If this was South Carolina coach Darrin Horn's master plan for building the Gamecock basketball program into an SEC contender and NCAA Tournament team, then so far it has worked to near perfection.
After Wednesday night's 77-59 drubbing of Kentucky, the Gamecocks are atop the SEC Eastern Division standings for the first time this late in the year since the 1996-97 season. The team has also defended its home court with an undefeated record in conference play, while the lone loss coming to a now-top 15 Clemson.
Despite their success, Horn doesn't expect his team to get a big head about what they have accomplished, especially with two of the last three regular season games left on the schedule coming on the road starting with Vanderbilt today.
"They've been good with it. But they've been good with that all year. I think the challenge is taking the emotional energy and doing it from the get go," Horn said. "I think it's really important when you go on the road, especially with Saturday's game, that we come and we play with that from the beginning because you assume that you go into that building against that team and just road play in general and it's going to be a tough game."
Though the Gamecocks have gone from the team chasing to the team leading the chase, their play on the court and intensity level have not wavered. Junior forward Dominique Archie believes the difference between last season's sub-.500 finish and a shot at the Big Dance this March lies in only one simple facet.
"I think the difference is our mentality. Personnel is the same and for the most part skill and that stuff is the same. But I think our togetherness, our willingness to play as a team has changed dramatically," Archie said. "We don't feel pressure because we know if we go out and do what we've got to do we'll win our games."
With a tight race in the SEC Eastern Division, the Gamecocks (20-6, 9-4 SEC) can't afford any missteps down the home stretch. After this weekends road trip to Nashville, Carolina returns home to host Tennessee on Thursday in front of a national audience on ESPN before closing out the regular season in Athens against Georgia.
The road has been the lone sore spot for the team this season as USC has gone just 4-5 away from the Colonial Life Arena, including a 2-4 mark on the road in SEC play.
But with two games left on the road followed by the SEC Tournament in Tampa, Horn is hopeful his team will respond to the added pressure of being on top.
"I think we've really been talking about that since going to Kentucky when we were able to win that one and saying that once you start taking care of business at home the next step is then winning on the road to putt yourself in position to be near the top of the conference," Horn said. "And with two of the last three on the road that's definitely going go to come into play."
While the road hasn't been all that kind to the Gamecocks, their bench has been a big lift this season. Over the last four games USC has gone 3-1 and averaged over 16 points off the bench despite only using primarily an eight man rotation.
That play has been a key factor for Horn who is getting the most out of the players at a critical time in the season.
"Everybody on our team is starting to play their role really well and that's different for everybody," Horn said. "Everybody's not going to be Devan Downey but I think that Brandis (Raley-Ross) and Evka (Baniulis) and Austin (Stead) specifically have come in and done really good things for our team and they've been what we call a counter. They've give us what they can give us every night."
Though points off the bench, added pressure and life on the road are all points of emphasis for the team as they finish out the regular season, Archie knows that getting a big win over Vanderbilt this Saturday will help the Gamecocks build the confidence they need to finish the season out strong.
"I know we lost focus a little bit in the second half to cut the lead down to single digits. But hopefully this time we can hold our focus for 40 minutes," Archie said of the last time the team played the Commodores. "We've played all these teams once before and we know what we're getting into. But I think as a team everybody thinks we have a good chance to win out."
Senior guard Branden Conrad continues to rehab his broken foot and could factor in for playing time when Carolina returns home to host Tennessee next week.
"He's making progress in terms of the intensity of his rehab is picking up," Horn said. "He has not seen live action yet and if all goes to plan he'll hopefully see some of that early next week. And if everything holds up they'll be a chance by Thursday that he could be available."
Horn addressed possibilities that he could be named SEC Coach of the Year for his job in leading the Gamecocks to their first 20-win season since 2004.
"Those awards are team awards because there's so many people that contribute, mostly your staff," Horn said. "I think any awards like that are team awards."
Following USC's win over Kentucky, Horn said the there were some congratulatory phone calls but he hadn't gauged if they were more than usual.
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