Meechie Johnson is lifted in the air when students stormed the court after USC defeated No. 6 Kentucky. (Photo by Mingo Martin/Carolina News and Reporter)

It was October when the head coach was asked about an unflattering preseason projection for the USC men’s basketball team: It had Lamont Paris’ team finishing last in the SEC.

Paris smiled. He explained why that could be a good thing.

“Hopefully, to my team, it will be something — a source of inspiration and disrespect, honestly — to (motivate) them to come out and play,” he told the press conference crowd.

Star guard Meechie Johnson chimed in: “I think we are going to shock and surprise a lot of people this year as long as we can stay the course.”

Johnson was right. Now, in February, the program that won only 11 games last season is ranked No. 11 in the country by the Associated Press and the USA Today Coaches Poll. With six games left, the Gamecocks are 21-4.

The breakout year has meant a sudden rise in enthusiasm for the team and a shot in the arm for an athletics department that has seen a spike in ticket sales.

The program that struggled to fill the 18,000-seat arena last season, averaging 10,470 in attendance per game, now has seen a rise to an average of 12,586 per game, according to NCAA data.

But, perhaps as important is that more than 36,000 student and guest tickets were distributed for the men’s home games. That’s more than double all of last year, when fewer than 18,000 tickets were given to students and their guests, according to Lance Horton, the University of South Carolina’s associate director of ticket operations.

“They’ve really started something that’s contagious and hard to keep your eyes off in the best kind of way,” said Gamecocks fan Ethan Brown. “They keep me driving from Charlotte twice a week because I can’t get enough.”

Student Jeremy Mann said he didn’t expect the extreme level of support heading into the season.

“Now, I expect every game to be sold out,” Mann said. “The job Lamont Paris is doing is unheard of.”

The men’s success at Colonial Life also has meant more foot traffic for nearby businesses.

“It’s been good,” said Amber Livingston, the general manager at Angell Bros. 1801 Grille, which is across the street from the arena. “Definitely picking up. Getting us some money.”

The restaurant opened in the Vista location in 2017.

“I’ve been here when the team wasn’t doing as well, and we definitely didn’t get quite as much traffic,” Livingston said.

Madelynn Welch manages Barefoot Campus Outfitter a few doors down.

“As the season progresses, you know, the games have a little more pressure,” said Welch, who’s expecting even more patrons as the team nears the NCAA tournament.

People often stop by the store to pick up Gamecock gear before the game, she said.

At Colonial Life, students have to line up early to get into the opening seating in the student section – rebranded “The Cockpit” in August 2021. The section has been packed shoulder-to-shoulder this season.

Colonial Life has been no stranger to the national spotlight in recent years, but at the hands of the women’s team. The undefeated USC women’s basketball squad has been dominant for years and is ranked No. 1 this season, a familiar status.

With both teams seeing success this year, their combined record of 44-4 is the best in the country.

The men’s team is in uncharted territory. It’s the first time since the 2016-17 season that the Gamecocks have had 20 wins. And it is their highest ranking since 1997-98.

“The students should be commended,” said longtime Gamecocks fan Rob Willm said. “They have been at every home game, with it packed out.”

Student Brady Fitzgerald said getting good seats for January’s upset of No. 6 Kentucky was no easy task.

Despite waiting in line hours before the 7 p.m. tip-off, he was still three spots shy of a front-row seat.

The arena has seen two sellouts, against Kentucky and Ole Miss.

Last season, men’s basketball brought in about $11.6 million in revenue and spent about $8 million, for a $3.6 million profit, according to the yearly Agreed-Upon-Procedures Report released by the athletics department.

Men’s basketball ticket sales increased $257,000 last season, about 17% more than the prior year. But that was partly due to COVID restrictions being lifted and single-game tickets costing more, Horton said.

Ticket revenue is on pace to increase at least another 7.5% this season, he said. And this year’s success could cause a big jump in revenue next season if USC can continue the momentum.

Men’s basketball and football are the sports that make money.

The women’s program lost $5.7 million last year, according to the AU report. Football, in comparison, brought in about $26 million.

Revenue generated from any sport goes back to athletics as a whole.

“Revenue generated from the men’s basketball program helps fund their yearly expenses but can also help fund other non-revenue generating sports,”  Horton said. 

The USC men’s team returns home to face LSU Saturday at 3:30 p.m.

They’ll face No. 8/9 Tennessee in the Gamecocks’ last home game March 6.

Fans await starting lineup introductions before the Gamecocks face Ole Miss. (Photo by Mingo Martin/Carolina News and Reporter)

Angell Bros. 1801 Grille is across the street from Colonial Life Arena. (Photo by Mingo Martin/Carolina News and Reporter)

Guard Zach Davis hits a halftime buzzer-beating three-pointer against Kentucky. (Photo by Mingo Martin/Carolina News and Reporter)