South Carolina athletics director Ray Tanner had a quick answer ready the past few weeks when supporters asked about the school’s poor football season.
“Hey,” Tanner told them, “How about those basketball teams?”
The Gamecocks have plenty to shout about in that regard with the men at 8-0 – off to their best start in 12 years – and the women ranked No. 2 nationally, also at 8-0.
South Carolina is the only Division I school left with a pair of undefeated programs, a mark that will stay unchallenged for a few more days.
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The men next play on Tuesday against Drexel. The women take on Winthrop on Sunday.
Frank Martin, coach of the Gamecock men, is happy for the strong start, yet knows the true challenges are still to come once Southeastern Conference play starts.
“I didn’t speak to them about it when we were 1-7 in league play two years in a row,” he said. “I’m not going to speak about it when it’s the other way.”
The Gamecocks’ strength appears to be the hard-forged experience of the upperclassmen playing in Martin’s fourth season.
Forward Mindaugas Kacinas and center Laimonas Chatkevicius, both seniors, are 1-2 in scoring average this season, each hitting double figures for the first time in their careers.
Senior Michael Carrera, and juniors Duane Notice and Sindarius Thornwell are averaging double figures through the first quarter of the season.
South Carolina matched its best men’s start since 2003-04, also the last time the Gamecocks were in the NCAA tournament.
South Carolina broke through with its first winning record in six seasons last year and came into fall camp confident things would improve.
“I would say this is probably going to be the best year that we’ve had” under Martin, Carrera said.
South Carolina’s women are also trying to outdo what they’ve accomplished last season – although that team’s bar is set much higher.
Coach Dawn Staley and the Gamecocks won a school-record 34 games and reached the Final Four for the first time in program history.
The team’s focus is set clearly on the national championship and they’ve gotten off to another strong start.
Their season includes wins over three ranked opponents in No. 10 Ohio State, No. 23 Arizona State and, this past Sunday, No. 13 Duke.
While the Gamecocks have not yet shown last year’s dominance – they outscored opponents by almost 22 points a game in 2014-15 – Staley said her team is adjusting to several new faces and new roles.
Bench stars A’ja Wilson and Alaina Coates are in the starting lineup this season, and working through handling the added responsibility.
The two have looked strong early on, the 6-foot-5 Wilson averaging 18.4 points and 9.3 rebounds a game – both team highs. She earned SEC Player of the Week honors for the third time this past Monday.
Coates has averaged 10.3 points and 7.1 rebounds this season.
Staley said the team is still developing an identity after the departure of Aleighsa Welch, last year’s senior leader who was the team’s soul and, perhaps, hardest worker.
Welch’s relentless play and tough defense allowed two-time defending SEC player of the year Tiffany Mitchell to thrive as a scorer.
Without Welch to clear things out, Mitchell has gotten off to a somewhat sluggish start. She’s averaging 13 points a game, but has not had that explosive showing yet for the Gamecocks.
Mitchell missed several weeks of preseason practice after needing summer surgery on her foot.
“Tiff’s getting back into shape,” Staley said. “She’ll be OK.”
None of it has cost the Gamecocks, who are off to their fourth-straight season going 8-0 or better. A year ago, South Carolina started 22-0 before losing to national champion Connecticut.
Both teams will see how long the winning can last this season.