Strong Florida team up first as Gamecocks begin SEC schedule

dcloninger@thestate.comJanuary 7, 2014 

South Carolina guard Brenton Williams (1)

JEFF BLAKE — USA TODAY Sports

  • SOUTH CAROLINA (7-6, 0-0 SEC) at NO. 10 FLORIDA (11-2, 0-0)

    WHEN: 7 p.m. Wednesday

    WHERE: Stephen C. O’Connell Center, Gainesville, Fla.

    TV: CSS (Time Warner Cable Channel 506 to customers with a digital box, and standard cable as a minimum package. The game will also be available on channel 491 for Sports Pass subscribers.)

    South Carolina’s probable starters: G Duane Notice 6-2 Fr. (6.7 ppg, 2.5 rpg); G Sindarius Thornwell 6-5 Fr. (10.8 ppg, 3.5 rpg); G Brenton Williams 6-1 Sr. (11.2 ppg, 1.8 rpg); F Demetrius Henry 6-9 Fr. (7.1 ppg, 5.2 rpg); F Mindaugas Kacinas 6-7 So. (6.0 ppg, 5.8 rpg)

    Florida’s probable starters: G Scottie Wilbekin 6-2 Sr. (11.8 ppg, 3.3 rpg); G Michael Frazier 6-4 So. (11.9 ppg, 3.5 rpg); F Will Yeguete 6-8 Sr. (4.8 ppg, 5.2 rpg); F Casey Prather 6-6 Sr. (17.3 ppg, 5.8 rpg); C Patric Young 6-9 Sr. (10.8 ppg, 5.9 rpg)

    NEXT: USC hosts LSU at 1:30 p.m. on Saturday.

It lingers.

“Me being here last year, I remember what that game went like,” senior guard Brenton Williams said on Tuesday. “Frank said that he had kind of put the schedule he did put together to make similar atmospheres like Florida.”

South Carolina was 2-4 in the SEC on Jan. 30 last year, heading to Florida to face another strong edition of the Gators. The Gamecocks were coming off a win against Arkansas and thought they were on the cusp of turning the corner — yes, they had lost four SEC games, but by a combined 18 points. They were right there.

Florida revealed how far that corner was.

The Gators hammered USC 75-36, the worst SEC loss in school history and Frank Martin’s worst loss as a head coach. The Gamecocks never shook the debacle as the loss triggered a six-game losing streak. USC stumbled away a strong nonconference season and finished 14-18, 4-14 in the league.

Martin blamed himself for the easy nonconference season, saying that it didn’t do nearly enough to toughen USC when it came time for the SEC, and didn’t prepare the Gamecocks for what it would take to win. Martin took steps to make sure it wouldn’t happen again.

This season’s nonconference schedule was significantly stronger, and after a rough start, USC’s hatchlings have responded to win their past four and stand 7-6 entering SEC play. All isn’t perfect, but the Gamecocks feel good about themselves as they again head into the gauntlet of the SEC, which begins Wednesday at Florida.

“We know what to expect from the get-go,” said Williams, who has averaged 17.4 points over his past five games. “Not being psyched out by the crowd. We should be definitely more prepared next time.”

“If you finish in the upper half of your conference, then the strength of your nonconference schedule gets you into the NCAA tournament,” Martin said. “But you still have to win games, that’s the bottom line. Everyone’s goal is to win the league, but if you don’t win the league, the goal is the top third. Now we’re going to find out how ready we are for conference play.”

Once again, Florida (11-2, 0-0 SEC) is loaded with talent. The Gators rose past an early season filled with injuries and suspensions to crack the country’s Top 10, and this could be the season that has eluded Florida for the past three. The Gators have been to three consecutive Elite Eights, but haven’t found the one more victory to get to the Final Four.

With four seniors in the starting lineup and McDonald’s All-Americans on the bench, Florida might be the best team in the SEC, no matter how much NBA talent Kentucky rolls on the court every night. It’s a formidable challenge for USC, one that it will face again in Columbia on March 4 in the home finale, but it’s the next game on the schedule.

No use looking at the stretch (which is as brutal as usual), since those games are in the future. Wednesday night is about Florida and the chance to start the SEC 1-0.

It’s also a chance to see what Martin wants for the Gamecocks, what he had at Kansas State and what he hopes to have here.

“You can argue that they’ve been the most consistent program in this league since the late ’90s,” Martin said. The process of a winning program is already in place. When you get that culture of winning in place … that’s hard to overcome as an opposing team, but that’s the challenge we’ve got right now. But I’m excited where we’re at.”

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