Youth has been the theme for South Carolina.
Laying a solid foundation has been paramount to coach Frank Martin and his program, a tactic he knew might produce a rough season, but would have the Gamecocks better off in the future.
USC (10-18, 3-12 SEC) has been overwhelmed by inexperience, a team with seven freshmen and eight newcomers incapable of handling players who have been in college for three or four seasons.
Saturday, USC has an advantage in experience for the first time.
Ken Pomeroy, a hoops guru who tracks team youth, ranks USC No. 343 in experience, checking in with 0.90 years per player. Players need to have played in at least 10 percent of a team’s minutes to qualify, and the Gamecocks’ number is above the 0.33 years of Kentucky, USC’s opponent. The Wildcats rank last at No. 351.
The problem for USC is Kentucky’s lack of experience is surpassed by talent — future NBA-lottery-pick talent. Of the No. 17 Wildcats’ nine freshmen, a record-setting six were named McDonald’s All-Americans last year, and two of those play less than 12 minutes per game.
Kentucky (21-7, 11-4) looked so unstoppable in the preseason that coach John Calipari and his players talked about going 40-0 and setting records as the greatest team of all time. That bit the dust three games into the season when the Wildcats lost to Michigan State, but Kentucky is still headed to the NCAA tournament.
The Wildcats can be beaten. Arkansas put itself squarely back on the NCAA tournament bubble on Thursday by defeating the Wildcats in overtime in Rupp Arena.
Mired in a three-game losing streak and closing in on the fifth 20-loss season in program history, don’t think Martin isn’t stressing the why-not-us mantra to his players.
“There’s three more games on the schedule,” Martin said after Wednesday’s loss at Auburn. “You have to make sure that you go into practice with the mind-set the right way. This will show the character we have in the young kids in how we respond.”
USC has struggled defensively lately, and its offense has been sinking as well. Sindarius Thornwell doesn’t seem to have his usual spring, scoring four points on 2-of-13 shooting against the Tigers. Brenton Williams, who poured in 26 points at Auburn, can’t do it by himself.
“I think that could be a factor,” Williams said of Thornwell. “The minutes he’s playing are starting to catch up to him. But he will definitely get it together.”
The mountain might look insurmountable, especially with No. 1 Florida coming up on Tuesday.
“We are trying to build a program,” Martin said. “We are not in a place where we can compete for any type of championship right now. We’ve got three weeks of basketball left. We have to make sure that we continue to prepare well.”
Follow on Twitter at @DCTheState