COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Leave it to Dawn Staley to know before most everyone else about the biggest surprise in college basketball.
South Carolina's women's coach got the inside scoop after talking with her counterpart, second-year coach Lamont Paris, when the men's team returned from their August trip in the Bahamas.
“We're going to be good," Paris told her flatly.
“When you have a coach saying that," Staley said, “they know.”
Now, everyone in the sport knows, too.
Picked last in the Southeastern Conference after going 11-21 in Paris' debut season, South Carolina is 18-3 and rolling along almost as strongly as Staley's undefeated group.
Even some older Gamecocks are surprised. Josh Gray, who’s been with the team three seasons, joked with fellow veteran Jacobi Wright: “Can you believe we’re 18-3?” Gray asked. “But we’re still keeping our heads down.”
Paris' team pulled off its second stunner in a week when it defeated No. 5 Tennessee 63-59 on Tuesday night. The Tuesday before, the Gamecocks dominated then-sixth-ranked Kentucky 79-62.
It was the first time they beat two Top-10 opponents in a three-game stretch since 1968 when the program played in the ACC.
“They got a lot of heart. It's a passionate group,” Paris said. “They want the spoils of whatever happens when you do what we've done already. They're fighters, they're tough, they want to win badly as a group.”
That's apparent in their play, especially on defense. The Gamecocks held Kentucky, the country's best offense, 29 points below its average coming in.
The Vols were averaging nearly 80 points a game and were held below 45% from the field (21 of 58) for the first time in seven SEC games.
South Carolina is poised for its first trip to the Top 25 since 2017 and, at 6-2 in the SEC, only a game out of first place.
Paris has done it by melding together a group of transfers playing big roles. Ta'Lon Cooper, a guard who played at Minnesota last season, has started all 21 games and scored 38 points combined against Kentucky and Tennessee.
Starters like forward B.J. Mack played at Wofford and guard Myles Stute, who hit four late free throws and then put his finger to his mouth to hush the loud Tennessee crowd, came from Vanderbilt.
Staley, whose women are 20-0 and No. 1 in the country, is a big fan of the men's team. She's led the call on social media to get the team in the Top 25 (the Gamecocks were 26th with 108 points in Monday's latest poll).
Staley believes getting left out last week was key to the win over Tennessee.
“When things happen, you go within,” Staley said. “When you don't think forces outside of you are giving you your just due, it only reinforces the tight knit group you do have.”
South Carolina men look to continue their success at Georgia on Saturday while the women host Ole Miss on Sunday.
The men's and women's teams have combined for a 38-3 mark, the best in Division I. It's arguably the most attention on the two programs since 2017 when the men reached their only Final Four and Staley's women captured the first of two national championships.
Is the South Carolina campus the capital of college basketball this season?
“It feels like it,” men's leading scorer Meechie Johnson said. “It's everything we've always talked about.”
While Staley's team has been to the past three Final Fours and won another title in 2022, the Gamecock men have not been back to the NCAAs since their run to the national semifinals seven years ago.
It was a memorable time, Staley recalled, that put a lot of eyes on a school that had not had that sort of success. Staley believes bigger things are ahead for both teams — sooner rather than later.
“We're trying to figure out what we're going to do on Selection Sunday,” when both the men's and women's NCAA fields are announced on March 17, Staley said. “It'll be different around here.”
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AP college basketball: https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-college-basketball-poll and https://apnews.com/hub/college-basketball