COLUMBIA, S.C. — If there was ever a wrong time for young South Carolina to face the Southeastern Conference's two highest-ranked teams, this week may be it.
The Gamecocks (9-11, 1-5 SEC) have just one senior on the roster in leading scorer Malik Cooke. Nine of their 11 players are freshmen or sophomores and that inexperience has shown so far with the team's worst start in league play since 2007, before coach Darrin Horn was hired to upgrade the program.
South Carolina showed some life last week with a surprising, last-second 56-54 win over once-ranked Alabama and then hanging in to the end at Ole Miss in a 66-62 defeat last Saturday night.
Horn understands how fragile confidence can be for a struggling team and how a couple of big-time blowouts might affect it. Yet, he's seen no dip in his team's spirited attitude all year and doesn't expect that to change despite facing the SEC powerhouses.
"Strangely enough, this is a team that continues to build confidence in practice," Horn said Tuesday. "We played like it Saturday against an Ole Miss team that is good at home. Our focus has got to be continuing to play that way, to put ourselves in position to try and have an opportunity to win one of these games."
That could be difficult this week. South Carolina has lost its last seven games against top 25 competition, including losses to Florida and Kentucky earlier this season.
The Gamecocks fell behind the Wildcats 34-18 at Rupp Arena on Jan. 7 and could not recover despite outscoring Kentucky in the second half of a 79-64 defeat.
South Carolina was ahead at the half, 41-40, against the Gators two games later. But faltered after the break in a 79-65 loss at Colonial Life Arena. Then the Gamecocks struggled to put two consistent halves together. That issue improved in the past two games as Bruce Ellington's driving layup in the final seconds beat Alabama and the Rebels needed a clutch 3-pointer by Terrance Henry with 17.5 seconds to pull that game out.
Moments earlier Cooke, a 79 percent foul shooter, missed the front end of a one-and-one try with South Carolina trailing 63-62.
"Credit their kid with making a big shot," Horn said.
South Carolina has certainly gotten no benefit of the schedule so far in the SEC season. The Gamecocks will have faced Florida and Kentucky twice in the first half of the year. They've also had to play Vanberbilt during the opening gauntlet.
"To use a little coach speak, it is what it is," Horn said.
Kind of like South Carolina's youth movement.
Damien Leonard and Anthony Gill are freshmen in the starting lineup who Horn says are continuing to develop during SEC play. Sophomore Ellington, part of the SEC's all-freshman team last season, is just now beginning to get his basketball legs beneath him after playing on Steve Spurrier's 11-win football team as a receiver and return man this past fall.
Damontre Harris, South Carolina's other young starter, is a 6-foot-9 sophomore who has battled staying out of foul trouble and contributing for consistent stretches.
The results are some choppy performances in Horn's fourth year in charge. Gill, however, things the team is close to putting things together for this year and behind.
"I think outsiders see that too that we're fighting and keeping our head up," Gill said.
There are bright spots. South Carolina is second in SEC foul shooting at 70.6 percent, although the Gamecocks have shot by far the fewest amount of free throws in the league so far.
What has to change to take advantage of their improved foul shooting? "We could get more calls, that's one thing," Horn said, joking.
Actually, Horn would like to see his players be more aggressive around the offensive basket, going up stronger when they rebound their missed shots to get to the line more often.
They'll need more than youthful exuberance if they hope to make a mark in the SEC this week.
"We're definitely excited to go up against the best" in the SEC, Gill said.