David Cloninger

Cloninger: Another road stumble, but season far from over

South Carolina head coach Frank Martin yells to his player during the second half of the game Saturday against Tennessee.
South Carolina head coach Frank Martin yells to his player during the second half of the game Saturday against Tennessee. AP

It’s hard to blame the South Carolina faithful for their reaction to the Gamecocks’ 78-69 loss at Tennessee Saturday. Despite being 17-2, 4-2 SEC and still in outstanding shape for the NCAA tournament, that one loss had them hitting Twitter so fast they barely had fingernails left to chew while sweating Signing Day.

The Gamecocks lost because of the same issues they’ve showcased since SEC play began. The 3-pointer, once a strength, continues to miss (the fourth on Saturday was one more than they’ve hit in each of the last five games). They also can’t defend a 3, and because of the same defensive lapses – opponent drives, USC collapses and seems stunned that a man is left wide-open for a kick-out and a 3.

Their free-throw shooting has improved but is still leaving far too many points at the line. As balanced as the scoring has been, this team goes nowhere without Sindarius Thornwell – and right now, Thornwell (one for his last 23) couldn’t score if the rim was twice as large and the basket halved in height.

I keep hearing the shrieks – "They need a shooter!" "They need to hit free throws!" "They can’t defend the guy everyone knows is going to score!" You’re right, but at this point, USC is what it is. There isn’t an All-American lurking at the end of the bench and there is no undiscovered method that will solve the problems.

I’m not sure why, even with the record, folks were saying that USC "should" win any game, especially on the road. As good as this season has been, it’s still the SEC. The Gamecocks have had three winning league seasons in the previous 24 years and the last time they won more than three SEC road games in a year (they have two this year) was 1998. Having a great non-conference record has nothing to do with playing well in conference – if anybody knows that, it’s the Gamecocks.

Perhaps that’s why the panic is so desperate, even after the mere second loss in 19 games. Gamecock fans have been here far too many times. They don’t want to see a season that was seemingly a shoo-in for the NCAA tournament devolve into yet another good start and bad finish.

After watching Frank Martin’s teams, I feel like this is the standard January lull. The good thing about this one is it got a few wins before it started sliding, and it pulled out a win at Ole Miss that it had no business doing. That keeps the Gamecocks from climbing out of a hole, and coming back home for two games against teams that have been struggling (although Alabama handed USC its first loss) should help.

What’s cloudy is no SEC game is a gimme and the first four games in February are going to determine how easy USC’s path to March is. I figure six more wins and the NCAAs can’t keep them out, by sheer numbers. A Power-5 team with 20-plus wins and single-digit losses after the conference tournament would be hard to deny.

Get the next two and one of the two after that and there’s no problem. As fine as this season has been, USC is a team having a good season instead of a good team.

Six more wins. Get ’em, they’re good.

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