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Is South Carolina basketball losing its grip down the stretch - again?

After losing three out of their last four, the road trip to #15 Florida on Tuesday is daunting

NCAA Basketball: South Carolina at Vanderbilt Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

It is time to sound the metaphorical alarm. After another loss in a winnable game against Vanderbilt, something has to change in a drastic fashion in order for this team to reach its potential. This marks the third time in the past two weeks that South Carolina has not found a way to close out and win close games, something that they must do when (if?) they make the NCAA Tournament.

The dagger from the Vanderbilt game was free throws. Sindarius Thornwell: a perfect 9 of 9. Outside of Thornwell, an abysmal 4 of 13, including an 0 of 5 performance from P.J. Dozier at the line. This is unacceptable, as free throws are typically correlate to winning, especially in close games like the ones of late. When it comes to a player of Dozier’s caliber and talent level, there should be no excuse for missing every free throw. When a team’s power forward converts their free throws at a higher rate than their point guard, that is a definite cause for concern.

Three point defense, once a strength for the team coming into the second half of SEC play (remember when they held Florida to 0 of 17?), has fallen apart in crucial situations. As seen in each of the last four games especially, the defense has allowed players to have break-out games against them, especially from three. Tyson Carter, a role player for the Bulldogs who averages 7.2 points per contest, scored 22 against South Carolina on 50% shooting from beyond the arc. Arkansas as a team shot 50% from three on Tuesday. In all, the team that once lead the nation in three point defense has fallen short in that field recently, and whether it is a lack of intensity or communication, something must change soon to return to that point.

Rebounds are crucial in close games, as each one can be the difference between a defensive stop or a score for the opposing team. In the last four contests, South Carolina has been out-rebounded, resulting in three losses. Creating and maintaining consistent intensity and effort on the glass is vital to the team’s success moving forward, and it is up to the forwards Maik Kotsar and Chris Silva to turn the tide in USC’s favor when on the floor. In addition to this, Dozier, being the 6’6” guard that he is, should be able to grab more boards than the 2.4 per game that he does. If he is to step into a role next year as the star player, he has to improve all facets of his game and become more well-rounded as a player, much like Thornwell has done this season.

For South Carolina’s 24 made field goals, only seven of them were assisted. Ball movement needs to improve for this team to regain upward trajectory. Team-oriented basketball should be more of a focus, instead of a majority of the offensive burden being placed on the shoulders of the talented, yet human, Sindarius Thornwell. Too much pressure on him does not bode well for success moving forward, as eventually he will fatigue down the stretch. Instead, it is time for Dozier and Notice to step into the scoring shoes they need to fill to even out the offensive attack, creating alternative scoring looks to spread the defense thin.

Due to the rough week that Gamecock basketball has endured, it would not be outlandish to surmise that practices will be brutal this week. Overall play must improve, and home losses are inexcusable at this point in the season. After witnessing last season’s complete meltdown as the season drew to a close, one can’t help but wonder if the same is happening right now. The poise the team once played with is slipping away, and with a loss on Tuesday coupled with an Arkansas and Alabama win would put the Gamecocks at fifth place in the conference. It’s time for a rebuild of confidence, and it needs to happen soon. It looks more and more like the game Tuesday against #15 Florida, however unlikely, is a must-win.

It may take a few more bad losses, but if this team continues to play poorly and lose to teams they theoretically shouldn’t lose to, that and a first game exit in the SEC Tournament could send the Gamecocks spiraling out of the tournament. This team needs to return to playing vigorous, inspired basketball. However, the question remains, can they do it?