David Cloninger

Cloninger: On RPI, offense and OMG Thornwell

For those who watched every bitter second of the fourth and final overtime and then muttered, “Here we go again,” I don’t blame you. I suspect you, like me, remember all too well the sting of last year – and you probably are throwing in some of South Carolina’s wretched basketball history, which can be summed up as, “Things are going great! Watch out.”

The good news – there are seven games to go. The Gamecocks win all of them, no problem. Even the guy on the selection committee that crawls out of his corner and harps why every SEC team except Kentucky or Florida doesn’t need to go because they’re not in the ACC would have to grudgingly accept a 26-5 team that wins the regular-season championship.

The bad news – the margin for error gets thinner. Alabama’s RPI was 77th before the game. Four overtimes or not, it was a loss at home to a team not expected to make the tournament. While folks were already blowing me up, correctly pointing out that the Crimson Tide are fourth in the SEC, let’s look at the top four teams in the SEC last year.

Kentucky, Texas A&M and three teams tied for third (LSU, Vanderbilt and South Carolina). You guys can look up the postseason tournaments.

USC’s biggest remaining game is at Florida on Feb. 21. That one is huge for a quality win and RPI, and if the Gamecocks should happen to lose, it’s not a killer. Games against Arkansas (36, will probably drop after losing to Vanderbilt) and Tennessee (37) can help and not hurt too much.

Then there’s Vanderbilt (60), Ole Miss (56) and Mississippi State (113, two games). I don’t want to play pick-and-choose, because the solution is simple – win ’em all, and I’ll see you not at Colonial Life Arena in March. USC won’t be there because it will be in a regional.

Here we go again? Not yet. This team has been resilient all year, and you only need look at the fight and hustle it had in making it an overtime, second overtime, third overtime and fourth overtime on Tuesday. The older players, I truly believe, won’t let it happen again.

In the meantime, it won’t hurt to start checking around to some of the teams USC beat already this season and sending a few good vibes their way. Like, for instance, Syracuse, which knows a few things about winning a game when the opponent can’t quite close it out.

One loss. P.J. Dozier summed it up – just can’t make it two.

Personally, I blame the Carolina Girls. They debuted their new outfits Tuesday.

Team was winning just fine without them. Never mess with a winning streak.

HEART: Updated total of just what Sindarius Thornwell did on Tuesday.

44 points: Tied for fourth with three others (Grady Wallace twice, Cedrick Hordges) for the fourth-most in school history. It was the best showing by a USC player in 38 years.

25 free throws: First in school history by four, beating Wallace’s record set in 1957. Second in SEC history, behind Pete Maravich’s 30 in 1970.

33 attempted free throws: First in school history by 10, breaking Wallace’s 1957 mark and Mike Callahan’s 23 in 1959. First in SEC history, breaking Maravich’s mark of 31 in 1970.

21 rebounds: Career-high. Most by a Gamecock since 1993.

Thornwell was the third player in 20 years to have at least 40 points and 20 rebounds, joining Norris Cole and Blake Griffin (CBS’ Matt Norlander had that stat) and ESPN said he’s the only player in 20 years to have 40 points, 10 offensive boards and 10 defensive boards in the same game. The NCAA said he was five made and three attempted free throws short of those single-game records.

The refusal to let this season slip away that Thornwell displays is awe-inspiring. I’ve seen a lot of the great ones come through, here and across the country, and the way he’s playing and giving everything he has for this team ranks with the best I’ve ever seen.

If he’s not SEC Player of the Year (granted, I know he’s at least halfway to ineligible because he doesn’t play for Kentucky), it makes less sense than not running the ball three straight times to set up a field goal for an 11-point lead in the waning minutes of the Super Bowl.

As it is, Thornwell is and will forever be from Lancaster. But that’s close enough to say, that kid’s so damn good he should be from Rock Hill.

THE OTHER TAKEAWAYS: USC’s defense has really taken a step back in the past two games. Georgia shot 49 percent and Alabama was at 42.3. The Crimson Tide’s isn’t so bad until one considers they were the 13th-best scoring offense in the league coming in … just as they were last year when they snapped USC’s 15-0 start.

The Gamecocks are built on stopping the ball at the perimeter. Now, Alabama just made some circus shots – some of the stuff Avery Johnson Jr. spun up there would make a Globetrotter say, “Hey, quit with the acrobatics” – but they were driving to the rim, trying to get to the free-throw line.

In short, they were doing what USC should always be doing. Yes, there were bad calls. But USC had 10 less fouls than Alabama and shot 23-of-88 from the field, including 3-of-30 in the first half. Many of those were at the rim that just didn’t fall.

Then, especially in the fourth overtime, jump shots and 3-pointers were badly missing. USC is falling into a bad rhythm – when they get no post production from Chris Silva or Maik Kotsar, they have to lean on Thornwell and Dozier. Teams know they’ll drive and they know Duane Notice will shoot 3s. There aren’t many other options.

Got to keep those big guys in the game, especially Silva. When he’s got it going, he’s hard to stop with the way he can score.

FREE: I know they were tired, and I know it’s way different when shooting by yourself in an empty gym than shooting in front of screaming fans imploring you to make or miss.

I still will never be able to understand how many free throws are missed in basketball.

USC missed 15 Tuesday. While it shot 50 and that’s a strong percentage, missing 15 in a four-point four-overtime game looms. This is after missing 11 against Georgia.

That white square on the glass is there for a reason. And while I know nobody wants to shoot free throws granny-style because of the stigma of having no style by shooting them that way, Florida’s Canyon Barry has made 35 in a row shooting them that way.

And Ollie made two that way to send the Hickory Huskers to the state finals back in ’52.

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