Coming off a 27-point loss on the road to now-No. 7 Oklahoma State, not very much went the Gamecocks' way. After a two-point loss on the road to then-No. 25 Baylor, signs were encouraging that Frank Martin's fresh faces and legs could compete with the better teams in the country on the strength of enthusiasm, a gritty defense and emerging offensive stars.
Against a physical Clemson, that grittiness and will melted away - or rather was taken, and what was left after that was quickly and ruthlessly exposed by Oklahoma State.
Fortunately, as Martin says, it's a long season and there's no reason to shed any tears in November or December, both of which serve as preparation for the conference slate to come. Also, the three losses have come on the road, and at the Colonial Life Arena the Gamecocks are a perfect 2-0 - a record that should run to 3-0 (3-3 overall) with Manhattan coming to town on Tuesday night.
The upside is that South Carolina has done what was expected - win the two at home and lose the three on the road - even exceeding expectations at Baylor.
As Martin continues to figure out precisely who his dependable contributors are, the team is gradually developing an identity and a lineup that should continue to improve. Players such as guard Jaylen Shaw, the last player to sign with Martin in the 2-13 class, are emerging to give the Gamecocks depth and energy, while the more highly rated freshmen, Sindarius Thornwell and Demetrius Henry, are getting the minutes they need to bloom.
A big piece of the puzzle will be the permanent return of senior Bruce Ellington. In Martin's three guard system, Ellington has a comfortable home alongside junior point guard Ty Johnson and Thornwell. The energy and urgency of that backcourt will be key to determining how successful this team can be because of the relative lack of size and strength inside (both Henry and Mindaugas Kacinas are thin and not strong enough to battle the heavies they'll face in the SEC).
From a scoring perspective, Johnson paces the Gamecocks thus far with 12.2 points per game, followed closely by Thornwell's 11.8. Henry is right behind, a pleasant surprise at 8.4 points per game (though his rebounding numbers - 5.6 rpg - could improve), tied with senior Brent Williams, a player whose scoring production defines the word inconsistency. And fifth on the team in scoring, the biggest surprise of the year, Shaw at 7.8 ppg.
After playing Manhattan on Tuesday and USC-Upstate on Thursday, , South Carolina will head to Hawaii for a four-day Christmas tournament, facing Saint Mary's in the opener. Other teams participating who USC could face are Hawaii, George Mason, Oregon State, Iowa State, Akron and Boise State. The Gamecocks will face Akron, incidentally, if for no other reason that the Zips are the next opponent to come to Columbia after the tournament on Dec. 28.
For Martin, the season so far has been a learning process. On his radio call-in show this week, Martin said he's had to change his philosophy on some things - particularly the amount of time his teams spend playing zone defense - to take advantage of what his guys have shown they can do well and what they aren't as comfortable with.
Seen as a talent-equalizer, the zone defense has been used effectively for long stretches thus far by the Gamecocks, and until he trusts his players enough to unleash his aggressive man pressure defense full-time, look for the zone to play a significant role at times, particularly if and when an opponent is on a run.
So what do we know thus far? That the Gamecocks are doing what was expected and showing flashes of both brilliance and inexperience. The biggest thing they haven't done is lose a game they shouldn't have, and they almost won one they shouldn't have. How will the rest of the season go? Show up Tuesday and find out.