David Cloninger

Cloninger: Struggles just a mid-season adjustment away?

South Carolina struggled but won on Saturday.
South Carolina struggled but won on Saturday. AP

Every team goes through a stretch where things that have worked all season suddenly don’t work.

So it’s not a concern, per se, at South Carolina just yet. They didn’t play perfect on Saturday but they won.

The Gamecocks would prefer to play a lot tighter, though, so they can win more.

The past three games, USC’s plans on each end of the floor have been shredded. The Gamecocks have scored by the free-throw and 3-point lines all season and those are starting to flag. Their defense has been pretty solid all year but has been exposed recently.

It stands to reason that as a season progresses, there’s more film to peruse and more weaknesses to expose. Not like other teams can’t find what a team does and doesn’t do well.

Frank Martin wasn’t concerned, saying USC took good shots against Missouri that didn’t go in. While that has its weight – the Gamecocks were going against the league’s worst team at defending 3s so it decided to shoot 3s – there was also a lot of standing around on offense.

Several times, either P.J. Dozier or Duane Notice would be dribbling up top while the other four players stood where they were. Not stood to set an eventual screen, just stood. No movement. That led to frustrated looks and then a 3-point try that mostly missed.

The defense wasn’t that bad when it could get set. But the Tigers were constantly pushing tempo, getting ahead of the Gamecocks in transition, and senior Ryan Rosburg owned the paint when he could stay on the floor.

Against Auburn, Vanderbilt and Alabama, USC was guilty too many times of collapsing on opponents driving into the lane. Yet the driver always knew somebody had to be open, and more often than not, it was a guy standing on the corner for a wide-open 3.

Against Mizzou, USC stuck with its men and didn’t leave the sides of shooters for the worst 3-point shooting team in the league. That enabled Rosburg to get the ball, drop-step left and lay it up with one hand.

The Gamecocks were playing down a man, and a rather important one in Marcus Stroman. As good as Dozier can be, he still makes a lot of careless errors and has fought early foul trouble the last few games. Without Stroman, it was a tough choice – put Sindarius Thornwell at the point and risk taking away his scoring ability, or put Notice there when he hadn’t played it all year. Perhaps that was a big key to the struggles – Notice shot the poorest he had this season.

All stretches are crucial for this team to make it to the postseason and it did what it had to do – it won. The next two games are on the road, at an Ole Miss team which can shoot the lights out and then a curious Tennessee squad that doesn’t have a good record but has some scorers. I know the Gamecocks won in Knoxville last year to break the oh-for-how-long streak but Thompson-Boling has rarely treated USC kindly.

The Gamecocks struggled but won. Tweaks are always easier to work on after a win.

USC’s just hoping the tweaks are what they connote – small adjustments. Now’s not the time to realize there could be something fatally flawed.

SEC ADJUSTMENT: With Mizzou’s exclusion from the SEC tournament, the format has slightly changed. Instead of two games featuring the bottom four seeds on that Wednesday, there will be one game between the 12th and 13th seeds. The 11th seed gets to start Thursday like seeds 5-10.

The league remains wide-open as well, although Texas A&M is on top early. The race for the top four seeds will be tight if the league continues to beat itself up like it does, and that could feasibly also keep it limited when it comes to NCAA tournament selection. Looking at the standings at present, A&M and Kentucky will dance and the rest really need some improvement.

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