David Cloninger

Cloninger: Season getting to the breaking point

South Carolina coach Frank Martin reacts to a call against Vanderbilt.
South Carolina coach Frank Martin reacts to a call against Vanderbilt. AP

The panic button has not been hit.

It’s been rammed through the control panel.

By numbers, South Carolina is OK. They haven’t lost to somebody that isn’t somebody, with many of those losses to teams (save one, I guess, that still has one less conference tournament championship than the Gamecocks despite USC not being in that league for close to 50 years) that are making a push for the postseason.

That’s what makes it so agonizing to watch this team. We all know, and several players know, that numbers don’t mean squat when it comes to USC and the NCAA tournament selection committee. If it comes to a choice between a team that’s been in the tournament since 2004 and won at least one game since 1973, that other team (read: Vanderbilt, Syracuse, Michigan, Tulsa) is going ahead of the Gamecocks.

They all knew they could leave no question this year. They all knew people would be looking for any excuse to keep them out, no matter who they beat or where they finished.

And it’s not doing any good. USC again lost in mid-February, in a game it had under control, leaving it 0-2 in a six-game stretch to define the season when the last season finished 3-3 and helped sink it. This is not one of those great stories of March, where a team is playing its best at the end and fighting for a tournament berth.

This is one of the stories that always gets passed by, of a team that had it nearly locked down, played its worst at the end and let it slip away.

I don’t get it. I saw this team win four of six to end Frank Martin’s second year. It finished 14-20.

It won four of six to finish the third year and ended 17-16. A man who is never in short supply of pride had instilled it in his team, taking any perceived slight of coach, player or program and turning it into victories, even in lost causes.

Many people will talk February collapse in the fourth year -- last year -- and they’re right by the numbers. That loss at Missouri was inexcusable but the Gamecocks won their next two, then they won at Arkansas when Michael Carrera was on the bench.

Yet it wasn’t a February collapse. It was a screwjob worse than Bret Hart at Montreal that cost them the tournament. Say what you want, tell me how wrong I am, but I know to the last nerve ending in my little toe that USC didn’t make the NCAAs last year only because it was USC.

The reporter in me sees what’s wrong these days. The Gamecocks’ defense, a unit once spoken of in hushed tones by opposing coaches, is flawed. USC can’t defend the perimeter like it once did, allowing dribble-drives to the rim for a bucket or foul, and if the Gamecocks can stay in front, it allows a kick-out for a 3-pointer.

The offense has become Sindarius Thornwell and nobody else. Chris Silva showed what he can do if he can stay on the floor against Mississippi State and Vanderbilt, and P.J. Dozier, when he drives to the basket, is as unstoppable as ever. The problem is getting Dozier and Silva to do it consistently, and get something, anything, from the bench. Thornwell can score 44 – as we’ve seen – and it does no good if nobody else can score four.

The part of me that is so like Martin sympathizes and seethes. We’re both immensely proud individuals, non-apologetic for the way we are, and we can’t understand how this team, with so much in front of it, is collapsing at the worst possible time. Last year should be enough motivation. Being in first place late in the year should be more.

Martin swore after Arkansas, lava spurting in his eyes, that if he had a uniform, he’d be able to fix this problem yesterday. I perfectly understood what he meant – I was a player with no talent and a fierce love of the game, and if I had to leave a game or practice with no points, eight boards and four missing teeth, then by God, I’d do it. Martin’s been open about his skills on the court and said he’d give whatever he had to keep playing – if that was effort, by God, you’d see a re-defining of effort.

These Gamecocks have so much more than effort. They beat 19 very good teams (Georgia twice). They busted their tails to have the best defense in the SEC for the first three months of the year. Their leader, heart, spine and motor was so disappointed in himself for getting suspended he’s turned himself into a Player of the Year candidate.

And it’s all swirling around a drain. There is no shame at getting to a postseason tournament not named the NCAA tournament, but at USC, it’s nearly a crime. The Gamecocks should never be held accountable for the sins of other teams that didn’t finish the job, but this job is theirs, and they’re appearing to clock out early.

Four games. Everything they want is still in front of them. One result is a half-hearted round of applause in front of a three-quarters-empty home arena.

The other, gained by the relentless ferocity their coach shows every minute he’s with them, the glory of a history-making team. Gamecock basketball has historically had a reputation for coming up short.

History can change.

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