South Carolina coach Frank Martin has a better understanding of his school's rivalry with Clemson after losing his first two matchups with the Tigers. Now is hoping to feel what it's like on the winning side of the series.
Martin and the Gamecocks (5-3) will get the next chance against Brad Brownell's Clemson Tigers (6-3) Friday night.
When Martin came from Kansas State after the 2011-12 season, he was accustomed to his rivalry games with Kansas also counting heavily in the Big 12 Conference chase so it took a bit to tap into the ferocity of this nonconference matchup.
"Our older fans still have a lot of pride in this game because that same thing used to exist" when South Carolina and Clemson competed in the Atlantic Coast Conference, Martin said.
"It's a great thing," Martin continued, "whenever you have two schools from the same state that represent power conferences, they compete with each other in everything, marketing, admissions, it's just across the board."
And it's a competition, one in which Martin and the Gamecocks have fallen short in the past two seasons. South Carolina, though, comes in off an impressive 75-49 victory over Oklahoma State on Dec. 6, its last contest because of finals.
Martin said his players kept up the progress during nearly two weeks of workouts, not letting the downtime affect their work habits.
"It's kind of been to keep our minds in tune with what we do," he said. "Guys have done great."
Along with keeping its edge in the rivalry, Clemson is seeking to finish the regular season 4-0 against Southeastern Conference opponents. The Tigers rallied to defeat LSU 64-61 at the Paradise Jam last month, then came back from six-points down in the final minute of regulation in a 68-65 overtime win against Arkansas, at the time No. 18 in the country.
Last Sunday, Clemson topped Auburn 72-61 to stay perfect against the SEC.
Clemson coach Brad Brownell said South Carolina will offer a strong test with its physical style.
"Definitely going to be physical so we have to play tough," Tigers center Landry Nnoko said. "It won't be easy. We have to go work for it."
The game also will be a showdown of two improving sets of guards.
South Carolina features senior Tyrone Johnson and sophomores Sindarius Thornwell and Duane Notice. The trio have combined for 33.9 points a game this season and have pushed the pace on the Gamecocks offense.
Clemson is led by senior point guard Rod Hall and shooting guards Damarcus Harrison and Jaron Blossomgame. Hall has scored 19 and 20 points in the last two outings — wins over Arkansas and Auburn — and taken charge of the Tigers' attack. Harrison and Blossomgame share the team lead, averaging 12 points a game this year.
Blossomgame has posted double-doubles in four of Clemson's past five games.
Martin said Clemson's strength is its attention to detail and not making mistakes. The Tigers were second in the ACC and fifth nationally in points given up last season and Martin thinks the defensive intensity is similar this year.
"They've gone out and beaten everyone in our league," Martin said. "So we're the last hope for the SEC in terms of Clemson."
Martin likes his team's position heading into this one.
After going a combined 28-38 in his first two seasons — Martin's only losing campaigns as a college head coach — the coach said his players have taken more ownership of the program. The next step is a win over Clemson, which would show their progress.
"We're not there yet," Martin said. "But we're so much closer than we were two years ago."
Tigers, Gamecocks renew hardwood rivalry
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