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January 11, 2012
"I know there's an answer,
I know now but I have to find it by myself."
------------------------------------------ THE BEACH BOYS
The solution seems so simple and is yet so mind-warping difficult. There's nothing wrong with South Carolina's basketball team that hitting a few shots won't fix.
The problem is twofold. Who's going to hit them, and how do the Gamecocks get in position to get a guy to hit them?
After watching another scoreless lapse in the first half - this one was one field goal in the final 11:22 of the first half, part of a 19.7 shooting percentage and a 12-point period - lead to another loss, I was left again shaking my head. It again is extremely unsettling to realize that the Gamecocks have no shooters or scorers on the team - athletes and projects are good to have around a scorer, but in basketball, a scorer is the player a team has to have.
Some of that has been recruiting misses. Brian Richardson and Damien Leonard were brought in as dead-eye outside shooters, but have not been nearly consistent enough to be counted on. Some more of that has been that USC was spoiled for two years by Devan Downey, who was going to score his 20 per game whether the defense was designed to stop him or not. Still more was that when Bruce Ellington was brought in to be another Downey (i.e., the point guard the offense was constructed around), he was very good, but then he chose to be a 19th wheel in the USC football semi, which knocked out an entire preseason's preparation for basic set plays that would focus on him.
So the Gamecocks are left with what they have. Ellington scored 20 points against Vanderbilt, but only after a wretched first half and a spurt at the beginning of the second half that saw the Commodores go up by 20. There was no half-court offense in that crucial lull in the first, and the Gamecocks were left staring at a quandary that they constantly stare at - do they sacrifice their defense, which has been good, to help their offense?
USC is at its best when playing back-and-forth, transition basketball, but that comes with a price - it can't set its press and leaves itself open for the other team to run 'n' gun as well. The Gamecocks and Commodores were even in the second half on Tuesday, but that was after Vanderbilt opened a massive lead.
USC was very successful in focusing on defense in the first, but couldn't take advantage of it. The reason was that when it tried to run a set play, one guy dribbled and the other four waited for something to happen instead of moving around, trying to be the guy making something happen.
"There were so many times that, if we didn't have something initially, we just kind of stood around and held the ball," coach Darrin Horn said.
That can't happen going forward. Every team left on the schedule has at least one of what the Gamecocks don't have - a go-to scorer. Many have two or three while USC is looking for one.
If the Gamecocks continue to try and out-defend, and hope enough shots fall instead of putting themselves into the best possible position to make them fall, the season will be longer than the nasally whining in any given episode of "Keeping Up with the Kardashians" - and the chances of winning will be smaller than the length of Kim's marriage.
Nobody on the roster is going to magically morph into a clone of Downey overnight. And there will be teams the Gamecocks face that they won't be able to beat even if they had two or three Downeys on the court.
But there are 14 games left on the regular-season slate, and all have a chance to be won. How good of a chance depends on how much the Gamecocks can gear their games around some vital points.
* 1. Start Bruce
The Eric Smith show has gone on long enough. Smith deserved a chance to be the top point guard after Ellington played football, and he was given one. But he lost his slot in the preseason to Lakeem Jackson because he couldn't hold onto the ball, and after a solid stretch, has played his last four games hesitant and unsure. Having a few lapses while trying to run the half-court could be excused if he was scoring like he was, but he's not. Ellington at least will be fearless at driving the lane, which could send a message to the rest of the team - the paint is your friend.
* 2. Emphasize the strengths
The best thing about basketball is a team is always one or two players away from being great. USC can at least be competitive if it emphasizes the scoring talents it has in three players - Ellington, Malik Cooke and Anthony Gill. Those three need to have the offense centered around them, due to them being able to do a little bit of everything. Ellington can hit inside and out, and has no qualms about backing defenses down. Gill is a matchup problem who can also score inside and out, and is learning how to control his fouling tendencies on defense. Cooke is also that kind of rangy player, who can hit anywhere inside the arc and pop the occasional 3-pointer. One of those three, and at least two if Ellington starts at the point, needs to touch the ball on every set possession.
* 3. Malik
Cooke is the team's only senior and leading scorer. He can score in bunches, as evidenced by his 24 points to rescue the team against USC Upstate three games ago. A quiet, unemotional player, Cooke needs to shed that moniker now, if not sooner. I asked him if it might be time to demand the ball, and he said, "I'm just trying to do whatever the coaches think is best, think it will help us win the game. If they think it will help us win the game, I'd be willing to do that." I have to disagree there - I believe the coaches want him to do it, but don't want to pressure him into trying to do it and seeing him play badly. He has to be the one to say, "You know what? We may lose, but it won't be for lack of effort on my part," and flash his hand up on every trip down the floor. Let him be aggressive, mean and ornery on the block, and let him back the defense down so he can rain a jumper over it. Coaches can't make a player do that by themselves, it has to be the player's choice far more than the instruction.
I can't say if following those three points to the letter will help USC win, but I know that some sort of structured plan has to be in place instead of the constant improvisation that is currently going on. The Gamecocks seem to have no set plays and are relying on a 3-point attempt with five seconds on the shot clock, or depending on the fast break.
Despite some really awful losses, USC was improving game-by-game up until Tuesday. That was a step back, somewhere the Gamecocks don't need to be with Florida coming to Columbia on Saturday and USC looking at 0-3 in the SEC.
It doesn't have to be that way.
Maybe with a revamped approach, it won't.
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