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South Carolina men stuck searching for answers after struggling out of the gate

It’s been a weird and frustrating start to the season.

Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

I’m going to start off by making a bit of an understatement here: The South Carolina men’s basketball team has been having a rough go of it early this season.

The very first time we saw the 2018-19 Gamecocks suit up, it was in a 77-72 exhibition loss to a Division II Augusta squad. While dropping a game like that is never a good look, it didn’t count against USC’s record, and plenty of high-profile programs have slipped up in these contests against lower-level opponents throughout the years. I wasn’t exactly thrilled, but I wasn’t ready to mash the panic button either.

The Gamecocks bounced back in their actual season opener, posting a decent-but-could-be-better 65-52 win over USC Upstate. Trouble wasn’t far, however: When Stony Brook came to town, South Carolina stumbled in an 83-81 result that wasn’t actually as close as the score would indicate. The see-saw continued with a big 81-64 win over lowly Norfolk State, followed by a close-ish 76-67 loss to NCAA Tournament regular Providence, another big 90-55 victory over winless George Washington, and then the latest insult: a 20-point 81-61 drubbing to Wofford on the Gamecocks’ own floor. Yeesh.

I wish I could tell you I knew what was happening with this edition of South Carolina hoops, but I really don’t. Veteran big men Chris Silva and Maik Kotsar, whom the Gamecocks were counting on, are both playing probably the worst basketball of their USC careers. Kotsar has always been more of a complementary player and not the kind of guy who can take over a game, but Silva has been shockingly unproductive and falling back into old habits with persistent foul trouble. The Gamecocks do have some promising freshmen in the likes of A.J. Lawson, Keyshawn Bryant, and T.J. Moss, but those aren’t one-and-done guys who are going to transform a program right away. Throw in the fact that another newcomer, Alanzo Frink, has yet to play because of an injury, and sophomore wing Justin Minaya — a starter — is out indefinitely after hurting his knee against Wofford. South Carolina, at this moment, looks like a very rough draft.

I guess it all comes back to what has been the biggest issue for South Carolina basketball since time immemorial: recruiting. It’s very, very difficult to occupy a region that includes multiple bluebloods and various other programs that can successfully compete for recruits’ attention, whether it’s because of NCAA Tournament success, playing in basketball-first conferences like the ACC, and so on. This quickly becomes an unholy catch-22: Recruits don’t want to come here because they can’t win or be seen on a national stage, but if recruits don’t come here, the program can’t achieve that desirable level of prestige. South Carolina, as a state, actually has some good basketball talent! It’s just easy to think otherwise when it all flees the borders immediately upon high school graduation.

Now, there are a couple key exceptions — Sindarius Thornwell and P.J. Dozier, along with Justin McKie, were a home-grown nucleus of the Gamecocks’ dream team that reached the Final Four. But that’s just it — we’re barely two years removed from that magical NCAA Tournament run, and South Carolina somehow has nothing to show for it on the recruiting trail.

Consider, for just a moment, a few of the misses South Carolina has had during Martin’s tenure. (I’m going to ignore Zion Williamson here, since he really does appear to be the second coming of LeBron James, and there was potentially some rule-bending with his recruitment that South Carolina couldn’t possibly have competed with.) There was Dreher’s Tevin Mack, who went to Texas and is now sitting out a transfer year at Alabama; Gaffney’s L.J. Peak, who spurned the Gamecocks for Georgetown; Hammond’s Seventh Woods, who seemed like he’d finally be that elusive crown jewel but followed his life-long affection for the Tar Heels to North Carolina. For a program like South Carolina that is short on stars and full of projects, any one of these players could have made a difference — to say nothing if a couple of those guys had decided to come.

Oh, and lest we forget, the NCAA poured salt on the wound when five-star transfer Brian Bowen ran into eligibility problems related to the FBI’s corruption probe into the sport. Several players across the country were involved and many of them were cleared, but Bowen never could escape from under that shadow, and it cost the Gamecocks another chance at a difference-maker.

Ultimately, Martin can’t be blamed for the whims of 17- and 18-year-olds (or the NCAA), but it’s brutal to consistently lose out on talent that’s not only in-state, but in some cases, in the Gamecocks’ literal backyard. Maybe Martin and his staff have just been exceptionally unlucky, but South Carolina has got to start landing somebody — anybody — who isn’t a JUCO stop-gap or an athletically-gifted project. It’s just hard to know where to go from here.