David Cloninger

Gamecocks take care of business in Knoxville, prep for Ole Miss

In the Extended Stay humming Tim McGraw (“Another supper, from a sack … ”) and recalling what I just witnessed live at Thompson-Boling Arena …

I won’t horrify you with the details. South Carolina won and that’s the best part of it. Ooof, was that painful basketball.

Random musings from the road:

▪  This is exactly the kind of game USC would have piddled around and lost in years past. The Volunteers have some talent but they’re so filled with freshmen that that’re just like Forrest’s box of chocolates. Some days they show up and take North Carolina to the wire in the DeanDome, as the baby-blue faithful sit on their hands and ponder a nice Cabernet afterward.

Others, they miss 12 shots in the paint in the first half, shoot 17-of-52 for the game and have 22 turnovers.

A whistle-happy game was benefiting the Vols but Sindarius Thornwell pretty much toed a line in the Summitt and said, “Not tonight.” As he has the last two games, he put the Gamecocks on his back and made the big plays when they had to have them.

The guy’s playing with a chip on his shoulder. I’m thinking it’s equal parts him trying to make up for lost time and trying to make sure the disappointment of last March doesn’t repeat.

▪  Folks hitting me up talking next week (Florida-Kentucky). I tell them Ole Miss is on Saturday, and Ole Miss has the best rebounder in the league (Sebastian Saiz, who has had a lot of good games against USC) and the Gamecocks’ defensive rebounding has been rather non-existent lately.

This is what I’ve never been able to understand. USC wins a few, then people start thinking the next game is automatic because the opponent may not be playing so well. Why, since it’s hardly ever happened in the Gamecocks’ long sordid history in the SEC, would anything be considered an easy win?

▪  That history is starting to post more and more bright spots. Frank Martin recently quoted Steve Spurrier in saying, “Lot of firsts happening around here,” and Wednesday was another one.

First time in 20 years USC is 3-0 in the SEC (the only other time, USC hung a banner in the arena). Second time in three years USC has won in Knoxville, when they hadn’t done it since 2002. Third time in four tries the Gamecocks beat Tennessee, when they’d lost 15 straight beforehand. First time since 2004 they’ve won their first two SEC road games, and 2004 was also a banner-hanger.

▪  Martin was asked about freshman forward Maik Kotsar. He got some big buckets late in the game and ended with five points and eight rebounds, but he also had five turnovers.

He has 12 points in four games and the question was raised about the “freshman wall.”

“I don’t want to speak for him, maybe when we get home you guys can ask him, he’s been a little different since the holidays. I think he misses home,” Martin said. “Like most foreign guys do. Everyone else has family for the holidays and he don’t get to see his family.”

We forget how tough it is for these guys to only get to see their families for a few weeks every summer and that’s it for the year. Basketball is their ticket to a college education and professional career but it’s not easy to be 18 or 19 and not be able to hop in the car for a drive to Mom’s cooking.

Martin said Kotsar played much better Wednesday than the past two games, and the physicality held him back a bit. USC’s guards spotted him on the baseline a couple of times and got the ball there, but Kotsar couldn’t convert the basket.

Still, he handled the ball pretty well in the game’s late stage.

▪  Defensive rebounding continues to be a huge topic of concern, and transition defense needs tightening. Clemson displayed a whiteboard play for how to get USC out of its comfort zone (aggressive D on the perimeter), which is run. Get a rebound, get an inbound and run past them before they get a chance to get back.

Tennessee makes some of those inside shots and fast-break chances in the first half Wednesday, that run before halftime is likely for the lead.

▪  That’s another thing. USC gets ahead by double digits and immediately yields a big run. They did it twice on Wednesday.

The Gamecocks didn’t score for the final 4:40 in the first as a 27-12 lead became 27-21. They came out firing in the second, went up by 13, then P.J. Dozier had a silly foul and Tennessee scored the next six. Mistakes are going to happen but USC is letting one become several.

▪  Kentucky next Saturday was set for 6 p.m. I really wish I could encourage you guys to come but Rupp Arena gets sold out quicker than orange clothes in Pickens County. There’s a waiting list to get on the waiting list.

▪  Next game is a toughie, but Ole Miss’ Deandre Burnett went down Wednesday with an ankle injury and was on crutches after the game. Andy Kennedy said he’d know more Thursday or Friday.

Burnett came into the game as the Rebels’ leading scorer and the No. 3 scorer in the league. If he can’t play, the Gamecocks gain a huge advantage.

▪  End of the day, USC’s 3-0 in the SEC. Great place to be but there are 15 to play. I’m really not trying to rain on the parade because I’ve been around for the times when they were 0-3 or 1-2 and constantly having to dig out of the hole.

The good part is the players say they aren’t taking it for granted. Thornwell mentioned how last year still weighs, and how they preach not to count any game as a win just because the opponent may be having a rough year.

Martin mentioned it as well.

“Believe me, don’t think I don’t sit at home and feel real good about where we’re headed compared to where we were four years ago,” he said. “But what we got to do from games like this is figure out a way to build confidence.”

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