November 25, 2015

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) South Carolina coach Frank Martin was confident his team would get off to a good start. The Gamecocks are doing just that.

South Carolina won the Paradise Jam and is 5-0 for the first time since the 2003-04 season, the last time the Gamecocks made the NCAA Tournament.

''Our upperclassmen, their offseason work and preparation have allowed them to start this season off the right way,'' Martin said Wednesday. ''It's been fun to be part of. It's been fun to watch those kids grow and go out there and compete.''

That's not always been the case with the Gamecocks in Martin's first three seasons. He's turned the roster over several times in building a team he thinks can compete in the Southeastern Conference. What's left are a group of tough-minded juniors and seniors.

Center Laimonas Chatkevicius is a 6-foot-11 senior and a force in the middle - Martin had been on him the past three years for not being more aggressive on the boards. Sindarius Thornwell, a 6-6 junior guard, was an SEC all-freshman team pick two years ago, but slid back last season because of knee issues.

Duane Notice, another junior guard, has provided a lift. He was the target of a foul-mouthed courtside tirade by Martin two years ago.

All are averaging double figures, with Thornwell the MVP of the Paradise Jam. The Gamecocks won the title Monday night with an 83-75 victory over Tulsa. The Gamecocks had earlier beaten DePaul and Hofstra, who upset ranked Florida State in the eight-team tournament.

''Everyone's excited,'' said senior forward Mindaugas Kacinas, among the five Gamecocks averaging double figures so far. ''We won't stop here. We'll keep working hard and even harder because we want success.''

South Carolina seemed on the brink of a breakout last season. It brought a seven-game winning streak, including a victory over then ninth-ranked Iowa State, into SEC play. The Gamecocks then fell into old, bad habits and lost eight of their first 10 SEC games.

They rallied to finish 17-16, their first winning mark since going 21-10 in 2008-09. The small taste of success brought new resolve to offseason workouts, they've said. The results are obvious.

Kacinas averaged better than 17 points a game in the Virgin Islands while Thornwell averaged 13.3 points, seven rebounds and almost four assists in the three tournament games.

Martin has spoken with his team about the perils of dwelling on the perfect start.

''We're only one-sixth through this,'' he said.

Truer tests are ahead. The Gamecocks play South Florida, Drexel, Clemson and St. John's in December, then finish nonconference play against Memphis on Jan. 2 before jumping into the SEC.

The experience is balanced by young talent like McDonald's All-American P.J. Dozier and bulky post players in Chris Silva and Eric Cobb.

Martin says his older guys are giving the younger players daily lessons in what it takes to play winning basketball and sacrifice personal goals for the good of the team.

''As a coach, you understand your players better and they understand you,'' Martin said. ''You see players consumed with helping and growing. That's where we're at.''

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