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What the heck is going on with South Carolina men’s basketball?

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Inquiring minds would like to know.

Amber Searls-USA TODAY Sports

In lieu of a typical recap after the Gamecocks’ stunning 63-56 loss to Stetson on Monday, I’d like to simply ask a question: What the heck is going on with South Carolina men’s basketball?

First, we’ll start with some of the more obvious on-court factors, and one that’s my favorite axe to grind: This team simply cannot make its free throws. The Gamecocks currently sport an SEC-worst 60.3 percentage from the line — which is good for 335th nationally! — and made 12 of 24 against Stetson in a game they lost by seven points.

South Carolina also has a disconcerting habit of living and dying (and it’s mostly dying) by the 3-pointer. Against the Hatters, the Gamecocks went 4 of 19 from behind the arc, and are sitting at 28.6% for the season — 13th in the SEC.

Finally, there’s the even more disconcerting habit that coach Frank Martin has employed off and on throughout his tenure here: benching star players to presumably prove some kind of point, only to watch South Carolina lose what should have been a winnable game. A.J. Lawson , the team’s leading scorer with 15.5 points per game and a presumed NBA Draft pick, played a shockingly low 13 minutes against Stetson, exiting with about 7 minutes left in the second half and not returning until the result had essentially been decided. We uh, sure learned our lesson with that one.

At this point, I don’t even know what to say. It’s become a bizarre trend in the Frank Martin Era to take at least one horrifyingly inexcusable loss in out-of-conference play, a specter that usually comes back to haunt the Gamecocks for postseason tournament selection (which, yes, has sadly even meant exclusion from the NIT). This year’s edition of South Carolina basketball had already suffered a rough defeat to Boston University, but Stetson is on another level: Previously 5-9, the Hatters had beaten exactly zero teams of consequence and been crushed by such luminaries as Kent State and VMI. To say this was a bad loss wouldn’t do it justice.

So where does that leave us? Expectations were fairly high for the Gamecocks entering the 2019-20 campaign. With returning talent like Lawson and Keyshawn Bryant, coupled with newcomers and newly-eligible players like Jair Bolden and Jermaine Couisnard, a lot of observers thought this was a roster worthy of the NCAA Tournament. The BU loss took some shine off that apple, but snapping a three-year losing streak to Clemson and then upsetting a top-10 Virginia squad — the reigning national champion, and on the road to boot! — had us all in again. And sure, there was an eight-day layoff for the holidays between that UVA game and Stetson, but the Hatters were off as well, and in any case, rust was no excuse for the result.

It goes without saying this was not the way anyone wanted to end out-of-conference play, but nonetheless, the Gamecocks must get ready to host Florida next Tuesday. They’ll have a long time to think about what went wrong, and fans will have plenty of time to doubt the current direction of the program.