It was the best of times, and there’s no need to complete the phrase.
This time of year recently has been reserved for waiting to see if the USC football team finished in the top 10 of the polls. That kind of feel-good would carry into February, when a baseball program that has been one of the country’s best for 15 years would begin its season. Then, spring football practice was around the corner.
Basketball was filling the gaps.
Yet as the sun rose Tuesday, basketball was dominating Columbia’s sports scene. For the first time in years, USC has a men’s and women’s hoops team playing well and creating visions of championships and titles.
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Frank Martin’s men’s team is 9-3 after an upset of No. 9 Iowa State. The Gamecocks received votes in the AP Top 25 (16, good for the No. 35 spot in the country) for the first time since 2009 and have won seven straight, the longest streak in a dozen years. Their field-goal percentage defense is ranked fourth in the country as SEC play begins.
Dawn Staley’s women’s team has improved each year of her tenure, and this season seems destined to end in Tampa, site of the Final Four. The Gamecocks, No. 1 in the country for the seventh straight week, remain undefeated after beating Auburn and LSU to start the SEC season and have won 14 straight games for the first time in program history.
Fans are noticing. The USC men’s average attendance is 10,381, up from 10,074 all of last year. The women’s team, which often has heard Staley’s voice echo off the barren upper decks of Colonial Life Arena, is averaging 10,842 and packed 16,465 for the game against Auburn.
Monday also saw USC with two honorees in the SEC’s weekly awards. Sophomore guard Sindarius Thornwell was named player of the week after taking over the final six minutes of the Iowa State game, and A’ja Wilson added her third Freshman of the Week prize to an already overflowing basket.
Quarterback questions and complaining about third-down defense can wait. USC has basketball on the brain.
“I’m real proud of our guys,” Martin said on Monday. “I was proud of them after we lost to Akron. We had some things that we needed to clean up. You give them ownership of the basketball team, because they earn it, not because they show up. They work to fix the problems, and that’s what the guys have done.”
“I felt like we’re making progress. We’re taking two steps forward and one step back at times,” Staley said after a sloppy, but comfortable, win at LSU. “It’s the SEC. We beat each other up, night-in and night-out.”
Staley’s team was expected to be elite and hasn’t disappointed. Martin’s team began the year with experience for the first time in his tenure, but after beginning the season 2-3, the boo birds began to circle.
Since then, Martin’s Gamecocks have locked down defensively and unleashed a balanced offensive attack. Duane Notice has turned into a deadly scorer while big men Laimonas Chatkevicius and Demetrius Henry are having the best games of their careers.
On the women’s side, Wilson took over the scoring lead this past weekend, but USC is so deep and talented that opponents never know who to guard the closest. Tiffany Mitchell is coming off an SEC Player of the Year season, Alaina Coates is tough in the post, Aleighsa Welch is the team’s heart and a bevy of freshmen will carry the program onward.
Martin’s men begin the SEC schedule by hosting Florida on Wednesday. Staley’s women are back home on Sunday against No. 10 Kentucky. They want more to be a part of it.
“I did look around a few times during the game and saw where this place was almost sold out,” Staley said of her last home game. “I’m amazed; I really am amazed that so many people have taken an interest in our team.”