After putting together an attractive-looking 10-3 record at this time last year, Frank Martin wasn't going to make the same mistake again.
The "mistake" was scheduling soft non-conference opponents for wins that, while they looked nice on paper, did nothing to prepare his team for the rigors of a conference schedule that took a 4-14 toll on the Gamecocks.
This season Martin sent his team on the road to Baylor, to Clemson, to Oklahoma State and to Hawaii to get the kind of seasoning the SEC takes, and the result is that while the record (7-6) isn't as attractive, the team behind it actually is.
"The challenge of non-conference play should be to prepare your team to deal with your conference season," Martin said. "Here's the facts of life. If you have a great non-conference record and you finish in eighth place in your league, are you going to the NCAA Tournament? Unless you're in the old Big East, you're not, and even then you're begging."
Still, Martin knows the value of wins, and thanks to improved play of late his team is on a season-high four-game winning streak.
"You can have the number-one rated strength of schedule, but if you're 2-11 going into conference play, it's going to be hard to make the tournament as an at-large team," Martin said. "You still have to win games. If you win enough you get in, but the bottom line is you have to prepare your team for league play. The goal is to finish in that top third of the league."
"You have to challenge your team to try and finish in the upper half of your conference. If you finish in the upper half of your conference, then the strength of your non-conference schedule gets you into the NCAA tournament. But you still have to win games, that's the bottom line."
As Martin found out last year, winning games in the SEC is a challenge despite what some people say about the SEC being down in basketball.
"I don't care what anybody says, our league is good," Martin said. "I couldn't care less what opinions are out there by some expert that doesn't coach that just copies the opinions of others that don't coach either. Our league is hard. Go ask Bruce Pearl what he thinks of the SEC. He coached in the league. Now he's a commentator. Tell him to give you his opinion of our league. Our league is hard.
"Everyone's goal is to win the league, but if you don't win the league you prepare to finish up there. So if you do you get int hat big dance and once you're in that big dance it's all systems go, it's the experience of a lifetime, it's something that once your kids experience it one time, then I don't have to coach in the offseason because they'll do anything to get back in that opportunity again."
Even sitting at just one game over .500, Martin says the non-conference portion of the 2013-14 schedule served his team well.
"I'm happy with our schedule," Martin said. "Now that it's over, I'm happy with the way our guys handled adversity in the middle of that schedule. The one thing I think it did was prepare us for conference play. Now we're going to find out how ready we are for conference play. You can't hide from the season."
Nor can he hide from No. 10 Florida in Gainesville tomorrow, a task aided by the benefit of the winning streak encouraging his young team.
"When you win some games it makes your kids feel better," Martin said. "The difficult moment in that next game you're playing, they feel good about their team because they've had positive results the last couple times out.
"When you're losing and you're in that difficult moment, your kids tend to reflect on that they've lost rather than they've won. You can't sit down and look at the conference schedule and say, 'Wow, look at this stretch of games. Florida, LSU, whoever.' If you do that, you can't sleep. So the focus is on our kids, on the next practice, on the next game.
"Once that game's over, we're going to have to play real good basketball to win one league game. Once that experience is over we have to refocus ourselves to go figure out the next one. We're too young to think big picture yet. We have to stay in small pictures, stay in the moment. We're way too young to understand the whole dynamic of a season. We have to stay in a game right now."