David Cloninger

Cloninger: All is not lost, but all is not well

This is where I truthfully point out that while Wednesday’s loss is disappointing and frustrating, South Carolina’s season is still very much alive.

Their RPI (21 before Wednesday) shouldn’t drop that much for losing to an RPI of 48, even at home. Their NCAA tournament projection shouldn’t change that much for losing to a team that, at least recently, was considered a bubble team.

Looking at these last six games, I envisioned three scenarios: Go 6-0, they’re in. Go 5-1 with the one loss at Florida, they’re in. Go 5-1 with the one loss somewhere else, that means they beat Florida, they’re in. And there’s always the SEC tournament, which isn’t impossible to win if they start with a two-game bye.

Pick one, and see you in Greenville/Buffalo/Upper Slamdunkovia.

Perhaps Arkansas was the one in the 5-1. Florida’s reeling after losing John Egbunu and the Gators will at least be thinner than they were when USC beat them in Columbia. Of the other four games, only one team has a winning SEC record (Ole Miss, 7-6) and the Gamecocks have already beaten the Rebels and two of the others.

Lot, lot, lot to feel good about.

This is the part where I wish I could tell you it’s all gonna be OK. I have no idea whether it will be or not, because I’ve been around this program too long and like I said a couple of weeks ago, just when everything seems to be certain, a safe falls on your head.

Losing happens, especially this time of year. Teams that have lost start to gel, teams that have won begin to feel the wear of a long season. It’s how teams deal with the pressure, how they respond to adversity, that makes them into tournament teams.

I didn’t need to hear what I heard from USC after the game. I didn’t need to hear, “We’re just not playing well” and “our defense has lost its mojo.” I really didn’t need to hear Frank Martin saying he was so angry at practice the other day that he walked out, for only the second time in 33 years and thousands of practices.

Then he dropped the really bad news. USC has lost its spirit, its focus, he said, and he doesn’t know how it will get it back.

The loss and those comments brought last year circling back around. It’s the constant underlying thread of this season. No matter how much USC won, who it beat, what it did, it was always going to come back to finishing and taking that final step.

It’s why I purposely avoided talking NCAA projections, RPIs, bracketologies and the like. I knew it would do no good to starting talking those situations when it all collapsed last year. When they get to Nashville this year, I said, I’ll take a look around and see where they are.

Losses like Wednesday’s get people looking at wins and RPIs and strength-of-schedules. Losses like Wednesday’s get people thinking of the SEC’s horrid reputation among big-time basketball, and of USC’s reputation that was exacerbated after last year. The Gamecocks knew that to get in the tournament, they had to leave no doubt that they belonged.

Losses like Wednesday’s start creating that doubt.

Of course, if South Carolina was held to other teams’ standards in its own state, it would get credit for losing. There may be one team in these parts that wears a color found mostly in nuclear reactor accidents that will lose itself right into a No. 1 seed.

USC doesn’t have that luxury. And not having a lot of room for error while seeing its defense turn into a toothless hound from the vicious attack dog it once was, and its offense still being named Sin and the Sations is not a luxurious feeling.

This may turn out to be the season everybody wanted and hoped for and expected. It may not.

All I can tell you is that when riding the USC basketball rollercoaster, keep both hands inside the car (and off the keyboard) and hope this valley turns into another peak.

If it’s the end of the ride, well, at least you’re familiar with where the line starts.

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