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Why is South Carolina men’s basketball struggling so much this season?

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I know it’s not going to be fun, but it’s worth examining why a team coming off a Final Four appearance is...not exactly doing well.

Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

We’re now more than halfway through the men’s basketball season and the South Carolina Gamecocks are not in a particularly fun place. At 13-12 (4-8 SEC) and 11th in the SEC, South Carolina went from being a fringe NCAA Tournament team to a solid NIT team to likely missing the postseason entirely. While it’s not at all shocking this team has taken a step back from last year’s Final Four appearance, it’s surprising just how much of a step back it’s been. Veteran forward Chris Silva, the Gamecocks’ anchor, has largely succeeded in avoiding the foul trouble that plagued him last season, but precious little else has broken South Carolina’s way. Here’s an examination of a few reasons why this team is struggling:

They can’t shoot

It may go down as one of the most unfortunate pronouncements coach Frank Martin has made: Before the season started, he claimed this group of Gamecocks was among the best, if not the best, shooting teams he’s ever had. And hey, who among us hasn’t made a bold prediction when the mood struck and we were feeling invincible?

Here’s the reality, though: South Carolina is 13th in the SEC with an average of 69 points per game and dead last in the conference with a 39.5 field goal percentage. The numbers get a bit better when you look at 3-point percentage (32%, 11th in the SEC) and free-throw percentage (69.4%, ninth in the SEC), but the Gamecocks are just not getting it done on the offensive end. It’s not uncommon to see South Carolina go on scoring droughts of four minutes or longer, and it’s painful to watch.

The Great BB Gun Incident of 2016

A year before the Gamecocks made their unbelievable run to the Final Four, they were snubbed from the NCAA Tournament after a school record 25-win regular season. Because that wasn’t depressing enough, five players then got themselves suspended before the NIT, charged with misdemeanors for property crimes after going on a joy ride with BB guns. Freshman guard Jamal Gregory and freshman forward Eric Cobb, two intriguing young players, were the ringleaders and summarily dismissed. Junior guard Marcus Stroman ended up transferring out, and while sophomore guard TeMarcus Blanton remained with the team, he never fully recovered from a bad hip injury and retired. That’s basically an entire recruiting class of depth that evaporated in a matter of months, to say nothing of what potential talent was lost with the younger guys who had only just started developing.

Rakym Felder is unavailable

The good news: Felder still has a future with the program and will be back in a Gamecocks uniform next season. The bad news: He can’t help a team that has a desperate, immediate need for a guard with his skills. Felder got fans excited as a promising role player during last season’s Final Four run, but encountered some legal trouble in the offseason and landed in Martin’s dog house as a result. While the charges were dropped and he’s getting another chance, his return to the team is complete only when Martin says it is. And given how much Felder could help the 2017-18 Gamecocks, opposing fans certainly can’t accuse Martin of not being a man of principle.

PJ Dozier is a pro now

As fans, it’s all too easy to debate a player’s professional future, and to be critical of the decisions they make related to their careers. Speaking personally, I try adopting a hands-off approach: It’s their life, after all, and it often makes more sense to pursue that dream sooner rather than later. Dozier’s decision to make the early jump to the NBA was a tough one, and with the benefit of hindsight, continues to be a source of debate among the Gamecock faithful. It’s not my intention to put a value judgment on his decision, or imply that he was obligated to stick around and care about this team’s predicament; he wasn’t. But it’s a simple fact that this group would have been better with him on the roster, and perhaps it was a scenario Martin wasn’t fully prepared to handle.

The stop-gap players aren’t really doing a good job of being stop-gap players

With the departure of key veterans like Dozier, Sindarius Thornwell, Duane Notice, and Justin McKie, Martin knew he’d have some serious holes to fill in the backcourt — and needed to do so quickly. Enter a trio of grad transfer guards intended to ease that pain: Delaware’s Kory Holden (who had averaged 17.7 points per game), Maine’s Wesley Myers (16.9 ppg), and Florida Atlantic’s Frank Booker. Of the three, Booker’s resume was the least impressive, but he’s been by far the most steady and productive: his 11.3 points per game are good for second on the team, along with his 39.4% performance from beyond the arc. Holden, unfortunately, has spent much of his time in a South Carolina uniform struggling with injuries, and while Myers has produced a handful of big games, he’s inconsistent and prone to disappearing for long stretches. The veteran savvy and scoring punch this group could have provided just hasn’t materialized to a meaningful extent for South Carolina.

Other than Silva, there just isn’t a go-to playmaker

This lack of playmaking ability is especially evident when it comes to the backcourt, which is so short on depth and thin on talent that tight end Evan Hinson is a starter. The Gamecocks are 249th in the country in assist turnover ratio (.94), and, again, can’t shoot. For South Carolina fans who have been spoiled by the likes of Thornwell and Devan Downey in the past, it’s very odd indeed to see a Gamecock backcourt that lacks a dependable scoring threat.