The young basketball season has not been kind to the Gamecocks. An easy win over Western Carolina was followed by a road loss to Elon, leaving us us 1-1 out of the gate.
Then we started play in the eight team Las Vegas Invitational. Under that tourney's format, we hosted the Tennessee State Tigers of the OVC and the SWAC's Mississippi Valley State Delta Devils at the Colonial Life Arena -- losing to the Tigers in the waning seconds, while having to erase a big second-half deficit to clip Valley. USC was very fortunate to split these preliminary round games, otherwise we would not have advanced to semi-final play in Las Vegas.
At the Orleans Center in Vegas, we were blown out by UNC 87-62, but played well in the consolation game, losing a heart-breaker 63-60 to Southern Cal when F Malik Cooke missed a tying three-pointer with 2 seconds left from the top of the arc.
Returning to regular out-of-conference play, we allowed the Providence Friars to rip off at 14-2 run in the closing minutes (after having closed out an 11 point advantage by the Friars in the second half) to lose 76-67 in Bruce Ellington's return to the hardwood.
Then came the fantastic win at Clemson's Littlejohn Coliseum 58-55 in a game everyone favored the Tigers to win, spoiling Dabo' Swinney's half-time showboating with the ACCCG championship trophy. The good feelings were spoiled two dates later, though, by the de-committment of teammates Ian Baker and Carlos Morris of Jacksonville, who had both pledged - but not signed LOIs - in the early recruitment period. Both cited Coach Horn's job stability as the major concern.
A Second Season?
We've played four games away from the Colonial Life Arena and gone 1-3. We've played four games at the CLA, in front of sparse crowds, and gone 2-2. Following the Clemson win on December 4, we've been off for exams - the Cocks are scheduled to return to play against Presbyterian College on Tuesday, December 13 at the CLA - the start of a six game home-stand that includes Ohio State, Southeast Louisiana, Wofford, USC-Upstate and SC State.
Darrin Horn and the team need to treat these next three weeks as the start of a second season. We will be favored in every game except Ohio State. While I hope we don't roll over against the Buckeyes, there is no reason why we cannot go 5-1 over this stretch to improve to at least 8-6 - two games over .500 for the start of SEC play (which as luck would have it is against No. 1 UK at Rupp Arena in Lexington.
Keys to Success?
1. Coach Horn's offense must rely more on front-court / post-play. He did this in the Clemson game, and it's essential that we not abandon an inside game as the season progresses. Before, teams merely had to guard the perimeter - and our shooting is simply not good enough to win on three-pointers and long jumpers. Unless one of the Cocks has a super hot-hand, we have got to take less three-pointers (15 seems like a good ceiling for the time-being).
2. Malik Cooke needs to remain steady but improve his game. The lone senior on the squad, Malik is averaging 12 ppg and 5 rbg, but shooting 43%. He's been the MVP on the team so far, and he has to remain rock-solid from here on-out, but he also must get his shooting average up over 50%; we need more 21 point nights like he had in the losing effort against Providence; if he could consistently average just six more points a game (a mere three more put-backs), and three more rebounds, it would pay off huge dividends.
3. Damontre Harris needs to emerge as a reliable starter. We're seeing steady signs that the sophomore from Fayetteville is becoming an impact player - 10 points against Clemson, 15 against Southern Cal, but his 0.0 in 15 minutes versus Providence was a huge handicap in our loss to the Friars. If Harris can be relied upon to score in the double-digits game in and game out, it will force Gill and Slawson to work harder too. Gill has all the tools to be a star but needs to play with even more moxy. RJ Slawson is not developing like I thought he would, though its still early.
4. Keep Eric Smith at PG, and rotate Ellington, Richardson and Leonard at 2G. This is pretty self-explanatory; it's something we talked about last year. Smith is second on the team averaging 8.8 - we need his reliability more than we need guys gunning (and missing) from the arc; Brenton Williams will back Smith up when William's ankle heals, and we won't need to play SF Lakeem Jackson out of position at PG. As far as the 2 spot, whoever has the hot hand should play the off-guard. Now that we have Ellington back, we don't have to rely so much on Leonard, who needs time to find his stroke; with the pressure off, I imagine we will see him gain more and more confidence.
5. Fan Turn-Out. It's a two-way street. Love or hate Darrin Horn, we need to support our team. We're not even consistently filling up the lower ring at the Colonial Life Arena. It's taking its toll more than internet chatter or bad press. If you can make a game, go.