COLUMBIA -- The past 10 years, the Southeastern Conference's Eastern division has boasted perhaps the most dominant accumulation of football power.
But the division's rising basketball pedigree has made the East every bit the beast on the hardwood as the gridiron. Tennessee, Kentucky and Florida could be great; Georgia might be good.
So South Carolina, much-improved and poised to make a move in 2000-01, could find its expected ascent difficult in a division that looks better than ever.
"I think we will be a good, solid basketball team," said Gamecocks coach Eddie Fogler, whose team begins the regular season tonight at home against Tennessee Tech (7:30 p.m.).
"But to challenge, we will have to challenge with four or five teams who are top 10 or 15 caliber," he said. "Perhaps on a given night, we can challenge anybody. Whether we can challenge over a 16-game schedule remains to be seen."
Gamecocks fans haven't seen a legitimate post presence in Columbia for most of Fogler's seven-year tenure. That changed significantly during last year's 15-17 campaign, and it figures to change drastically this season.
South Aiken's Tony Kitchings and Marius Petravicius, both 6-foot-10 sophomores, combined for 16 points and 9.5 rebounds per game last season. Sophomore forward Calvin Clemmons looked impressive in two exhibition victories, and the addition of celebrated freshman forward Rolando Howell -- who is suspended the first nine games for cashing fake money orders -- should make for an imposing front line.
Fogler said Kitchings' improved work ethic has made a force of the 260-pounder who averaged 21 minutes a game his freshman season.
"Tony is no longer trying to survive practice, to where he listens and he's hearing what is said," Fogler said. "He's learning, and he's getting better, and his confidence level has also improved. That's a big jump, when you're not trying to survive practice"
Kitchings said his renewed attentiveness and resolve stem in large part from knowing who's pushing for playing time.
"We've got the competition now, so you've got to go out and play," said Kitchings, whose team pulled off an improbable upset of Tennessee last season in the SEC Tournament before falling to Auburn in the semifinals. "We've got Rolando Howell, Marius and Calvin and me. We all want to play, so you've got to go out there and work hard."
Fogler tinkered with the offense in the off-season, installing a scheme in which he places more trust in his players to make the right passes at the right times.
"They've got to think more," he said of his team, which comprises two seniors, two juniors, seven sophomores and three freshmen.
Whether they want to play more could be an issue. Fogler said his last squad was "one of the most unselfish teams I've coached," but distributing the minutes among many proven players could prove a significant challenge.
Junior point guard Aaron Lucas said egos shouldn't be a problem.
"This is probably the closest the team has ever been since I`ve been here," said the 5-foot-11, 185 pounder.
Tonight's game will be a reunion of Fogler and Tennessee Tech coach Jeff Lebo, who was a Gamecocks assistant before taking the Golden Eagles' job two years ago.
Reach Larry Williams at (706) 823-3645.
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