South Carolina's Sindarius Thornwell (0) reacts as the buzzer sounds to end an NCAA college basketball game against Texas A&M, Saturday, Feb. 6, 2016, in College Station, Texas. South Carolina won 81-78. (AP Photo/Sam Craft)
Sam Craft
February 09, 2016

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) South Carolina could end up atop the Southeastern Conference standings, if the Gamecocks can defend their homecourt this week.

South Carolina (20-3, 7-3 SEC) hosts league-leader LSU (15-8, 8-2) on Wednesday night before playing No. 22 Kentucky, which is tied with the Gamecocks and No. 15 Texas A&M in second place, on Saturday.

The Gamecocks have already won 20 games for the first time since the 2008-09 season after grinding out a victory at the Aggies on Saturday - Texas A&M was 13-0 at home before South Carolina's 81-78 win.

Not the Gamecocks are done.

Forward Sindarius Thornwell said it's important for the team to stay level headed, despite none of the players having been in this spot before.

''We try not to get into it or too excited because it can always chance,'' said Thornwell, who had a season high 25 points against Texas A&M. ''We try and stay in the moment and do what we've been doing.''

South Carolina coach Frank Martin has also learned not to get too far ahead of himself in title chases. He recalled his first season as Kansas State's head coach in 2008 when his Wildcats were 8-2 in the Big 12 and in the thick of the league race.

Martin looked harder at conference standings, checked in on games of other contenders and listened to more national analysts projecting his team's future.

Then his squad suffered four straight defeats that took it out of the championship picture, the coach said with a rueful chuckle.

''I said, `My God, this is all irrelevant,''' Martin remembered.

Martin has his attention now is solely on LSU, a message he'll try to drive home to his players this week.

''Do I know what if we win Wednesday, we're in first place? Yeah, of course, I do. And our players know that, too,'' he said. ''It's my job to get them ready to win the game.''

The Gamecocks have used a blend of veterans and youth to win the most games in Martin's four seasons. Senior Michael Carrera leads South Carolina with 14.7 points and 7.2 rebounds a game. Thornwell, a junior, leads in assists and steals.

McDonald's All-American PJ Dozier has started every game in his debut season while 6-foot-9 freshman Chris Silva has started the past three games, supplanting senior Laimonas Chatkevicius in the lineup because of his athleticism and willingness to battle underneath in the rugged SEC. Silva and his frontcourt teammates will have their hands full Wednesday with LSU's Ben Simmons, the 6-10 freshman who's third in SEC scoring at 19.4 points a game.

''He keeps you up night'' thinking of how to defend him, Martin said.

South Carolina's only SEC basketball title - it shared the SEC Eastern Division crown with Tennessee in 2008-09 - came in 1996-97. The Gamecocks went 15-1 in the league, sweeping both games with SEC powerhouse and then defending national champion Kentucky.

Carrera said the Gamecocks can't get caught up in scoreboard watching with a month left in the season.

''It's one game at a time,'' he said. ''We can't even worry beyond that.''

It continues a major basketball run at the school this week. It was a sold-out, 18,000-seat arena Monday night for the second-ranked Gamecocks 66-54 loss to No. 1 UConn in a women's basketball showdown. The men's game with Kentucky is also a sell out and only a few hundred tickets remain for LSU.

That's the big-game, home atmosphere Martin, in his fourth season, expected to bring the Gamecocks after leaving Kansas State after the 2011-12 season.

''We're still early in the marriage,'' Martin said. ''We're starting to get a little more committed to each other.''

A winning week would speed up the bonding process.

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