COLUMBIA -- The grind of a college basketball season is hard enough: the travel, games, practice, school work and other responsibilities.
Add a new up-tempo system and depth issues, and the South Carolina men's basketball team could be forgiven if players were starting to feel the effects about now -- after 24 games.
No chance, say the players and coaches.
"Our guys are in great shape," assistant coach Scott Cherry said. "You've gotta look at it, and pay attention to guys' playing minutes, because over the course of the season that may wear on a few guys. But these guys are in great shape."
Coach Darrin Horn called it "a non-issue," and pointed out that the team has not had the injury troubles normally associated with players wearing down.
The only warning sign so far has been USC's 3-point shooting the past two games. A team that had been among the SEC's leaders in the category went 10-for-38 combined at Alabama and Mississippi State.
While that could be a sign of tired legs, it also could be just a shooting slump since USC is not exhibiting other signs of players hitting the wall physically: decreases in the number of offensive rebounds, steals and other hustle plays.
The Gamecocks insist they're not worried about hitting a wall for a couple of reasons.
First, the preseason conditioning program Horn installed prepared the team for this stretch.
"The goal for us is to lay the foundation in the preseason, in the fall, with the way we practice, so that this time of year we're really just kind of maintaining in terms of our conditioning," Horn said.
The Gamecocks have shortened practices, which is a common approach at this point of the season.
Horn also has emphasized in-game rest. For example, point guard and former Chester star Devan Downey is averaging 32.2 minutes per game, a decrease of more than five minutes a game from last year.
Horn's treatment of Downey has involved the most strategy. The coach has taken Downey out just before media timeouts and sometimes has kept him on the bench to extend the rest break.
"The more that we can give, the more we're going to try to do that," Horn said. "I think that has benefited us as well in the long run."
As for depth, the Gamecocks have 11 scholarship players, but two barely play and guard Branden Conrad has been out since December with a foot injury.
The other reserves have received consistent minutes in SEC games: guard Brandis Raley-Ross (23.9 minutes per game), and forwards Evka Baniulis (17.6 mpg.) and Austin Steed (13.3 mpg.)
"You can look down the line at all of our guys -- Brandis Raley-Ross hitting big shots at Alabama -- you can go all the way down the line and look at each one of our players, at different points of this season they've stepped up," Cherry said. "They know what we need."
The fact USC has something to play for might work in its favor. The team is in a four-way tie for first in the SEC East and is making a run at its first NCAA tournament bid in five years.
"People are more enthusiastic about practice," junior forward Dominique Archie said. "People come willing to get better. I think last year at this time everybody was about ready to pack it in."
• A SICK-OFF?: Horn and Arkansas coach John Pelphrey know each other well; both grew up in Kentucky. Unfortunately, that's not all they have in common this week.
Both coached their last game while sick and skipped Thursday's SEC teleconference. Horn has been battling a stomach virus; Pelphrey has been battling bronchitis.
|ARKANSAS (13-11, 1-10 SEC) AT SOUTH CAROLINA (18-6, 7-4)|
• When: 7 p.m.
• Where: Colonial Life Arena, Columbia
• TV: None
• Radio: None
• Coaches: Darrin Horn (129-54 in six seasons, 18-6 in first season at USC); John Pelphrey (116-90 in seven seasons, 36-23 in second season at Arkansas)
• USC probable starters: F Dominique Archie 6-7 Jr. (11.6 ppg); F Mike Holmes 6-7 So. (11.2 ppg); C Sam Muldrow 6-9 So. (6.3 ppg); G Devan Downey 5-9 Jr. (19.8 ppg); G Zam Fredrick 6-7 Sr. (15.4 ppg)
• Arkansas probable starters: F Michael Sanchez 6-8 Fr. (6.1 ppg); F Michael Washington 6-9 Jr. (16.2 ppg); G Courtney Fortson 5-11 Fr. (14.7 ppg); G Stefan Welsh 6-3 Jr. (12.3 ppg); G Rotnei Clarke 6-0 Fr. (11.3 ppg)
• Notes: Courtney Fortson, one of the league's best freshmen, might have been rejuvenated after a recent suspension. The Razorbacks, in Fortson's first game back, nearly knocked off LSU. Michael Washington is the league's leading rebounder.... Arkansas has been one of the SEC's worst teams because it struggles to score in the halfcourt and a lack of depth prevents Pelphrey from running his up-tempo system the way he wants. The team lacks consistent outside shooting and an inside threat besides Washington.... Horn said the Gamecocks would go back to working on "the little things." That probably means 3-point defense and transition play. The Gamecocks allowed too many run-outs by the Bulldogs and didn't create enough themselves. ... Zam Fredrick seems due for a big offensive game. He has averaged 11 points the past three games, four off his average, and hasn't shot much. He tried only three 3-point attempts at Mississippi State. ... Last season, Arkansas was an NCAA tournament team but lost at home to struggling South Carolina. The roles are reversed this year. But USC should get this one before the upcoming tough stretch.
• Next up: USC faces Kentucky at home Wednesday at 7 p.m., and plays at Vanderbilt on Feb. 28 at 9 p.m.