By Rixon Lane || Gamecock basketball fans, step away from the ledge.
Yes, this week’s shellacking on the road against No. 4 Florida was a soul-crushing massacre that likely sent even the most optimistic USC supporters into the fetal position. However, Gamecock fans need to take a deep breath and think about South Carolina’s basketball season up to this point. At 12-8 overall and 2-5 in the SEC, the Gamecocks aren’t exactly evoking memories of the Frank McGuire years.
But then again they also aren’t reminding anyone of last year’s team …
In his first twenty games at the helm of the program, first-year head coach Frank Martin has had to tackle, among other things, an apathetic fan base, a shuffling roster and a conference slate with two roads trips against nationally ranked opponents. The good news? The Gamecocks have slowly started to bring fans back to the cavernous Colonial Life Arena with their impassioned play. The bad news? Yeah – the Florida game.
Led by fiery freshman Michael Carrera, the Gamecocks are giving fans something to cheer about. Student turnout has also improved in Martin’s first season on the bench. And while the Garnet Army may still be more Valley Forge than Fort Knox – the buzz around USC basketball is louder on campus than it has been in a while.
Already Martin has led the Gamecocks to more overall victories and just as many conference wins as last season – despite having to shift his lineup more than a Major League infield. South Carolina was without the services of freshman center Laimonas Chatkevicius for the first six games of the year because of an NCAA violation by his host family. Then the Gamecocks lost guard LaShay Page for the year due to an academic issue. And of course Bruce Ellington missed a significant portion of the non-conference schedule while playing with the football team. Even Carrera has missed games with various injuries.
Despite all of this, Martin has been able to find the right combinations to get the Gamecocks four games over .500 with 11 games left.
South Carolina’s non-conference schedule was one of the softest in college basketball, but the Gamecocks pulled out ten wins in their first 13 games under Martin’s staff. As expected, SEC play has proven to be more difficult. Consider this, though: Four of USC’s five conference losses have come by a combined 18 points – with the blowout defeat in Gainesville being the outlier.
The rest of USC’s conference slate will not be easy. The Gamecocks play four of the top five teams in the SEC in February, including road trips to Kentucky and Alabama. However, South Carolina will also play three teams currently in the basement of the league – and USC needs just four wins to ensure a winning record in the regular season.
The Florida game was as ugly as ugly can be, but the Gators have humiliated many teams this season and will humiliate many more before the season is over. USC didn’t get blown out by the Washington Generals. The Gamecocks were bombarded by a legitimate national championship contender in one of the more intimidating arenas in college basketball. A 39-point loss is never acceptable, but one embarrassing night against a top-notch opponent should not negate the progress made during South Carolina’s first nineteen contests.
Rixon Lane is a junior broadcast journalism major at the University of South Carolina. He hosts a sports talk show on WUSC 90.5 from 8:00-10:00 p.m. on Mondays.
Pics: Travis Bell, Sideline Carolina