Gamecocks eye season opener
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Gamecocks eye season opener

South Carolina is set to start the 2012-2013 season this weekend against Wisconsin-Milwaukee. It's a new era for Gamecock basketball and one that brings a lot of excitement under the leadership of Frank Martin and his staff.

College basketball is officially back for the men of Columbia.

South Carolina will kick off its season opener against Wisconsin-Milwaukee on 3 p.m. Sunday at the Colonial Life Arena.

The game will be the first under a new staff after the last staff - led by Darrin Horn - was relieved of its duties at the conclusion of a 10-21, 2-14 (last in the SEC) season. Frank Martin will be the new face patrolling the sidelines leading the Gamecocks in the season opener.

"We're just excited that this week is finally here," Martin said at the press conference Wednesday. "The kids are excited, the coaches are excited and we look forward to everything that comes with the season."

The Gamecocks started off the season with a 68-67 win off a Brenton Williams (who led the team in scoring with 22 points) game-winner. The game was the lone exhibition for the Gamecocks.

"I'm really excited to get things going," assistant coach Matt Figger said. "We've just finished the dog days of October. We've had about 22 days of practice with the carrot out in front of them. So the grind has been tough on them. There's been good days and bad days. There's a new motivation for them now because the seasons kicks off on Sunday, and I'm excited to get this thing going and see what Carolina basketball is all about."

Martin brought his whole staff with him from Kansas State. The Wildcats finished 22-11 last season before being knocked out of the the NCAA tournament in the second round by the one-seed in their region - Syracuse.

"If you look at the past five years of a Frank Martin team, they attack," Figger said. "It might not be pretty, but we're going to get it done. Our mindset is to be the most physical team in the league. Not like a fist fight, but mentally tough and physically tough."

That toughness is something that the new staff is instilling in their new team. They want to attack the basket and get to the free-throw line and try to take advantage of their athleticism.

"I really like how we're attacking the basket," Figger said of this year's team. "We'll play with a little more of a faster tempo than they played last year. We've got a couple of guys capable of getting to the rim and getting fouled. This team is more athletic than what I expected. We want to play at the rim. We want to get the ball to the rim. I don't care who you are playing - whether it's Kentucky Wesleyan or Kentucky - if you put heat on the rim, you will put the other team in trouble."

The Gamecocks got to the line and shot the ball well from the stripe in the exhibition game, but one of the biggest problems was depth. South Carolina only had seven scholarship players available.

That should change for the opener, as the Gamecocks are expecting everyone to be ready except Bruce Ellington and Carlton Geathers. "We're at as full strength as we can possibly be," Figger said. "They're all cleared and available for Sunday's game."

The three players that didn't play in the exhibition game were Southern Miss senior transfer Lashay Page, sophomore Damian Leonard and freshman Mindaugas Kacinas.

"They are all practicing," Martin said. "Of the three, I would say the one that's the safest is Mindaugas Kacinas because of the injury. It's a sprained ankle. It was a really bad sprain, but it's a sprained ankle. The other two are kind of different and more complicated injuries. They are all practicing."

Which leads to the point of, who will start for the Gamecocks?

According to Figger and Martin, they aren't really sure yet.

"You've got to figure out a way to play and put the guys who contribute the best to winning the floor," Martin said. "If that means playing a bunch of six-foot guys, let's go do it. I'm not worked about what I don't got. I'm worked about what I do got. Those are our guys. That's the guys we line up and go with. We'll figure out a way to get things done."

Going into the game with Milwaukee, the expectations aren't high for the Gamecocks for this season. They are just focusing on getting through the first game and going from there.

"Our expectations are to be in every game and compete with the maximum effort," Figger said, "and we're going in with mentality of scoring one more basket than the opponent. We have no long-time goals, we are just focused on our next opponent. Right now, we are focused on UW-Milwaukee. Once you get into conference, those games get hard. So the objective and the goal for right now is to be able to beat UW-Milwaukee."

Lakeem Jackson enters the season as the lone non-transfer senior. He - along with Page - will be expected to really step up and carry the team on and off the court.

"I think (Lakeem) is learning (how to be a leader)," Figger said. "He's getting better and better at it everyday. He was better yesterday than he was a week ago. LaShay brings winning and leadership. He's a proven winner. He won at junior college and at Southern Miss. Not having him in practice has stunted our development. He's a vocal leader and goes hard in practice, and he brings those things. He's a grown man."

There are two Gamecocks that Figger expects to make huge strides and step up for the Gamecocks this year.

"I think that Eric Smith and Lakeem jackson (could break out)," he said. "They bring intensity and energy to practice. I think they will have good years. We need them to have good years."

The coaching staff is also hoping to have a big year out of the student section. They realize that have the support of the school is one key to being successful. That's why Martin has vowed to reach into his own pockets and buy food for the student section for the season opener.

"The one thing I will say about coach, he is a very giving person, and he wants everyone to take pride in their school," Figger said. "He wants the student section to get out and support the team. I can't tell you how many times the students helped us win the game (at K-state). We had a rambunctious student section."

"Obviously, that's what he's trying to generate," said Figger. "it's important to the coaches and players. I want to challenge the students to come out and help. I've seen how they helped the football team beat Georgia, and we need that every game."

Point blank, the coaches know they are up for a challenge, but it's a challenge they have accepted. They plan on preparing the team to be tough, and letting the guys go out and handle their own fate.

"I'm just looking forward to growing with this team and watching this team mature and grow and get better everyday in practice and just try to hold ourselves accountable as coaches and players," Figger said. "We're trying to go into every game with a chance to win. Our job as coaches is giving these kids the opportunity to win and giving these kids confidence."

According to Figger, confidence leads to consistency and consistency leads to wins. Confident or not, there's not much the Gamecocks can do to be worse than a season ago, so they'll use this rebuilding year to build a foundation of confidence and use it to re-build a program that is in need of confidence, consistency and wins.