On the surface, South Carolina lost its second straight game on Saturday, Feb. 18, against Vanderbilt, but head coach Frank Martin was still in a much better mood at his press conference on Monday, Feb. 20.
The Gamecocks lost, but they were able to regain some of their identity and the composure that was absent in the past few games.
"I'm encouraged with how we practiced before Vanderbilt and I'm encouraged with how we defended for 30 minutes against Vanderbilt," Martin said. "We played more to our identity."
After Martin said that his team was not playing with the same spirit and energy it had been playing with earlier in the season just after a loss to Arkansas, the head coach was impressed with how his players rebounded.
The two practices before the Vanderbilt game were very good, and even though the Gamecocks couldn't hold on for the win, Martin's statement that he liked the way they played for the most part against the Commodores shows that he believes the team is moving forward.
Martin was particularly pleased with the practice that came the day after the Vanderbilt game.
"We were as good yesterday as we've been in a long, long time, and that came from them, not from me," Martin said. "Those guys came out yesterday and were just off the charts. I feel we have re-found that desire to play with relentless pursuit of winning."
South Carolina will need to continue that improvement on Tuesday, Feb. 21, in its next game. The Gamecocks travel to Florida, one of the two teams above them in the SEC standings. In the first meeting between the two teams back in Columbia, the Gamecocks were able to edge out Florida.
However, the Gators are currently riding an eight-game winning streak, and it will be a much tougher challenge in Gainesville.
Martin credits head coach Mike White for being able to get his team to play how he wants them to.
"Mike has got that team playing through his eyes and through his vision," Martin said. "That's why they've played as well as they have. That's why they are good as they are."
Florida will be without one of its best players in John Egbunu. The senior leads the team in rebounding and also scores nearly eight points per game. It could be even worse for the Gators as it was reported that leading scorer Canyon Barry will be a game time decision for the contest against the Gamecocks.
"Their rim protection changes," senior Sindarius Thornwell said of Florida without Egbunu. "But they're still good because all their guys are interchangeable. They are all long, athletic and fast."
There were some small steps taken in the game against the Commodores, and the Gamecocks want to continue that trend.
"We've been focusing on getting back to the things that we've done to put ourselves in this situation," Thornwell said. "Us seniors have to continue and do a better job of leading."
The Gamecocks struggled down the stretch last season and it ultimately cost them a chance at the NCAA Tournament. Of course, there is a lot of talk now after the back-to-back losses of that same thing happening this year.
However, Thornwell said the first thing he did after the Vanderbilt loss was tell the team, "This is not happening again" in reference to last season. One of the keys, according to the senior, is to get some of the younger guys to play a little more freely and not think too much.
"Just playing with no pressure on us," Thornwell said. "Getting back to having fun, playing together (and) guarding. This is the time you want to be playing your best basketball. We have to get to that point."
Tipoff between the Gamecocks and Gators in Gainesville is scheduled for 7 p.m. and can be seen nationally on ESPN.
**Story by Kyle Heck/photo by Allen Sharpe**