David Cloninger

Gamecocks enter biggest week with Florida, Kentucky waiting

It’s here.

I circled the week when the schedule was released, but didn’t make too big a deal out of it in the preseason, or even in games leading up to it. One, I know Frank Martin never talks about the game after next or the big stretch because his focus is always on the next game. Two, I figured to make a big deal out of it when USC had four games before it (including at Georgia) was foolish because I’ve been around this beat for a while and just when you think you got ’em figured out …

But it’s here. That circle was staring me in the face as I wrote the “W” beside “Ole Miss” Saturday. The Gamecocks have played four SEC games and won four.

If this season is going to be what it’s bidding to be, they have their biggest test.

Florida at home on Wednesday. At Kentucky on Saturday.

It’s time, gentlemen, to separate the wheat from the chaff.

They’re the two best teams in the league. USC can join that conversation by beating one, and take it over by beating two. Although there will be 12 games left after the visit to Rupp Arena, these are the two that will play a huge part in the Gamecocks’ postseason chances.

It’s ridiculous to think that two games of an 18-game schedule will define them more than the other 16, but that’s the fact. The SEC, as usual, is cannibalizing itself, the middle teams beating the other middle teams that were expected to be decent. That’s left us, again as usual, with Kentucky and the Pips.

The Gators will join the Wildcats in the NCAA Tournament. Right now, Georgia and USC stand to be the only two teams that could join them.

And USC and Georgia are faced with a stark reality – beat Ole Miss and Texas A&M and Alabama all you want. But you’ll get little to no credit for it from the NCAA selection committee, which means you have to lean on your non-conference record – and you really could use a win over one of the best two teams in your conference.

“Obviously, in the last 15 years, those have been the two dominant programs in this conference, is that fair to say?” Martin asked. “We’re aware of that. But when next Saturday night hits, we still got to play the following week.”

They do, and they’ll get Florida again on Feb. 21. The Gamecocks are off to their best SEC start in 20 years, since that 1996-97 season where yes, they won at Rupp Arena and claimed their only regular-season championship.

The comparisons can’t be ignored. It’s here now. Opportunity just hammering away at the Gamecocks’ door. All they have to do is open, unleash that Hound of the Baskervilles defense on the Gators and Wildcats and see where they stand with the smoke clears.

“Our duty from Day 1 here has not been to knock those people down. It’s been to elevate us to be able to compete with those two programs,” Martin said. “We just have to put our big-boy pants on and go.”

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