COLUMBIA -- It's the 11th game of the year. South Carolina's ultimate fate in the 2007-08 season will be decided long after today.
But today is awfully important, nonetheless.
"We've got to play with great enthusiasm and great expectancy," Gamecocks coach Dave Odom said Wednesday, moments after his team squandered a 20-point lead against Baylor and lost 92-84. "You can't play afraid, you can't."
USC (5-5) hosts College of Charleston (4-5) today, with a television crew in-house to watch it try for redemption. The Gamecocks won't play for almost a full week after today and with the Baylor loss preying on their minds, they have to immediately shelve their disappointment.
The opponent can't be judged on its record -- the Cougars have lost to UNC Wilmington, Arkansas, Houston, Chattanooga and Florida State. USC knows better than perhaps anyone that Charleston is playing with emotion.
Coach Bobby Cremins, a USC alum and one of the players that participated in the program's brightest days, is returning to Columbia for the game and some pomp and circumstance. He'll be recognized as part of USC's ongoing centennial celebration, and is no doubt thinking how nice it would be to score a win over a name school.
A loss wouldn't be devastating to the Gamecocks because there's always the chance they can run the table, perform well in conference play or hit a dozen other scenarios that can get them where they want to be.
But losing another game, at home, a scant three days after the Baylor meltdown sure wouldn't leave the team bubbling over with holiday cheer.
"We know we're still a good team," insisted Zam Fredrick. "We just got to put it together. We can't have dry offense and bad defense."
The Gamecocks are looking for a complete performance, which was evident against Baylor, but only in spurts. Sam Muldrow began the game like a one-man wrecking crew, taking assists from Fredrick or Devan Downey and floating his rangy jump shot from the paint. Brandis Raley-Ross kept up his red-hot shooting from the 3-point line, draining three in the first half.
But as the game went on, the defense collapsed and the shots became more contested. Muldrow withdrew from the physicality the Bears brought, fellow freshman Mike Holmes muscled inside but couldn't get two chip shots to fall and when Dominique Archie finally began to get in a rhythm, it was too late.
"People, including myself, aren't boxing out," Archie mumbled. "The little things, really, cost us the game."
Odom has to rebuild his team's shattered confidence quickly. A win gives everybody a shot in the arm and can be a good motivator before the next three games, all at home, before beginning SEC play on the road.
The way the SEC's looking, it's not a far-fetched statement to say the Gamecocks can make some noise. But first they've got to get past the tag they've earned thus far -- a team that will hang with big-name teams but won't ever beat them.
"We really lost our confidence defensively, and it had a real effect on the way we played offensively," Odom said. "It may have been the other way. I don't know which way it was."
COLLEGE OF CHARLESTON (4-5) AT SOUTH CAROLINA (5-5)
• When: 3 p.m.
• Where: Colonial Center, Columbia
• TV: Fox Sports Net (cable channel 29 in Rock Hill)
• On the Web: Live Gametracker at uscsports.com
• Tickets: Available at the box office
• College of Charleston's probable starters: G Tony White 6-0 So. (13.4 ppg, 1.7 rpg); G Marcus Hammond 6-3 Jr. (5.1 ppg, 2.0 rpg); C Jermaine Johnson 6-7 Jr. (13.2 ppg, 7.6 rpg); F Antwaine Wiggins 6-7 Fr. (9.3 ppg, 6.0 rpg); F Dustin Scott 6-8 Jr. (7.4 ppg, 5.4 rpg)
• 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); G Brandis Raley-Ross 6-2 So. (11.1 ppg, 2.9 rpg); F Mike Holmes 6-7 Fr. (9.1 ppg, 6.6 rpg); F Dominique Archie 6-7 So. (9.1 ppg, 5.6 rpg)
• Notes: The Gamecocks try to regroup after a disastrous loss to Baylor three days ago, where they went from up 20 to down 15 in a span of 14 minutes. ... The Gamecocks beat the Cougars 67-55 last year and have only lost one of the 27 games between the two schools. ... USC will take another break for the holidays before returning for three straight home games. ... Raley-Ross re-entered the starting lineup against the Bears and should stay in after his recent hot streak shooting 3-pointers. ... Sam Muldrow, who started against Baylor, had a strong first half but was limited in the second. ... Chad Gray received some of his most extensive action of the season against the Bears.
• Next up: South Carolina hosts UC-Irvine at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 28.