After South Carolina beat LSU on Wednesday, Coach Frank Martin asked his players to reflect as well as rejoice.
“Enjoy being tied for first place,” he said. “But it’s not time to celebrate. It’s time to reflect on three years ago and say, ‘I don’t want to go back there.’”
Thanks to the victory over LSU, South Carolina’s game against Kentucky on Saturday will feature two of the three teams sharing first place in the Southeastern Conference. LSU is the third.
For Kentucky, which has won 46 SEC regular-season championships, this is same-old, same-old. The past gives reasons to believe.
As Martin advised, South Carolina does not want to think of its basketball past except as a cautionary tale. It is a wasteland of irrelevance. Three years ago, which was Martin’s first as coach, the Gamecocks had a 4-14 SEC record. Progress has been steady, but slow: 5-13 two seasons ago and 6-12 last season.
This slog represents South Carolina’s version of same old-same old.
Going into this season, the Gamecocks had the worst won-loss record in SEC history: 144-246. The .369 winning percentage was worse than any of the other 13 league teams, and worse than former members Tulane and Georgia Tech.
With an 8-3 SEC record this season, South Carolina needs one more victory to assure itself of only the fifth non-losing record in 25 seasons in the league.
There’s been no NCAA Tournament victory since 1973.
Eddie Fogler, who guided South Carolina to its only SEC championship in 1996-97, linked the program’s historical futility to recruiting.
“It’s a small state,” he said. “The state doesn’t produce a large number of high Division I players.”
According to the 2010 census, South Carolina had a population of 4,625,401. Actually, that’s more people than Kentucky (4,339,349).
It’s a little easier to motivate guys to stay the course and do the extra work and attack opponents harder when you’re consistently winning.
Frank Martin, South Carolina head coach
The telling difference is tradition: Kentucky has it and proclaims its status as “the greatest program in the history of college basketball” before every home game. South Carolina hasn’t had it since Frank McGuire used players from New York City to build a national power in the 1960s and 1970s.
“Kids today and parents today have no clue who Coach McGuire is,” Fogler said.
The Palmetto State’s two biggest schools, South Carolina and Clemson, cannot count on recruiting the best homegrown talent.
“They sit, really, in ACC country,” Fogler said of the Gamecocks.
For example, this recruiting year saw North Carolina sign Seventh Woods, a four-star point guard from Hammond High School in Columbia, S.C.
“So where do you go to recruit becomes the question ... ,” Fogler said. “South Carolina hasn’t had a consistent farm system.”
It doesn’t help any that South Carolina (21-3 overall) is the only first-place team from a so-called Power Five conference not rated in The Associated Press Top 25 this week.
It’s taken four years, but Martin has made South Carolina relevant. He’s improvised, as evidenced by a front line that consists of two Lithuanians (Mindaugas Kacinas and Laimonas Chatkevicius) and a Venezuelan (Michael Carrera).
With three seniors (Kacinas, Chatkevicius, Carrera) and two juniors (Sindarius Thornwell, Duane Notice) joined by McDonald’s All-American P.J. Dozier and other talented freshmen, the Gamecocks have arrived.
“It took us almost two full years to win 20 games,” Martin said. Actually, the Gamecocks got there in Year 4.
“It’s a little easier to motivate guys to stay the course and do the extra work, and attack opponents harder when you’re consistently winning.”
In Martin’s first three seasons, South Carolina competed but often did not win. That’s changed this season, as evidenced by the 94-83 victory over LSU.
“Our kids just battle, battle, battle,” Martin said. “And when the game gets hard, we find a way to win.”
LSU Coach Johnny Jones tipped his hat to the Gamecocks.
“We put ourselves in position to win late in the basketball game, but we didn’t make the plays we needed,” Jones said. “In the second half, it was a great battle. But they did a good job of making plays.”
South Carolina improved its home record this season to 13-0 (5-0 in SEC play).
Fans are responding. South Carolina averages 12,144 in home attendance, its highest since 2007-08. Saturday’s expected sellout crowd should boost that average.
The Gamecocks’ victories at Auburn, Ole Miss and Texas A&M marked the first time since 2009 that the program won three SEC road games.
Thornwell, who led South Carolina with 24 points against LSU, said he and his teammates would not let the victory cloud preparation for Kentucky.
“We’re not letting the moment get to our heads,” he said. “It doesn’t mean anything until you’re at the top.”
No. 22 Kentucky at South Carolina
Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1
Records: Kentucky 18-6 (8-3 SEC), South Carolina 21-3 (8-3)
Series: Kentucky leads 49-11
Last meeting: Kentucky won 77-43 on Feb. 14, 2015, in Lexington.