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Eric Boynton | Spartanburg Herald-Journal | January 29, 2019

South Carolina-Tennessee basketball: Gamecocks to face rare top-ranked test against No. 1 Vols

South Carolina hasn't enjoyed a positive history when playing the nation's top-ranked team, and that's the rare scenario facing the Gamecocks when Tennessee visits on Tuesday.

Not only is a chance to make a bit of history on the line, but another step toward first place in the SEC is as well. USC (10-9, 5-1) is tied with Kentucky for second behind the Volunteers (18-1, 6-0) and LSU, which plays Wednesday at Texas A&M.

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The Gamecocks' lone win in 13 previous tries against a team ranked atop the AP Poll came in 2010 against Kentucky. It's only the third time (second time at home) the past five seasons USC has played the AP's top-ranked program, losing home and away to Kentucky in the winter of 2015 and losing at home to Florida in 2014.

The familiarity with Tennessee, a team that swept last year's two-game series by a combined 10 points, takes away a bit of the anxiousness that can accompany playing the nation's No. 1.

"This is a team we've played for a couple of years so we don't get too hyped over the fact they're number one, we're just preparing like we would for any other team," guard Hassani Gravett said.

Of course that's not to say there isn't something special about the chance to knock a team off the mountain top. The Gamecocks have won four straight at home, including victories over No. 14 Mississippi State and their last outing at Colonial Life Arena against No. 16 Auburn. USC lost to a pair of teams ranked fifth last month -- at Michigan and at home to Virginia.

"It's a great moment any time you have the No. 1 team in your building," USC coach Frank Martin said. "It's a great opportunity. We had a similar opportunity with Virginia here a month ago."

This marks the second week for the Volunteers occupying the top spot in both polls and they are one win shy from tying a 102-year-old school record of 15 consecutive wins. By tipoff, Tennessee will have gone unbeaten for 66 days and the start in conference play is its best since winning is first eight in 1981-82.

In an odd twist, this is the longest winning streak for a Rick Barnes led team since he coached Texas to a 17-0 start in 2009-10 that ended with a loss to Kansas State, coached then by Martin. Barnes acknowledged what the No. 1 ranking means whenever his team hits the road.

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"We know it's different, know it is what it is," Barnes said. "Teams have a chance to continue to build their resume, but I can tell you going to South Carolina it wouldn't matter if we were unranked. Frank Martin's teams are going to get after it. Obviously with the ranking we have it'll certainly add something to it. We were there a year ago and I thought the atmosphere was tremendous."

After early losses to the likes of Stony Brook and Wyoming, Martin has been pleased with the improvement his team has shown since the start of conference play. He believes winning the Jan. 5 conference opener at Florida instilled a confidence in his players that has carried forward.

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"Winning at Florida allowed our guys to take a deep breath and say, wow, we can actually do this, and it's allowed us to go out for the most part and play fairly well," Martin said. "I'm real happy with the version of us that we are becoming. Winning gets everyone believing that what we are doing works and that's what's happened to this team. We're in a better place. I know we're going to play well (versus Tennessee). I just hope we play well enough to win." 

This article is written by Eric Boynton from Spartanburg Herald-Journal and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.