South Carolina Basketball: Gamecocks need a strong finish

Feb 10, 2016; Columbia, SC, USA; South Carolina Gamecocks forward Michael Carrera (24) celebrates against the LSU Tigers in the second half at Colonial Life Arena. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports
Feb 10, 2016; Columbia, SC, USA; South Carolina Gamecocks forward Michael Carrera (24) celebrates against the LSU Tigers in the second half at Colonial Life Arena. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports /

The South Carolina basketball team needs to end the season on a strong note if they want to be in the best spot when March arrives.

February is winding down and conference play is now in the home stretch, so you would think a 22-5 Gamecocks team would be settling in to their postseason future. They currently sit in a three-way tie for second place in the SEC standings.

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However, after Tuesday night’s awful showing in a loss at Missouri, Carolina’s March plans are still a bit unclear. Frank Martin’s squad followed up their two best performances of the year with arguably their two worst, and now a weak non-conference schedule may come back to bite them.

After beating then-No. 8 Texas A&M on the road with a brilliant second half performance, the Gamecocks put themselves in first place in the SEC by beating LSU in Columbia in one of their more exciting games of the year. Carolina was then run off their own court by a streaking Kentucky team, and lost a head-scratcher at bottom dwelling Missouri.

The Gamecocks were able to rebound on Saturday with an overtime win against the Florida Gators at home, but some questions still linger.

USC is still in pretty good shape, but that bad loss to the Tigers and a weak strength of schedule now leaves very little room for error down the stretch. Usually Coach Martin’s teams are known for their relentlessness, toughness, and effort, but those qualities have been largely missing in the past two defeats.

The ball movement and balanced scoring that propelled Carolina early in the year have also been less consistent factors lately.

Kentucky was buoyed by the early ejection of their coach John Calapari in the first few minutes of the game. His explosion at the refs seemed to galvanize his players and they played with an intensity and effort that made their superior talent level even more evident. Senior Michael Carrera and freshman Chris Silva were the only two Gamecocks that appeared up to the challenge Kentucky presented and that certainly wasn’t enough on a day where turnovers and poor shooting doomed the team in garnet.

Missouri is as inexplicable a loss as seen by the Gamecocks in quite a while. For a team one game back of first place in the SEC who hadn’t lost consecutive games all year to give such a listless effort was baffling.

Feb 13, 2016; Columbia, SC, USA; South Carolina Gamecocks forward Chris Silva (30) goes up for shot covered by Kentucky Wildcats forward Isaac Humphries (15) at Colonial Life Arena. Kentucky wins 89-62 over South Carolina. Mandatory Credit: Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports
Feb 13, 2016; Columbia, SC, USA; South Carolina Gamecocks forward Chris Silva (30) goes up for shot covered by Kentucky Wildcats forward Isaac Humphries (15) at Colonial Life Arena. Kentucky wins 89-62 over South Carolina. Mandatory Credit: Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports /

Carolina once again struggled mightily shooting the ball, once again finishing the game under 34% from the field. The most concerning thing was that many of those shots were in the paint, and yet they still were not able to convert easy chances.  A late rally fell short as the Gamecocks took a 65-64 lead after a 16-4 run but only scored two more points and lost by five.

In the two big wins prior to this week’s skid, South Carolina was as productive and efficient on offense as they have been all season. It appeared as if they had broken their habit of sloppy turnovers and put together back to back games over 80 points at around 50% shooting from the field.

While Carerra and junior guard Duane Notice have been relatively consistent in their play this year, junior guard Sindarius Thornwell has been Coach Martin’s most crucial and frustrating player. After scoring 49 points combined in the team’s two biggest wins of the year, Thornwell has gone 5-21 from the field in the two losses that followed. A 17 point outing against the Gators was a pleasing sight, even if most of those points came from the free throw line.

The junior guard has been the best player on the court at times this season, and usually on those nights the garnet and black get a win. He has also had a handful of poor performances, and not surprisingly Carolina has struggled in those games.

It isn’t always quite this simple, but when Thornwell hits shots, this team wins games. He will need to find his form again to help USC stave off the scoring droughts that have hurt them in losses. USC needs to have a game where both Thornwell and sixth man Duane Notice get hot at the same time, if both perimeter scorers can get going in a game it could make things easy for the post players.

Speaking of post play, early in the year I remarked to a friend that we passed the ball into the post more in the first few games than we did in the entire Darrin Horn era. While Chris Silva has shown flashes of his potential and looks to be the player most likely to pick up Mike Carrera’s place as team leader in toughness and effort down the road, he is still very much a raw talent. Unfortunately the two senior Lithuanian big men, Laimonas Chatkevicius and Mindaugas Kacinas have seen their production take a major hit since conference play started.

Kacinas was a pleasant surprise early in the year with an increased scoring punch from his first three seasons, but he has only taken eight shots in the last three games. While he is still on pace to end his career as the programs all-time leader in field goal percentage, he has been noticeably less aggressive or less confident in his ability to score points in SEC games. He has even seen a dip in his production on the backboards, especially offensive rebounds, where he has made a living for four years in Columbia.

As for the other big man from Eastern Europe, his struggles have been far more concerning.

Chatkevicius has seemed top hit rock bottom as far as confidence, having struggled mightily the last few ball games. Coach Martin has long lamented the big man’s lack of rebounding prowess, and fans grow frustrated with his abundance of missed shots from inside the paint. He has shown the capability to be a very productive post threat during his time in Columbia, and the Gamecocks will need him to regain his confidence to help them avoid a late season swoon.

This weekend against Florida, both Lithuanians were able to post double figure scoring games for the first time in a few weeks. While Chatkevicius still struggled to convert some close opportunities, but made a few big buckets late along with converting from the free throw line.

His outlet pass to Thornwell in the closing seconds of regulation was a thing of beauty, as he launched the ball almost the length of the court to hit his teammate in stride for a lay-up that gave the Gamecocks a one point lead with only moments to go. Saturday was a big day for the two European big men, as their mothers made the very long trip from Lithuania to Columbia, SC to see their sons play in person for the first time as Gamecocks.

The freshman class for Coach Martin has also been slightly inconsistent, yet overall productive, much like the team as a whole.  Point guard PJ Dozier has been the perfect example of this so far during the season.  He has had some games where he looks a little lost and careless with the ball, and he has also struggled with early foul trouble as he adjusts to Frank Martin’s aggressive defense and the new college rules focusing on hand checking ball handlers.

However, Dozier has also been a critical part of some of the Gamecocks best wins, looking like the best player on the court for stretches against Vanderbilt, Texas A&M and LSU.  Chris Silva and Jamall Gregory have each contributed at times this year, and from the day they stepped on campus they upgraded the athleticism of the program.

Here South Carolina sits, 22-5 overall and 9-5 in SEC play, with two of its final four games in the friendly confines of Colonial Life Arena.  They are still in good position to reach the postseason, currently in ESPN’s Joe Lunardi’s bracketology as an 7 seed, but they will need a strong finish to avoid slipping out of the NCAA tourney and in to the NIT.

For a program that has had only one winning season in its last six, this year still need to be looked at favorably, but after such a great start, missing out on March Madness with a late season collapse would be a hard pill to swallow.

With their win over the Florida Gators on Saturday, Carolina added another quality win over a tournament worthy team to its resume. The Gamecocks will also have a chance to avenge two of their earlier losses with Georgia and Tennessee coming to town, so finishing off the home slate strong could be a big boost.

This team has been a bit erratic this year, especially for a team with 21 victories, but they have certainly shown that they have the ability to play well and win big game. Taking care of the ball, and getting back to the team balance they displayed early in the year will be a key down the home stretch, and if they can do those things, the garnet and black should be dancing in March again for the first time in 12 years.