COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — South Carolina's first-year coach Frank Martin has been prepping for his Southeastern Conference debut since growing up in south Florida.
The Miami native remembers making the trip to Florida's O'Connell Center several times to watch SEC games and was awed by the league's athletes and coaches. Martin will again get an up-close look at the SEC starting Wednesday night when the Gamecocks (10-3) travel to face Mississippi State (5-7) and its first-year coach Rick Ray.
It's the part of the season Martin plans and prepares for all year long.
"When you coach in a league like the SEC, everything you do with your team from the day you first show up in August to the season end should be all organized around preparing your team to compete in league play," Martin said. "Because it's all about league play."
It's always been that way with Martin, who started grinding for the SEC season soon after arriving on campus after five successful seasons in the Big 12 Conference with Kansas State.
"I really haven't seen a difference" in Martin's demeanor, forward Lakeem Jackson said. "But I'm pretty sure he'll get even more amped up."
Martin has applied the SEC pressure to the Gamecocks since workouts started. If he saw players slacking off on defense, Martin might shout, "How are we going to deal with (Florida's) Patric Young if we can't handle this right now?"
"I'm constantly using moments," Martin continued, "to get our guys understanding we need to do things a certain way because the competition's coming around the corner."
Martin's methods may be taking root. South Carolina has already equaled its victory total from Darrin Horn's final season as coach a year ago, although the team's strength of schedule so far is rated next to last among 347 Division I schools.
The Gamecocks were last in the SEC a year ago at 2-14 and saw two of their best players in Damontre Harris and Anthony Gill transfer after Horn's dismissal. Martin's team, though, gets some reinforcements to start league play.
Two-sport standout Bruce Ellington will return to the court at Mississippi State after his successful finish to the football season. Ellington had the game-winning, 32-yard touchdown catch in South Carolina's 33-28 win over Michigan in the Outback Bowl last week. Martin gave him last weekend and South Carolina's final pre-SEC game off to rest before returning to the grind of practice.
Ellington, a junior point guard who was the team's top returning scorer entering the season, brings his teammates a sense of confidence and achievement, Martin says, that several players had dented during last season's struggles.
Also traveling with the team is freshman Michael Carrera, who missed the past two games with a hip injury. The 6-foot-6 forward is second on the Gamecocks with 7.3 rebounds a game.
"We feel like we've taken some strides," guard Eric Smith said. "We are working to get even better."
Martin knows his players can't ease up if they hope to stay competitive in the SEC.
Martin's been part of top-tier leagues before, coming to South Carolina last March after five successful seasons in the Big 12 Conference with Kansas State. Before that, he was an assistant at Cincinnati when it was in Conference USA with the likes of Louisville and DePaul and then when the Bearcats moved to the Big East.
What Martin has seen so far tells him the player talent and coaching ability in the SEC is every bit of strong as it was in the Big 12.
Martin has heard critics bash the SEC for some unexpected nonconference defeats — the Gamecocks have lost to Elon of the Southern Conference in November — yet believes things will improve before the postseason as players grow more comfortable in their schemes and rise to the challenge of league competition.
"That's what it's all about," Martin said.