When the Southeastern Conference expanded in 1991, most of its
basketball coaches were not too keen on the prospect of facing
Arkansas every year. They could, however, take solace in the
arrival of South Carolina, which was coming off an eight-year
Metro Conference stint characterized by long stretches of
uninspired play. For the established SEC schools it seemed like
a fair deal to bring in one team they couldn't beat and one they
could, and for the first four years the newcomers lived up to
their respective billings: Arkansas was a perennial national
championship contender and South Carolina, well, stank.

But last season that pattern was broken as the Gamecocks played
steady, impressive basketball. They never lost more than two
straight games, and they came within a bucket of making the NIT
semifinals, finishing at 19-12, easily their best mark since
joining the SEC. "We made a point last year to go out and earn
some respect every game," says 6'3" senior swingman Larry Davis.
"Before every game we'd huddle up and chant, 'One, two, three,
respect!' I think we did earn some, but now we have to build on
what we achieved. We're not going to be good because we won a
few games last year."

He's right. South Carolina will be good because it has as much
returning talent as anyone in the SEC. In addition to Davis, who
averaged 18.0 points, junior Melvin Watson (12.2 points and 4.5
assists) and sophomore BJ McKie (15.4 points) are back to give
the Gamecocks one of the country's premier perimeter trios.
"We've got an outstanding backcourt," says coach Eddie Fogler.
"But you can't rely solely on guards to win consistently in this
league."

South Carolina's main inside threat is Nate Wilbourne, a 6'11",
255-pound senior who averaged 10.6 points and 5.4 rebounds last
season banging bodies with the likes of Erick Dampier, Roy
Rogers, Steve Hamer, Mark Pope and Darnell Robinson. Chances
are, Wilbourne will improve those numbers. An ankle injury that
nagged him most of last season is gone, as are all the
aforementioned NBA-caliber centers, who nagged him even more.

Nor is Wilbourne the only big man in Fogler's arsenal. Bud
Johnson, a 6'10" sophomore who can fill in at 4 or 5, grabbed 25
rebounds during a pair of late-season games. And 6'11" junior
Ryan Stack showed some promise on the offensive end, though he
needs to bulk up his 215-pound frame.

Two things kept the Gamecocks out of the NCAA tournament last
year. They were mediocre on defense, allowing 73.5 points per
game, ninth in the conference. (To make matters worse, the only
player the Gamecocks lost was their best defender, power forward
Malik Russell.) And the team performed on the road like a Pinto
with a bad radiator, going 3-10 away from McGuire Arena.

Even with those shortcomings, South Carolina is the only SEC
team with a realistic shot at catching Kentucky. By the end of
the season the league's coaches may be kicking themselves and
wondering, Why did we ever let these guys in?

--M.B.

COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO Foes now fear Watson's Gamecocks. [Melvin Watson in game]

THE DATA BOX

Coach: Eddie Fogler
Career record: 180-128 (10 seasons)
Record at S. Carolina: 38-48 (three seasons)
1995-96 record: 19-12 (final ranking: none)
SEC record: 8-8 (third in East Division)

PROJECTED STARTERS

PG *Melvin Watson, 6'2", Jr.
Led team with 40 steals and 138 assists
SG *BJ McKie, 6'2", Soph.
SEC rookie of the year
SF *Larry Davis, 6'3", Sr.
Fourth in SEC in scoring, with 18.0 ppg
PF Bud Johnson, 6'10", Soph.
USC season high 15 boards vs. Wofford
C *Nate Wilbourne, 6'11", Sr.
Shot 49.6% from the floor

*returning starter

KEY GAMES

Dec. 17 vs. Clemson
Tigers beat Palmetto State rival 72-58 last year

Jan. 22 at Alabama
Gamecocks hope to avenge 68-67 NIT loss

Jan. 29 at Vanderbilt
Since leaving Vandy, Fogler is 1-2 in Nashville

Feb. 15 at Cincinnati
Taking on No. 1 is no breather from SEC schedule

March 2 at Kentucky
Fogler is 0-7 vs. Wildcats at Rupp Arena

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)