COLUMBIA, South Carolina (AP) — South Carolina coach Frank Martin likes the spirit he's seen during the Gamecocks' four-game win streak and hopes the players can keep that going when they open Southeastern Conference play at No. 10 Florida this week.
South Carolina started 2-5, including consecutive home losses to Manhattan and USC Upstate, raised questions about the program. The Gamecocks' recent opponents have not been the level of competition they'll face in the SEC, but South Carolina (7-6) has won five of its last six games and opens league play with a growing sense of confidence.
Martin says practices have picked up and his young team believes the work they've put in is paying off. They will find out how much against the Gators (11-2), who have won four straight over the Gamecocks.
"I'm encouraged. We're starting to develop a corps of guys that are getting it every day," Martin said.
Martin understood this season would have a few bumps, particularly with eight newcomers — including seven freshmen — on his roster. Things looked ready to implode last month with the consecutive home losses when the Gamecocks found some stability about 4,600 miles away from campus at the Diamond Head Classic in Hawaii during Christmas week. South Carolina defeated St. Mary's and Akron to finish third and brought that momentum back to the mainland with three straight wins to close out nonconference play.
"These last few games, we've all been buying into what coach has asked us to do," said Tyrone Johnson, a Villanova transfer playing his first season for the Gamecocks. "I think earlier in the year, we didn't find ourselves as a team."
The Gamecocks will have to improve without one of their most experienced leaders in Bruce Ellington, a two-sport athlete who gave up his final college seasons in basketball and football to enter the NFL draft. Ellington was the leading receiver for Steve Spurrier's football team. He played three basketball games this season between the end of football's regular season and the start of workouts for the Gamecocks' 34-24 win in the Capital One Bowl over Wisconsin.
Martin said others will have to fill the leadership void left by Ellington — and in a hurry.
"He's one of those guys that always pulling guys to the right side of the fence" to have success, Martin said. "Not having that is going to hurt our team until other guys figure it out."
South Carolina has not had must SEC success in recent years. The Gamecocks haven't posted a winning league mark since going 10-6 in 2008-09, combining for a 17-49 mark the past four seasons. Martin double the team's SEC win total in his first season by going 4-14.
South Carolina was picked to finish 12th in the 14-team league year, voted ahead of only Mississippi State and Auburn in the preseason poll last October.
Martin's settled on a starting lineup of three freshmen, a sophomore and second-leading scorer Brenton Williams, who's averaged 11.2 points a game. Top scorer Johnson has come off the bench the past four games after starting the first nine contests.
Having such a young squad means Martin is prepared for inconsistencies.
Guard Sindarius Thornwell went for double-digit points in six of South Carolina's first eight games, but has accomplished it just once in the past five. Martin says the dip is typical for freshmen.
"I think at some point they realize that college basketball is harder than they've been told," Martin said.
While Thornwell's slid, freshman point guard Duane Notice has perked up and supplanted Johnson in the starting lineup. Notice has averaged more than 11 points the past six contests after totaling 26 in the Gamecocks first seven games.
Notice said he learned from his brief time around Ellington and plans to build on those lessons during SEC season.
"He brought that leadership that our team is kind of lacking," Notice said. "He's showed me aspects of the point guard position that I'm not naturally used to playing."
Martin counting on the improvements he's seen to carry into the Florida game and beyond.
"We're trying to figure that stuff out right now," he said.
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