and suddenly not-so-intimidating Kentucky come to town.

“We still have to stay the course,” USC junior guard Sindarius Thornwell said after scoring 24 points. “This game is over. We’re looking forward to Saturday’s game. On to the next.”

Sound like any several politicians you know?

The timing is perfect for South Carolina, 21-3 and 8-3 in the SEC. The program hasn’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 2004 and is blossoming in Frank Martin’s fourth season as head coach. Conveniently, the SEC is having such a weak year that only No. 15 Texas A&M and No. 22 Kentucky are currently ranked.

But the Gamecocks that won in College Station last week and against LSU are more than opportunists. They are good enough to win the conference, make the NCAA Tournament and advance.

Martin got caught up in the excitement right along with 16,009 fans. He started waving his arms for more noise in the second half.

“I did that at K-State and (former Indiana and Texas Tech head coach) Bob Knight put me in a headlock in the tunnel,” Martin said. “He said, ‘You’re a basketball coach, not a cheerleader.’”

Martin had to do it Monday night, had to coach the crowd.

“When you’re changing the culture,” he said, “it’s not just the players. It’s everybody.”

The loudest students at Colonial Life Arena did their best to rattle Simmons. The 6-10 Australian, on loan to college basketball for a year on his way to the Los Angeles Lakers or some other depressed NBA team, finished with a nice stat line: 20 points, six rebounds and six assists.

But Simmons made only 4 of 9 foul shots while blasted with various chants.

“I’m used to people calling my name every game and saying ‘Overrated’ or whatever it is,” Simmons said. “I just play. I try not to pay too much attention to it. Once I’m on the court and playing, I’m playing.”

He did, however, give the student section a long stare-down after one of his dunks (that was nullified by a whistle).

While LSU (15-9, 8-3) didn’t look much like an SEC title contender at 4-4 in non-conference play in December, the Tigers that stopped by Columbia are not the same team that lost 70-58 at the College of Charleston on Nov. 30. Starters Keith Hornsby (son of music star Bruce Hornsby) and Craig Victor II were unavailable against the Cougars.

“Ever since those guys have been back, they’re a deep NCAA (Tournament) team,” Martin said.

Simmons leads the SEC in rebounding, is third in scoring and fifth in assists. But he distinguishes himself with ball-handling and passing skills no 6-10 player should possess. He can screen, back-pedal and deflect, and deal room service assists out of a triple-team. He scored 43 points against North Florida, 36 against Vanderbilt and grabbed rebounds against Marquette.

A ferocious two-hand dunk after running down the lane in traffic cut a South Carolina lead to 44-38 early in the second half. If or when Simmons decides to get more consistently aggressive, look out.

Thornwell, Michael Carrera and Mindaugas Kacinas tried individually guarding Simmons on the same possession in the second half — only to have guard Antonio Blakeney find open space to make a jump shot.

But all the NBA scouts on hand to see Simmons brought out the best in South Carolina. Nine players played 11 or more minutes.

Campaign week is just getting started. The Gamecocks can do more culture changing Saturday by riding momentum to sole possession of first place in the SEC.

Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff