Gamecocks hope tougher early schedule has team better prepared for SEC play

dcloninger@thestate.comJanuary 6, 2014 

Frank Martin

JEFF BLAKE — USA TODAY Sports

They’d all be happier with a better record.

Considering what a better record turned into last year, they feel much better about where this year is headed.

“I think we’re much more prepared for SEC play than we were last year,” South Carolina associate head coach Matt Figger said during Monday’s SEC coaches teleconference.

The Gamecocks take a 7-6 record into their SEC opener at No. 10 Florida on Wednesday, which isn’t joyful by any means. They have done well to pull themselves out of a 2-5 start and win their last four games, but it’s been with a mix of good and bad play.

“I get mad at my 6-year-old, too,” coach Frank Martin said after a sloppy win over S.C. State. “I wake up the next day, I’ve still got to help him. He’s my son. We’ll do that with these guys.”

The start might have been expected, with games at Baylor, Oklahoma State and Clemson plus a tough tournament in Hawaii against some solid mid-major teams. USC had to play against experienced, upperclassmen-laden squads while it came in with seven freshmen and a transfer who hadn’t played in nearly a year.

There was a method to the madness, though. Martin looked at last season, when his first USC team finished the non-conference schedule 10-4. Everybody was feeling real good about that until they lost four of their first five SEC games, part of a 4-14 tailspin.

The difference, Martin has said, is that the team didn’t play many tough teams in the non-conference schedule. When the Gamecocks were challenged, they didn’t know how to finish tight games in the SEC, leading to a two-point loss at Mississippi State, a three-point loss to Auburn, a seven-point loss to Vanderbilt and a six-point loss at Missouri. In between was an overtime win over LSU.

The close losses became big losses as the team got discouraged and lost its way. The Gamecocks finished 4-14 in the SEC and had another first-round flameout in the SEC tournament.

Martin looked at the team’s strength of schedule afterward. Even with the SEC teams factored in, USC ranked 167th in the country by warrennolan.com. He resolved to challenge his young team this year, in the hope that it would be toughened by the time SEC play came around and know how to finish those five crucial game-ending minutes.

The strength part has definitely worked, at least in terms of numbers. The Gamecocks are 36th by warrennolan.com, 37th by realtimerpi.com.

They also rebounded from consecutive home losses to Manhattan and USC Upstate to win two games in Hawaii, then win three straight at Colonial Life Arena.

Now to find out if Martin’s grand plan will pay off. It may not be evident right away, but thinks that by season’s end, USC will be winning a lot of the games they lost last year.

“To do that with all these freshmen that we got, with some of the concerns that I’ve had about our team, to be able to enter league play with 7-6, it says something about these kids,” Martin said. “I’ve been around this long enough to understand it’s not just about today, it’s about the whole ball of wax.”

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