South Carolina doesn’t have one player among the SEC’s top 20 scorers or top 10 rebounders.
South Carolina is the only undefeated team in the league.
“Our team is not based on one person needing a good game,” junior guard Sindarius Thornwell said. “Anybody can step up. Last couple of games it’s been me, today, it was Big L. Saturday, you never know who’s going to step up.”
Thornwell was wrapping the Gamecocks’ SEC-opening win at Auburn with Laimonas Chatkevicius beside him. Each took turns carrying USC in the final 10 minutes, after the Tigers had trimmed what had been an 18-point lead to five.
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It’s what they’ve been waiting to do. The past two years (or three, in Chatkevicius’ case) have seen the Gamecocks hold late leads only to lose them. Sparse depth, sapped energy, road atmospheres – whatever the case, USC didn’t handle any of it well.
Now, though …
It’s happening. And it keeps happening. The Gamecocks are 14-0, 22nd in the country and coming home to play Vanderbilt on Saturday. They haven’t been 2-0 in the league since 2010, but they’re favored despite the Commodores being a preseason pick for the second-best team in the SEC.
Why? Because USC might not be stocked with first-round NBA talent, but the sum of the parts is much greater than any individual.
“Our guys right now, these guys right here, there’s no doubt in their minds about our team,” Frank Martin said. “There’s none, zero. They’re playing aggressively, they’re playing confidently, they’re enjoying playing with each other.”
The Gamecocks’ top five scorers are grouped within two points per game, from leader Michael Carrera (12.4) to Chatkevicius (10.9). Second-leading scorer Duane Notice (12.2) hasn’t started a game. Look at the SEC’s other lead scorers throughout the year and it’s a lot of the same names listed – Ben Simmons, Stefan Moody, Kevin Punter. USC has had seven different lead scorers in 14 games.
Billy Donovan’s last years at Florida featured a team that went to four consecutive Elite Eights. While everyone knew the Gators were one of the best teams in the country, it was a headache trying to pick one or two players for individual all-conference honors.
Like USC this year, Florida didn’t depend on one player to do it every game. Everybody did their part, and the stat sheets resembled the Gamecocks’ this year. Nobody’s saying the Gamecocks will wind up in the Elite Eight – but they have clearly grasped the concept that worked for those teams.
Unselfishness has blended with experience to create the undefeated start. While the freshman class was large and has already made an impact, Martin knew success would be led by the upperclassmen. The freshmen accepting that they weren’t going to be the stars right away melded with the veterans’ camaraderie, and off they went.
Martin has been able to constantly rotate this year with the deepest bench of his tenure, yet knows the attitude of his team will be one of understanding if somebody’s not playing as much as usual. Against Auburn, Eric Cobb, Justin McKie and Jamall Gregory didn’t play. Cobb and McKie had been averaging around 15 minutes between them while Gregory had started to blossom as an athletic, drive-the-lane two-guard.
They were the ones jumping around for their teammates as USC weathered the Auburn charge and pulled away. “It had nothing to do with trust or guys not practicing well or whatever, before anybody wonders why certain guys didn’t play or whatever it may be,” Martin said. “The second half, I really shortened down that bench and trusted in (the veterans).”
There’s a long way to go, but the Auburn win was the latest display of the total effort USC has used to reach 14-0. The excitement has been there throughout, but many outsiders were holding back until the Gamecocks hit SEC play.
One’s down, with the first league-opening win in five years. Players nor fans can hardly wait for the next game.
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