COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Following South Carolina's 75-60 win over Vanderbilt on Feb. 10, a large group of Gamecocks fans at Colonial Life Arena refused to budge, even as a frustrated security guard urged the team's supporters to exit the facility. Huddled along the baseline of the court, shoulder-to-shoulder near the entrance of the home team's tunnel, they lingered because they wanted a picture with head coach Lamont Paris, a national coach of the year contender, and his players, who've orchestrated one of the college basketball season's most impressive turnarounds.

"They didn't wait around like this after games last season," the security guard noted.

A year ago, South Carolina played most of its games in front of a half-empty home arena en route to an 11-21 record in Paris' first season as head coach. This year, the No. 20 Gamecocks, who will play at Ole Miss on Saturday at 3:30 p.m. ET on the SEC Network, are legit contenders in the SEC race and one of the biggest surprises in men's college basketball.

Paris' team is 21-5 and sits third in the SEC standings, just 1.5 games behind conference leader Alabama. And now, there aren't just more fans in the stands for home games, they're showing up in a particular kind of uniform: quarter-zip sweatshirts, Paris' preferred sideline attire. "The quarter zip, it's such a versatile piece of clothing," Paris said.

Picked to finish last in the SEC in the league's preseason poll, South Carolina reached the No. 11 spot in the Associated Press Top 25 poll last week, its highest ranking since the 1997-98 season, following a seven-game winning streak. Its résumé includes wins over Kentucky and Tennessee, and ESPN's Joe Lunardi has the Gamecocks firmly positioned in the NCAA tournament field as a 7-seed in his latest Bracketology.

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"​​I mean, shoot, [the voters in the preseason poll] just basically said, 'You're the worst players. You're the worst team. You ain't going to be good,'" said Meechie Johnson, a junior guard who is averaging 13.8 points per game. "That's how we looked at it. And, obviously, we just didn't think like that about ourselves."

Paris didn't think that way about his team, either. He knew about all the moves he made in the offseason to add the right pieces and build a proper culture for this year's group. And now, everybody can see that those moves have changed the program's fortunes. The addition of Wofford transfer B.J. Mack (13.8 PPG) upgraded South Carolina's offensive capabilities in the paint. Paris also used the portal to get older -- South Carolina had one of the youngest Power 5 teams a year ago -- with veteran players who've helped this team go from a sub-200 ranking in defensive efficiency in 2022-23 to a top-60 spot this season. Those improvements helped South Carolina go from a 21-loss season just a year ago to a 21-win season today.

"You pick my team last?" Paris said about the SEC preseason poll. "Last is what you're going to say? Yeah? OK. Come on. Bring it. That mindset has transferred over to a lot of our players."

This isn't to say that everything this season has gone smoothly -- the team has lost its past two games, one of which was a 40-point blowout at Auburn on Valentine's Day.

But Paris feels most comfortable amid adversity.

As an 11-year-old in Findlay, Ohio, he told those around him that he'd be the first person in his family to attend college. Paris' parents always taught their children to hold their heads high, even if the odds were against them -- and sometimes they were. Paris said he remembers going through the checkout line at the local grocery store and paying with food stamps. But he never felt ashamed.

"You had to lift up the tray, pull out the orange money, and everybody's like, 'Ah, people with food stamps,'" Paris said. "That didn't affect us. It didn't make us feel like we were any worse."

After he graduated in 1996 from the College of Wooster, where he was a two-time captain of the men's basketball team, he decided to pursue a career in coaching -- first as an assistant at Wooster, and then at four other schools over the course of 20 years.

He made just $10,000 and slept on a mattress on the concrete floor of a basement while at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. But he kept working his way into better jobs. After a seven-year stint as an assistant at Wisconsin, he finally got his first head-coaching opportunity in 2017 at Chattanooga, which won 10 games in his first season. In 2022, he led the Mocs to the NCAA tournament, getting the attention of South Carolina, which hired him to replace Frank Martin.

To find the blueprint for building a champion at South Carolina, Paris only had to walk down the hall to women's basketball coach Dawn Staley's office. South Carolina men's basketball aims to rebuild and secure a spot among the sport's best. In women's basketball, Staley -- who took over an unremarkable program in 2008 and turned it into a perennial contender, winning the 2017 and 2022 national championships -- has done that and more. During No. 1 South Carolina's win over UConn earlier this month, a sellout crowd, which included Paris, danced to a DJ's playlist as the team added another victory to its unblemished record.

Paris called Staley an inspiration who made him feel like he belonged when she pulled him onstage during her team's 2022 national title parade only days after he had been hired.

"I think [Paris] is a great coach, a great X's and O's coach," Staley said. "I think he's a great culture coach. He's got the right guys representing him. The sky is the limit for this program. He just needed a chance."

Paris said the key to the team's turnaround has been the culture within the program. Yeah, the word "culture" is a cliché among coaches, but to him, it's real. After a recent practice, players sat on the bench and laughed together instead of going home. That lighthearted vibe existed even before the season started. A preseason trip to the Bahamas enhanced the team's chemistry and helped strengthen the idea that this group could exceed expectations. And the good vibes haven't just been limited to basketball-related trips and activities.

"We hang out with each other a lot," said Minnesota transfer Ta'Lon Cooper, a South Carolina native who is averaging 9.7 PPG and making 44% of his shots from 3-point range. "We go to the women's games. We just vibe with each other. I mean, I tried to take a couple of them roller-skating. They don't like to roller-skate. They tried. I'll give them that. But we'll play video games together. They're just great dudes, man."

Before his team's matchup against Vanderbilt earlier this month, Paris addressed his players in the locker room and made a demand. "Help as you can," he told his team. "Whatever you're called upon to do. That's what our strength is."

Paris, who keeps the two chairs he used on the sideline during Wisconsin's Final Four runs in 2014 and 2015 in his office in Columbia, preaches two things: the value of unity and determination. With the latter quality, this South Carolina group took its ranking in the league's preseason poll as an insult and decided to embarrass its critics.

"Why not us?" Cooper said. "A lot of us came here to build this program. A lot of us are from here. We just want to build this program to where, from here on out, this is what South Carolina men's basketball is about."

After a first-half lull, South Carolina outscored Vanderbilt 47-28 in the second half of that aforementioned victory. To date, it was the peak of the season.

Paris tried to shake as many hands as he could following his local radio show after the Vanderbilt victory. There were supporters of all ages who wanted selfies. But a boy in the front row, who leaned against the yellow security rope that lined the court, conveyed the optimism of a fan base that has witnessed the program's rapid growth.

"Coach Paris!" the boy yelled as the 49-year-old turned toward him. "You've changed South Carolina men's basketball!"

But Paris resists the credit.

"I didn't score a point all season, guys," he said. "They're going to try to tell me that I did something here. My players are out there doing it. Let's not forget that."