Ron Morris

Morris: Very little left of season's promise

USC's Devan Downey goes for a shot.
USC's Devan Downey goes for a shot.

South Carolina's postseason chances and Devan Downey's SEC player of the year candidacy continued to swirl down the same drain Saturday afternoon at Colonial Life Arena.

Where once the talk was of USC maneuvering its way into the NCAA tournament, now it centers around whether the Gamecocks can make their way into the NIT. At 14-12 following an eight-point loss to Tennessee, USC needs to steal a couple of wins down the stretch against teams it probably should not beat ... just to get in the NIT.

Meanwhile, Downey's player of the year bubble probably has burst in unison with USC's late-season slide. During USC's four losses in the past five games, Downey 's performance has been anything but spectacular. His 30 percent shooting - 29 percent from 3-point range - during that stretch attests to that.

It is a sad scenario because Darrin Horn admittedly sacrificed much of his program building in order to win with this year's club. That meant abandoning the trapping and pressing style of defense he prefers and focusing much of his team's offense on his star senior, Downey.

"Completely, to some degree," said Horn when asked how much sacrifice to program building he has made. His mixed-message answer was not nearly as confusing as his team's play during a pivotal part of the second half when a couple of botched plays allowed Tennessee to increase its lead from 1 to 5 points as 3 seconds ticked off the clock.

"Our priority is our young people," Horn said, "and it's not fair to our seniors to say, 'This is what we're going to do and play in a way that doesn't give us our best chance to win.' "

Horn will not use the season-ending injury to Dominique Archie or the departure of Mike Holmes as excuses for a season of much promise going up in smoke. Yet without those two, Horn has been forced to play a style of basketball not necessarily to his liking.

Saturday's game showed that.

"Had we come out and pressed and played fast and shot quickly and all of that, we would have played into their hands," Horn said of Tennessee. "They're a team that is good at that. They're deeper than we are, and more athletic and more talented."

Instead, as he has all season, Horn put his team in position to win by playing zone defense and slowing as many possessions as possible on offense. Time and again he has effectively closed the talent gap between his team and the opponent by shortening the length of the game.

Opponents have countered by forcing the ball inside against USC's zone. With 6-foot-9 forward Sam Muldrow as USC's only effective post defender, the Gamecocks continue to have difficulty defending the basket. If it is not surrendering easy layups or dunks, USC is sending the opposition to the free-throw line.

On the other end of the court, SEC opponents have figured out how to minimize the damage done by Downey.

Bruce Pearl, Tennessee's coach, spelled it out pretty clearly. To beat USC, a team must keep Downey off the free-throw line and out of the lane. Downey made five of six free throws Saturday. Otherwise, he faced double teams and a wall of defenders anytime he attempted to penetrate the lane. He was rendered ineffective, scoring 15 points on four-of-18 shooting.

By keeping Downey out of the lane, opponents have turned USC into a 3-point shooting team, which it is not. Saturday's 5-of-26 lack of marksmanship from beyond the arc leaves USC shooting 28 percent on 3-pointers during the past five games. Worse still, USC is attempting an average of 27 3-pointers per game in that stretch.

The offshoot of all that is USC cannot get to the free-throw line and its opponents look like participants in a Mardi Gras parade to the foul stripe. In consecutive losses to Georgia, Arkansas and Tennessee, USC opponents have attempted 91 free throws. USC has tried 33.

The disparity has nothing to do with officiating. When one team consistently shoots around the basket, it usually gets to the foul line. When the other consistently shoots 3-pointers, it usually does not get to the foul line.

"It's a combination of they've got really good inside players and we've got issues on the interior," Horn said of Tennessee, but could easily have been speaking of most SEC opponents. "For us, unless we're driving the ball to get fouled or (Muldrow) gets fouled, we're going to have a hard time drawing fouls."

While this style of play might not be working the deeper USC goes into the season, do not expect Horn to abandon it.

"In terms of establishing a style, yes, we've had to completely sacrifice that," Horn said. "But in terms of establishing a mentality of what we want our program to be about, then we're continuing to do those things."

That means USC continuing to play hard, scramble for loose balls and get the absolute most out of its limited roster of talent. Unfortunately for the Gamecocks, that might not be enough to get to the postseason, and it likely will not be enough for Downey to earn SEC player of the year honors.

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