South Carolina's Tyrone Johnson leaps after a loose ball in front of Arkansas' Jacorey Williams (22) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Thursday, March 5, 2015, in Columbia, S.C. Arkansas won 78-74. (AP Photo/Travis Bell)
Travis Bell
March 10, 2015

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) South Carolina's Frank Martin says his team is in a good place after finishing the season strong, and the coach believes the Gamecocks can keep the momentum going in the Southeastern Conference tournament.

South Carolina (15-15) is the 11th seed and begins play Wednesday against last-place Missouri (9-22). The Gamecocks will be looking to clinch their first winning season in six years and the chance to continue in the postseason.

''We're in a very, very good mental place with our basketball team,'' Martin said Tuesday.

After struggling through the first half of the SEC season at 2-8, the Gamecocks finished 4-4 a run that included winning two of their past three games. South Carolina closed the regular season with a 60-49 win at Tennessee Saturday to end a a 15-game losing streak to the Vols that stretched to 2008.

''Our guys are excited,'' Martin said. ''Our guys are playing well.''

Perhaps well enough to bring the third-year coach a couple of important mileposts. Martin hadn't had a losing season in his college head coaching career before coming to South Carolina after the 2012 season.

However, the Gamecocks have gone 28-38 overall and 9-27 in SEC play under Martin.

South Carolina looked like an SEC team on the rise early in the year with a seven-game pre-conference play win streak that included wins over Oklahoma State, Clemson and No. 13 Iowa State. Instead, the Gamecocks crumbled the first month against SEC competition - South Carolina shot less than 40 percent 10 times in an 11-game stretch - and seemed headed for another season to forget.

Martin and his staff kept preaching a return to solid, fundamental play and insisted the shots that had most clanged out would eventually go in. That's happened the past three games in which South Carolina has shot 46 percent, 51 percent and 51 percent from the field.

''When we make shots, when we play well and do what we're supposed to do,'' South Carolina guard Tyrone Johnson said. ''We can play with anyone in this conference.''

They get that chance against Missouri.

Defeating the Tigers in the opener would guarantee no worse than a .500 mark plus give NIT selectors something to think about when they put together their 32-team field.

Martin said he's spoken with South Carolina athletic director Ray Tanner about other postseason opportunities like the College Insider.com event and College Basketball Invitational. They'll talk again, Martin said, once South Carolina's SEC tournament ends.

''If you ask our players, I think they'd say they want to play,'' Martin said.

Any event past the SEC tournament would be South Carolina's first invite since losing to Davidson and then-Wildcats star Stephen Curry in the 2009 NIT.

Johnson said the Gamecocks haven't gotten bogged down in postseason projections, putting their focus on another SEC tournament run. A year ago, South Carolina entered the tournament with little chance of advancing. But the 13th-seeded Gamecocks ousted Auburn and Arkansas (a fifth seed) before falling in the quarterfinals to Tennessee.

''We did it once, we can do it again,'' forward Mindaugas Kacinas said.

No matter what happens at the SEC tourney, Martin believes his team is making progress toward that top SEC tier. He said the Gamecocks rank of 96 in the RPI is the team's highest in five years and they played their highest strength of schedule since 2003.

The wins will come, Martin said, as the Gamecocks keep putting in the work.

''Improvement is, `Are we in a place now where we can strongly believe we can win the next game,''' Martin said. ''My answer is yes. I couldn't say that a year ago.''

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