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January 18, 2012

Cloninger: Start was expected, finish the key



"The only difference,
That I see,
Is you are exactly the same,
As you used to be."
-------------- THE WALLFLOWERS

You're only as good as your last game, and after South Carolina dropped its first three SEC games in a frighteningly consistent manner - play basketball one half, can't throw the ball in the ocean from a boat in the other - the more inflamed members of the fan base are bellowing their familiar cry. It's similar to the ones that people had rumbling in their bellies after Arkansas blasted the football team.

Of course it's not pleasant to see the Gamecocks lose, and to lose in the manner in which they have lost. There's nothing wrong with this team that hitting a few shots won't fix - but nobody's doing that, and there appears to be no other solution than hoping that the ball finds the basket. A coach can stress better spacing, better shot selection and better decisions, but it's the player who has to do it - and after half a season and in other cases years of shooting one way, to break down a player's shot and re-teach it mid-season would be disastrous.

So USC is 0-3, with 13 games remaining the regular season. In short, it's exactly where I and several others thought it would be.

So what's the problem?

The Gamecocks played Kentucky, Vanderbilt and Florida in their first three games. At least two of those will make the Elite Eight and one is headed for the Final Four. They're the best three teams in the league and USC isn't one of the top six.

To lose was expected, perhaps even a given. The first for sure, being at Rupp Arena, the next two because they were good teams and Colonial Life Arena isn't exactly a home-court advantage. The courageous complainers would rather stay at home where they can type their frustrations instead of trying to have the building loud and boisterous and help turn things around.

The Gamecocks admitted that the sparse fan interest was frustrating, but understood why. "We haven't done our jobs," freshman Anthony Gill recently said. "Once we do, the fans will start coming back."

But even with a sold-out CLA, I don't believe USC would have beaten Vanderbilt or Florida. It's talent differential, nothing more. As I said in the preseason, and before the SEC season, the schedule is murderous on the front end and kind on the back. Now that the first three are out of the way, Darrin Horn's boys can start looking at what's left.

Sure, they're 0-3. They were supposed to be. It's how they respond that will make the difference.

I viewed the first eight games as being quite the gauntlet, but figured if the Gamecocks got out of them with a 2-6 league record or better, they could reverse it late and do what they haven't done for any of the first three years of Horn's tenure - improve in February and March. USC's next five are at Auburn, hosting Alabama, at Ole Miss, at Florida and hosting Kentucky. Now, those last two are doozies - although USC has split the series with Florida in each of the past five games, the road team winning every time - but the first three are winnable.

Auburn is not good. Ole Miss was looking good until it kicked leading scorer Dundrecous Nelson off the team. Alabama is a good team, but it's the kind of team that USC matches well with - a defense-first squad, with the last guy to steal the basketball playing for the winning team.

Then come the final eight, with only Mississippi State (at home) and at Vanderbilt looking excessively challenging. LSU, Georgia, Tennessee and Arkansas (a combined six games) are all struggling teams.

Not discounting the first three games, because every game is a contest that can be won or lost. I believed that if everything went perfect for USC in any of those three, it had a chance to win.

A lot of good things (defense, and the good halves) did go right, but not perfect. The Gamecocks lost. It happens when a team plays a better team.

But the season's not over. Normally I would drop my "plenty of crazy things in this game" line and reference Butler playing for the past two national championships, but it's not needed.

USC doesn't have to rely on any crazy or magic to get over the 0-3 start. It just has to play a bit better, and start playing teams that aren't severely over them in terms of straight talent.

One of those two is directly in front of them. The other is up to them.

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