Is it missing shots or is something fundamentally wrong?
“Our point guard play has been completely out-played,” South Carolina coach Frank Martin said on Monday. “I’m talking about (Marcus) Stroman, (P.J.) Dozier and Sindarius (Thornwell). We’ve been out-played at the point guard spot for three games in a row. That has to change.”
The Gamecocks have lost only two games, each on the SEC road. There are worse places to be, but as the familiar consternation has begun to appear – and the national spotlight has begun to fade, with USC falling from the AP Top 25 for the first time in six weeks – Martin was asked what was going on.
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Much of it is missing shots. The Gamecocks, once a strong 3-point shooting team, can’t buy a long-range bucket in SEC play. Thornwell, the team’s most talented and indispensable player, is 2-of-23 from the field in the last two games, avoiding the first scoreless game of his career with a garbage-time layup against Tennessee.
Shooting slumps happen. Martin has seen it and knows it’s no use to harp on it because it will come around. While a first-year player might have to be treated with delicacy, a junior like Thornwell gets a simple directive.
“Play better,” Martin said. “You want us to win? Gotta play better. Go in the gym, work on your game, make some shots. I’ve never been one to worry about upperclassmen going in slumps, and if they do, it’s a self-inflicted wound. You go through that as a freshman, you shouldn’t go through that as an upperclassman.”
As for the fundamentals, the Gamecocks have been victimized by the same kinds of defensive lapses. Point guards aren’t guarding their men at the top of the defense. That leads to other defenders leaving their men to collapse on a driver into the lane.
The drivers, having baited the defense, simply pass to a wide-open man on the perimeter. If that’s a 20 percent shooter, it’s not grand but USC can live with it. The problem is, all shooters have been swishing 3-pointers lately, most of them wide-open.
“I’m guarding a 3-point shooter, it’s hard to go into the paint and take a charge,” senior Michael Carrera said. “That should be the bigs’ job.
“We have to go back to that mentality. Start getting a winning mentality. We need to win.”
Coming back home after playing four of six SEC games on the road should help. Tuesday’s opponent, Mississippi State, is 1-5 in the league but got the victory in the last game. That could also help – the Bulldogs finally figured out how to close out a game against Ole Miss instead of against USC.
But Malik Newman showcased the outside shooting ability that made him a Top-10 prospect out of high school, and MSU has several upperclassmen who know exactly how to exploit a reeling defense. They’re confident.
Martin is hoping his upperclassmen realize what got them here. Two losses isn’t anything to be concerned about unless they start a cycle of losses.
“We’re not 10-7, we’re 17-2,” Martin said. “We’ve won seven of nine games away from home. We’ve won two road conference games.
“Too many people worry about the finish line. We can’t even see it yet, us in the locker room. We got to be concerned with who we are.”
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Gamecocks vs. Bulldogs
Who: USC (17-2) vs. Mississippi State (8-10)
When: 7 p.m. Tuesday
Where: Colonial Life Arena
TV: SEC Network
MISSISSIPPI STATE (8-10, 1-5 SEC) at SOUTH CAROLINA (17-2, 4-2)
Mississippi State’s probable starters: G I.J. Ready 5-11 Jr. (10.2 ppg, 2.4 rpg); G Craig Sword 6-3 Sr. (12.7 ppg, 3.6 rpg); G Malik Newman 6-3 Fr. (13.4 ppg, 3.1 rpg); G Quinndary Weatherspoon 6-4 Fr. (9.9 ppg, 3.7 rpg); F Gavin Ware 6-9 Sr. (16.2 ppg, 7.5 rpg)
South Carolina’s probable starters: G P.J. Dozier 6-6 Fr. (7.4 ppg, 3.6 rpg); G Sindarius Thornwell 6-5 Jr. (11.6 ppg, 4.6 rpg); F Mindaugas Kacinas 6-7 Sr. (10.9 ppg, 5.4 rpg); F Michael Carrera 6-5 Sr. (12.6 ppg, 6.6 rpg); C Laimonas Chatkevicius 6-11 Sr. (10.7 ppg, 4.9 rpg)
Next game: The Gamecocks host Alabama at 6 p.m. on Saturday.