David Cloninger

Cloninger: New lineup, new result

It was happening again. As much as Frank Martin talks boxing, South Carolina was letting another opponent come off the ropes instead of delivering the haymaker.

Yet the Gamecocks never let Tennessee deliver it.

A four-point lead morphed into 19, started by Hassani Gravett’s free throws and continued by Duane Notice’s 3-pointers. Notice stroked three from long range in less than three minutes as the Gamecocks comfortably won. I realize it was just one game, but it really wasn’t in terms of confidence – USC needed to win to get that belief back, that it can finish strong.

So far, it has. And if the Gamecocks win these next two games – GOT to win Tuesday against a Mississippi State team that came into Saturday No. 135 in RPI – they should be fine no matter what happens in Nashville.

Frank Martin switched up his lineup, not because Maik Kotsar wasn’t contributing but because he needed to get something out there to fix the ball-screen defense. Another guard could help that, and Sindarius Thornwell wasn’t going to shy away from playing Kotsar’s power forward spot, so why not get some speed and athleticism out there to deny penetration?

It’s not completely repaired, but it showed enough teeth in the first 10 minutes to stake a big lead USC never (completely) lost. The Volunteers couldn’t get any kind of clean look as USC raced to the lead and after a 10-minute stretch of blech, the Gamecocks returned to it.

Led by Rakym Felder – Martin’s “pet project,” he called him, since he reminds Martin so much of himself – the bench came through with 23 points to help a Gamecocks team that had too recently become Sin and the Thornwells. USC put away a team that had been fighting for its life and got itself back on firm footing for the NCAA tournament.

As we learned last year, nothing is ever firm enough. So the Gamecocks’ mission is to beat Mississippi State on Tuesday and beat Ole Miss on Saturday. Of the two, they have to beat MSU but beating both keeps them in a top-four finish in the SEC, avoiding a Thursday game in the SEC tournament and thus a Thursday loss in the SEC tournament.

That makes the SEC tournament basically obsolete (although nobody would mind a win or two or three there). The Gamecocks go to Nashville knowing they don’t have to win, it’s all gravy from there.

Buckle up.

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