Fans in Columbia as well as casual viewers and national pundits may be caught off guard by South Carolina's basketball team, its 9-3 record, and their current seven game winning streak, but the Gamecocks' head coach Frank Martin is not surprised by the waves his team is making. "I see the work they put in every single day and everything they do," Martin said. "It's a whole lot of fun to be around."
All the fun going on in Columbia really earned national recognition this past weekend after South Carolina upset No. 9 Iowa State in a neutral court battle in Brooklyn, NY. It was the Gamecocks' first top-10 win since they beat John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, and the No. 1 Kentucky Wildcats in January of 2010.
The upset was aided by an incredibly poor shooting performance by the Cyclones, who missed their first 15 3-pointers and finished 1-of-18 from beyond the arc. The Gamecocks however dominated the lead much of the game, only trailing for 1:46 the entire game. The Three Musketeers combined for 41 of South Carolina's 64 points, with Duane Notice once again leading the team with 15. Sophomore guard Sindarius Thornwell was the hero for the Gamecocks though. He had five of his 13 points in the final 2 minutes and sealed the game with a pair of layups and a clutch foul shot. His heroics earned him the honor of SEC Player of the Week.
As satisfying as Saturday night was, the Gamecocks don't have time to get comfortable. The Florida Gators (7-6) enter Colonial Life Arena tonight, a program that has won six straight within a 13-3 run in their last 16 meetings against USC. "We have Florida on Wednesday," Frank Martin said. "We can't get overjoyed in January because we have 18 conference games left, one right after the other."
Tonight's matchup is the SEC opener for both teams, and the Gators hope conference play goes better than their non-conference slate. Three of Florida's six early season losses came in frustrating, heart-breaking fashion. The Gators blew double-digit, second half leads in games versus Miami, Kansas, and UConn. Florida most recently lost a Final Four rematch to UConn, a game that featured the Gators missing 12-of-20 free throws, including four foul shots in the last 40 seconds. Florida has lost two in a row after a four-game winning streak and head coach Billy Donovan may be able to see into the future according to one player. Junior Dorian Finney-Smith, the Gators' second leading scorer, said Donovan called the team's recent struggles weeks before they happened. "Donovan did tell us and now we're seeing it first-hand because we didn't listen," Finney-Smith said after the Gators' loss to UConn.
Donovan hopes that SEC play will provide his team with a different mindset. "We are starting in terms of we're play for something now," he said. "I'm not saying we weren't playing for anything; you're always playing for something. There's going to be a new champion at the end of this (SEC play) and those kind of things. But I think it's an opportunity to continue to grow and kind of get better as a basketball team...'Can you guys rally and pull it together?' That's been our struggle. It's been a hard challenge."
The Gators' have used nine different starting lineups in their 13 games but guard Michael Frazier II and forward Dorian Finney-Smith have been the cornerstones. Frazier, the team's leading scorer at 14.1 points per game, terrorized the Gamecocks in USC's season finale last year.
Despite the most recent precedents, the Gamecocks are a one point favorite tonight over the Gators. Although Florida is just a game above .500, they are still a basketball team that is very capable of winning this game on the road in Columbia. Despite the Gators lackluster performances as of late, a win tonight for South Carolina can be yet another statement by the SEC dark horse. The game tips at 7:00pm ET and will be broadcasted on the SEC Network.