Frank Martin got the news in the middle of his weekly media session.
“We’re 20th,” he said in his best “Oh, really?” tone. He probably knew it was coming after South Carolina waxed the floor with two Top 25 opponents last week, but to be that high was a little surprising.
Not that he’d hand it back, or revels in it. After the Gamecocks crunched Syracuse Saturday, USC’s newcomers were celebrating in the locker room until seniors Sindarius Thornwell and Duane Notice stepped in.
“They said, ‘This is awesome, but this isn’t the final leg of the race here,’” Martin said. “All those guys have been through it, including P.J. (Dozier) and Chris (Silva). How do the young guys handle it? We’re going to find out here real soon.”
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Martin and his upperclassmen know the perils of early-season hollering. Two years ago, they beat No. 9 Iowa State, also at Barclays Center, and received some votes in the Top 25. Then they started 1-6 in the SEC.
They were ranked in six weekly polls last year but it always seemed like folks were just waiting for them to lose so they could justify the “who’d they play” storyline. That bit them in the rear in March.
“I think being ranked, to us, it doesn’t really mean a lot,” Thornwell said. “We were ranked for the majority of the season last year and still didn’t make the tournament.”
They’ll take it, maybe feel good for a second or two. But it’s all about keeping it until March, and that re-starts Thursday as a proud and talented Vermont team visits Columbia.
“With all that said, we’re 6-0. That’s better than any alternative you can give me after six games, but at the same time, it’s irrelevant for game number seven,” Martin said. “Six-and-oh doesn’t help you win number seven in any way, shape or fashion. Hard, hard game to play, especially coming off the two we just played.”
The Catamounts were a thorn in Martin’s side when he started his college coaching career, as an assistant at Northeastern. Labeling them a “nemesis,” Martin said it was nearly impossible to beat them.
Obviously a lot’s changed with Martin’s teams since then and USC is playing extremely sound defense and getting offense from all over the floor. Martin pointed out the Gamecocks haven’t made a lot of open shots, but they haven’t had to since the defense is creating some easy opportunities.
The ranking and the early projections (Bracketologist Joe Lunardi has USC as the No. 27 overall seed for the NCAA tournament) aren’t factoring into preparation or mindset. There’s another game to play on the road to March, and No. 20 in December means nothing.
“I think we can be so much better. I just know I really like our guys,” Martin said. “It’s part of the deal. I got to speak to them about handling that moment. But we do that all the time.”
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Who: Vermont (6-2) at No. 20 South Carolina (6-0)
When: 6:30 p.m. Thursday
Where: Colonial Life Arena
TV: SEC Network Plus
Radio: 107.5 FM
Vermont’s probable starters: G Ernie Duncan 6-3 So. (11.5 ppg, 3.1 rpg); G Trae Bell-Haynes 6-2 Jr. (9.1 ppg, 1.9 rpg); G/F Kurt Steidl 6-6 Sr. (8.5 ppg, 4.1 rpg); F Anthony Lamb 6-6 Fr. (10.6 ppg, 6.1 rpg); F Payton Henson 6-8 Jr. (13.5 ppg, 6.0 rpg)
South Carolina’s probable starters: G P.J. Dozier 6-6 So. (10.2 ppg, 3.8 rpg); G Sindarius Thornwell 6-5 Sr. (20.0 ppg, 7.0 rpg); G Duane Notice 6-2 Sr. (10.5 ppg, 2.0 rpg); F Maik Kotsar 6-10 Fr. (9.2 ppg, 3.7 rpg); F Chris Silva 6-9 So. (9.0 ppg, 6.0 rpg)
Next game: South Carolina hosts Florida International at 2 p.m. on Sunday.