COLUMBIA -- Devan Downey's already proven himself full of declarations, despite only playing nine games at South Carolina.
It wasn't any surprise to hear him offer another one Tuesday as the Gamecocks finished practicing for tonight's game hosting Baylor.
"This is really a better team since the last time y'all saw us," Downey said, smiling and continuing to flip a basketball in his hands. "This time off has been good. I think all the team grew so much."
It's been 13 days since USC's last game, a 68-67 win over Providence at the SEC-Big East Invitational. The Gamecocks spent the down time preparing for exams but also went through what coach Dave Odom labeled some resting periods.
USC (5-4), stocked with youth, was perhaps a bit overwhelmed by its first nine games, played in a span of 27 days. That could be the answer for the defensive meltdowns that cost the Gamecocks wins against N.C. State and George Mason.
So the past 13 days were spent harping on academics but once the players reported to the gym, stressing better defense and getting rid of the deer-in-the-headlights expressions. Odom saw what he wanted to see, apparently, and is looking forward to tonight and the next few games.
"I think we needed the practice," Odom said. "I can't say we've had 13 great practices ... some of the young guys have had to be prodded a little bit.
"I think we're better defensively. Hopefully, our depth's a bit better."
USC has heavily relied on the scoring of Downey (18.4 points per game) and Zam Fredrick (16.1) as it's attempted to find stability among the roster. Dominique Archie is the only other Gamecock to start every game and has been surrounded by a rotation of senior Dwayne Day, sophomore Brandis Raley-Ross and freshmen Sam Muldrow and Mike Holmes.
Downey, Fredrick, Archie, Day and Holmes should start tonight, mimicking the lineup against Providence and making it two in a row for Holmes, who began the season as a starter but was replaced by Muldrow soon after. Odom said the exam break practice also gave him more confidence in subs Evka Baniulis and Chad Gray, who have been quiet all year despite averaging at least nine minutes per game.
With the next five games at home and all against lesser competition, the Gamecocks see tonight as the start of a crucial stretch. Although they play at home, they're mindful of the students out of school for the entire stretch and realize they won't have as much of a benefit.
"If we want to achieve our goals, we have to win these five," Downey said. "The way this team listened and grew over the last week, we can win all of them."
Odom took a different approach.
"I don't think any of them are slam-dunks," he said. "I know that (tonight's) not one of them."
BAYLOR (7-1) AT SOUTH CAROLINA (5-4)
n When: 7:30 p.m.
n Where: Colonial Center, Columbia
n TV: None
n On the Web: Live Gametracker at uscsports.com
n Tickets: Available at the box office
n Baylor's probable starters: G Curtis Jerrells 6-1 Jr. (13.1 ppg, 4.9 rpg); G Henry Dugat 6-0 Jr. (9.1 ppg, 3.6 rpg); G Aaron Bruce 6-3 Sr. (11.1 ppg, 2.4 rpg); C Josh Lomers 7-0 So. (6.4 ppg, 3.4 rpg); F Kevin Rogers 6-9 Jr. (12.1 ppg, 7.1 rpg)
n South Carolina's probable starters: G Devan Downey 5-9 So. (18.4 ppg, 3.8 rpg); G Zam Fredrick 6-0 Jr. (16.1 ppg, 2.7 rpg); F Dwayne Day 6-5 Sr. (5.1 ppg, 2.8 rpg); F Mike Holmes 6-7 Fr. (9.7 ppg, 7.1 rpg); F Dominique Archie 6-7 So. (9.1 ppg, 5.6 rpg)
n Notes: The Gamecocks return from a 13-day layoff for the first of two games in four days. ... USC beat the Bears in Waco, Texas, last year 64-59, the only game in the series. ... It's Baylor's first true road game of the year. ... The Bears have already beaten Wichita State, Notre Dame and Winthrop. Their only loss was to No. 7 Washington State, 67-64. ... Baylor has lost 25 straight true road games over the past four years. ... USC is 3-1 at home this season. ... The Gamecocks begin a stretch of five straight home games, which leads into the beginning of the SEC schedule on the road at No. 17 Vanderbilt.
n Next up: South Carolina hosts College of Charleston at 3 p.m. Saturday.