"SEC play is here, and upon us," South Carolina coach Darrin Horn said on Thursday.
That about covers it.
The Gamecocks enter the second part of their season on Saturday when No. 22 Vanderbilt comes to Colonial Life Arena, beginning a 16-game stretch that will either make or break USC's season. The league has had its ups and downs through the non-conference year, as have the Gamecocks, but now is the time for every team in the SEC to begin making its push for the plum waiting on every team in the country -- the NCAA tournament.
Where does USC stand? Where does the league stand? What can everybody expect once the first weekend in March concludes another SEC regular season?
"We, by design, put together an extremely challenging non-conference schedule, probably more challenging than it needed to be, for the team that we have," Horn said. "But we did that by design, too, because everything that we do is with a purpose of preparing to win now, but also building for our future."
The Gamecocks enter the SEC season with a 9-4 record, good considering expectations for such a youth-laden team proclaimed anywhere from 11-2 to 2-11. USC lost twice on the road to the then-No. 2 team in the country (Michigan State and Ohio State), then lost at home to a hot-shooting Boston College team that was greatly ahead in experience.
The one glaring loss is a 16-point whipping at Furman, bad for perception (because it was the latest in a string of losses on the road to the Southern Conference) and bad because USC panicked for the first time all year. Unsettled by the Paladins' scorching shooting and drive for the upset, USC reverted to the game plan it utilized last season.
The Gamecocks entered the season with Horn's usual plan -- put in pieces of the year-long plan one at a time and watch the results in February and March. They had to jettison that early, after Dominique Archie went down for the year and Mike Holmes was kicked off the team.
"We got handcuffed last year," Horn said. "We sort-of, about December last year, scrapped building that and said, 'Know what? Let's do what we can to find a way to win as many games as we can with a special player.' This is a lot like Year One in a lot of ways."
Devan Downey provided a Herculean effort in trying to carry his team to the tournament, but far too often needed help and didn't get it. A string of 30-point games won him the league's scoring title, but USC never found that other consistency from its other players that may have turned some of those close losses into wins.
Same thing at Furman. Bruce Ellington poured in 31 points as the Gamecocks shucked patience in favor of trying to win the game. Guards Brian Richardson and Ramon Galloway were also in double figures but a missing night from the interior and the Paladins' ability to break USC's press was the difference.
Still, USC got through the non-conference season with a double-overtime win at Western Kentucky, plus home wins over Clemson and Wofford. Considered toss-ups by many in the preseason, the victories gave the Gamecocks something to build on.
Ellington has been grand throughout the year, with Richardson battling through a recent shooting slump to become regarded as the team's best pure shooter. Horn has found a nice rotation with freshman Damontre Harris in the starting lineup, Harris a defensive presence already but still learning how to be at his best offensively, while bringing Galloway and Malik Cooke off the bench.
The biggest problem the Gamecocks have faced is consistency in the post. When Sam Muldrow is on, he's on. The big man has the talent to achieve or be close to a double-double every night, but often it's night and day. Muldrow is either dominant or disappear.
Lakeem Jackson's uncanny athleticism is a major boon for the Gamecocks, the sophomore always finding his way into the stat sheets in a variety of categories. The only drawback is his shooting -- while Jackson can dunk and put in acrobatic layups with the best of them, taking him more than 5 feet from the basket has been a gamble.
Yet, the Gamecocks have won nine of 13. It's far too early to take the "Bracketology" and RPI ratings and apply them to USC's chances, but with 16 games to go, the Gamecocks have as good a chance as anybody else in the league -- and a better chance than several in the league.
"We've got a group that likes to play together, that is committed to the right thing," Horn said. "We've got an awful lot to learn, and we've got to do it when it's tough."
ALABAMA (8-6) Jan. 12 vs. USC The Crimson Tide have pretty much won the games they were supposed to win and lost the games they were supposed to lose. A trip to the Paradise Jam resulted in three straight losses, two to Seton Hall and Iowa and then one to tiny St. Peter's. Alabama also lost at Purdue, at Providence and at Oklahoma State. They are undefeated at home, although the biggest name they have played in that slate was Toledo, which is hardly reminiscent of the mid-major power it used to be. The Gamecocks will be Alabama's first home game in the SEC season as well. Player-wise, it's simple -- the Tide go as JaMychal Green goes. Its leading scorer and second-leading rebounder, Green is a beast in the paint and has the ability to carry the team through a horrid SEC West. He's a time bomb, though -- he's been suspended twice in the past calendar year and coach Anthony Grant has made it clear that another time will put his future in dire straits. Good post game with Green and Tony Mitchell, while guard Senario Hillman is a solid, although not a high-scoring, guard.
ARKANSAS (10-3) Jan. 19 at USC Yes, they're winning, but who have they beaten? Oklahoma and Seton Hall. The rest are names such as Florida Gulf Coast, Texas Southern and North Carolina A&T. The Razorbacks have lost to the solid teams they've played (UAB, Texas A&M in overtime and a 33-point drubbing at Texas in their last game). The soft schedule was by design -- coach John Pelphrey's chair is getting warmer after too many losses and too many off-the-court issues during his short stay. What's good for him is he's already got 10 wins and plays in a weak division, and he has solid talent on his team that could get him another 10 wins and have him dancing in March. Rotnei Clarke is one of the best shooters in the country and Marshawn Powell is capable of being the best big man in the league, if he can get past some issues. Powell has just returned from a short suspension and hurt his foot in the preseason, an injury he is still battling. Right now, Clarke is the only player averaging double figures.
AUBURN (7-7) Jan. 29 at USC Thank God for that new arena, first-year coach Tony Barbee is saying -- at least it will keep the attendance respectable. Frankly, the Tigers are one of the worst teams in the country. They lost their first three games in their gorgeous new barn (to UNC Asheville, Samford and Campbell), then kept losing to Jacksonville, Rutgers, South Florida and Presbyterian. Now, the Tigers have won four straight, and pulled off an impressive win over Florida State the last time out, but even a weakened West probably won't help their fortunes. They get LSU, another cellar-dweller, first off in conference play so they should at least start with a win. Posts Earnest Ross and Andre Malone are improving and guard Frankie Sullivan is solid, but the Tigers may be two years away.
FLORIDA (11-3) Jan. 15 vs. USC, Feb. 9 at USC Early hiccups to UCF and Jacksonville have been tempered with wins over Kansas State, Xavier and Florida State, along with a certainly excusable loss to Ohio State. Otherwise, the Gators have beaten their expected schedule-stuffers. Perhaps the best lineup top to bottom (along with Kentucky) in the league, Florida is priming for a deep NCAA run. The conference schedule pits the Gators and Wildcats twice within three weeks in February, but other than that, Florida's biggest fear may be itself. Erving Walker and Kenny Boynton provide a formidable backcourt and while Chandler Parsons and Alex Tyus may not be as dominant as they have been, they're still plenty good enough.
GEORGIA (11-2) Feb. 12 at USC, Feb. 26 vs. USC After an injury to preseason player of the year Trey Thompkins was resolved, Georgia took off. The Bulldogs have won eight straight, their longest winning streak since 2002-03, and had an undefeated December. Their losses were to Notre Dame and Temple at the Old Spice Classic, and they have had some nice wins over St. Louis, UAB and Georgia Tech. Thompkins is the man down low and Travis Leslie, the team's second-leading scorer, is playing guard but still leading the team with 7.6 rebounds per game. The surprising Gerald Robinson, a transfer from Tennessee State, is averaging 12.6 points per game. Georgia now gets a chance to see if the relatively soft non-conference schedule has gotten it sufficiently prepared -- Kentucky visits Athens for the first SEC game, then the Bulldogs go to Vanderbilt.
NO. 10 KENTUCKY (12-2) Jan. 22 at USC, Feb. 19 vs. USC Not that anybody expected differently, but coach John Calipari reloaded from losing basically his entire scoring column with another collection of all-stars. Freshmen Terrence Jones and Brandon Knight are leading the charge, winning SEC Freshman of the Week four times already between them, and the Wildcats have only lost to Connecticut and North Carolina while beating Oklahoma, Washington, Notre Dame and Louisville. This year's team may not be as talented as last year's, but in terms of chemistry and togetherness, it has the edge. And talent-wise, it may be getting better. While initially ruled permanently ineligible by the NCAA, Turkish center Enes Kanter was given a new chance to appeal thanks to the Cam Newton situation. His final appeal will happen today and a final decision is expected within the next 72 hours. Without Kanter, projected to be a Top-5 pick in the next NBA Draft, Kentucky's pretty doggoned good. With him, the rest of the league may go ahead and shoot for second place.
LSU (8-7) Feb. 2 vs. USC Another team that is challenging to be the worst in the SEC, if not one of the worst in the country. The Tigers, after winning the SEC in coach Trent Johnson's first year, are again heading for a stinker. They simply don't have the kind of breakout players they need to be competitive. Andre Stringer and Ralston Turner are each averaging over 13 points per game, but LSU's other go-to player is Ole Miss transfer Malcolm White. While many of the Tigers' losses were pretty expected (Virginia, Memphis), they've also dropped games to Nicholls State, Rice, North Texas and Coastal Carolina, the Chanticleers' first win over an SEC team in program history and it happened in Baton Rouge. LSU's first conference game with Auburn might very well be the most intense game of the season, since each may be playing for a while without an SEC win afterward.
MISSISSIPPI STATE (8-6) March 5 vs. USC Oh, what tangled webs we weave ... Coach Rick Stansbury knew he was going to be in a bit of trouble in the non-conference season, because Dee Bost was academically ineligible and suspended for a few games after that and projected star Renardo Sidney was out for the first nine games, part of his year-long suspension from last season. Stansbury "overcame" this by shoehorning as many games as possible into the pre-SEC slate in a transparent attempt to get Bost and Sidney eligible as soon as possible. Bost is eligible for Saturday's SEC opener, and while Sidney has been good when he's played, he's also been suspended twice during his short career (five games, three of which he was suspended for) due to mouthing off at practice and getting in a fight during a tournament game that he wasn't even playing in, which was caught by a TV camera. Sidney was allowed to stay, while the other fight participant, captain Elgin Bailey, transferred. During the hectic non-conference schedule, MSU played five games in five days (going from the Bahamas to Las Vegas to Hawaii in the process) and lost to Florida Atlantic, East Tennessee State, Virginia Tech, Washington State, Hawaii and St. Mary's. The Bulldogs were picked to win the West, and should, because if Sidney can keep his temper in check, he's a very talented post presence. With Bost and Ravern Johnson and Kodi Augustus back, MSU can be an NCAA tournament team. But Stansbury has already gone through a perception problem with his handling of the Sidney case, and Sidney will have a spotlight on him for the next 16 games -- don't think other teams won't try to goad him into losing his mind on the court.
OLE MISS (12-3) Feb. 22 at USC Once again, the Rebels begin the season hot and once again, it's because of a weak non-conference schedule. Of Ole Miss' 12 wins, it has beaten Penn State and Saint Louis. It has also lost to Miami, Colorado State and Dayton. Coach Andy Kennedy has been scheduling soft since his tenure began, and it's got a theory behind it -- with a lot of wins early, hopefully confidence sets in and that can overcome a bad RPI at the end of the year, even with a middling SEC slate. His best SEC record in four years has been 9-7; a down West might help him break that this year and get to the NCAA tournament. Guard Chris Warren is one of the best players and scorers in the SEC and leads the team with 18.5 points per game, while backcourt mates Zach Graham and Trevor Gaskins make up the rest of the team's top three scorers. The Rebels don't have a great post game, but it's learning; their guards have been able to be more than capable of picking up the absence thus far.
TENNESSEE (10-4) Feb. 16 vs. USC, March 3 at USC Boy, what a mess. The Volunteers knock off two Top-10 teams and break a run of lousy play with an absolute beatdown of No. 22 Memphis, but somehow lose to Oakland, Charlotte, Southern Cal and College of Charleston, while having to get lucky to beat Belmont and Tennessee-Martin. No question that Tennessee has some skill -- coach Bruce Pearl has always been able to recruit NBA talent and freshman Tobias Harris is no exception, winning the SEC Freshman of the Week prize twice. He and Scotty Hopson are controlling the Vols' scoring and Brian Williams is a rebounding machine, with 7.9 per. But now comes the biggest question -- can UT survive the early run without Pearl? He's suspended for the first eight SEC games (although he can coach against Connecticut in the middle of that group) for NCAA violations and UT won't have him around to calm down the team in the midst of an opponent run. Pearl will return for two games each against Kentucky and USC, plus one each against Florida, Georgia and Vanderbilt, but will the Volunteers be too far gone to matter at that point?
NO. 22 VANDERBILT (11-2) Jan. 8 at USC, Feb. 5 vs. USC The Commodores are seeking a return to the NCAA tournament and have the players to do it, if they can just remain healthy. Andre Walker, John Jenkins and Festus Ezeli have already suffered some ding-ups and Lance Goulbourne missed some games after a minor NCAA suspension. Still, they've lost two games by a combined six points, one to West Virginia and one to Missouri, and have beaten North Carolina, Western Kentucky and Marquette. It's a solid, balanced team, with loads of experience and trust in the system. Vandy knows it will have to go through Kentucky to win the East, though, and the other teams in the division won't be content to just let the Commodores step over them.