Commentary: Martin’s Gamecocks battle, but lack of talent shows

pobley@thestate.comMarch 9, 2013 

South Carolina Vanderbilt Basketball

South Carolina head coach Frank Martin watches his team in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Vanderbilt on Saturday, March 9, 2013, in Nashville, Tenn.

MARK HUMPHREY — AP

  • STAY OR GO? USC has 12 players on scholarship, leaving one scholarship open. Two seniors will graduate (Lakeem Jackson, Shane Phillips) with three freshmen joining the team in 2013-14, filling all 13 available scholarships. Yet the Gamecocks continue to actively recruit and are hoping to add one or two more bodies before next season. Typically with new coaches, a player or two leaves after the first season ends. But if the Gamecocks add more, who leaves? RISING SENIORS

    Brenton Williams, Brian Richardson, Eric Smith and RJ Slawson likely will stay put. It is difficult for players with one season of eligibility remaining to transfer since they would have to sit out a season before playing that final year. Bruce Ellington is not on scholarship.

    RISING JUNIORS

    Carlton Geathers and Damien Leonard are leading candidates to finish elsewhere, should they so choose. Geathers could continue to heal his surgically repaired knee while Leonard — who never seemed comfortable playing in Martin’s system — has the offensive capability to play a lot of minutes for the right team.

    RISING SOPHOMORES

    Michael Carrera, Laimonas Chatkevicius and Mindaugas Kacinas had their bumps and bruises, but seem capable of becoming stalwarts for future Martin teams. If one of these three were the odd man out, it would be Kacinas.

    WHO’S COMING IN?

    Sindarius Thornwell is a candidate to start from the first day while Desmond Ringer and Justin McKie are projects. Villanova transfer Tyrone Johnson essentially replaced LaShay Page in the program and will be eligible for SEC play next year. Martin is still seeking some bigger bodies and is scouring his South Florida backyard for candidates. He also could seek help from junior colleges. One strength of Martin is convincing transfers from other D-I schools to join his program. Among several at Kansas State, he pulled in transfers from Miami (Denis Clemente) and Connecticut (Curtis Kelly). He already has Johnson and might be able to lure a graduating senior transfer who can play immediately, like he did with Page.

As the final seconds drained out of USC’s regular-season life on Saturday at Vanderbilt, all first-year coach Frank Martin could do was watch as the patient bled out.

The regular season ended in a fashion befitting the Gamecocks’ yearlong battle with themselves.

The 74-64 loss marked the 11th time in 18 SEC games in which the Gamecocks were within reach of a victory in the final minutes. Their record in those games: 3-8.

Saturday, the Gamecocks trailed for the final 39 minutes. Time and again, the Commodores built a 9- or 10-point lead and the Gamecocks would rally back to within one or two possessions. Then, Vanderbilt would pull away once more.

The loss was another in a long line of games the Gamecocks didn’t necessarily give away, but could not finish.

Maybe that’s the 2012-13 season motto: Close, but not enough.

Talent was not on their side, they often proved to be their own worst enemy and if they had any luck at all, it wasn’t of the rabbit foot or four-leaf clover variety.

And how fitting this final game so clearly summed up these deficiencies.

A particular stretch during the second half stands out.

Trailing 52-45, the Gamecocks got a 3-pointer from none other than 6-11 Laimonas Chatkevicius. Brenton Williams and Bruce Ellington followed with jumpers, then Lakeem Jackson hit a basket and was fouled to pull USC to within 56-54.

Jackson missed that free throw — as one might have anticipated from a guy who improved his season free-throw shooting to 34.4 percent by switching to one hand — and Vanderbilt scored the next five points to end the Gamecocks’ last, best threat.

That’s a lack of overall talent at work.

“We battled. We battled, we battled,” Martin said. “Make a free throw, it’s one (point), if you don’t, get a stop. We couldn’t get a stop. And we lost (Kevin Bright), who’s a shooter and the scouting report says to not lose him.”

Bright’s jumper gave Vanderbilt a 58-54 lead, but the next three points in that sequence also are important to this narrative. They came about in three distinct and frustrating parts:

• For what seems the 10,000th time this season, a USC player (this time Chatkevicius) made a bad pass to the wing that was picked off.

• In an attempt to make something happen, Ellington took a chance and dove for a steal while guarding Dai-Jon Parker. As Ellington went sprawling out of bounds, Parker dished to Kedren Johnson while Parker circled to the other side of the court.

• Johnson dished to Parker for a 3-point basket.

The closest defender on that shot attempt? Ellington. Yet another example of an avoidable self-inflicted wound.

“We don’t teach our guys to go for steals, but it’s late and we’re down two possessions,” said Martin. “(Ellington’s) man keeps going to the other side of the court and no one on our team helped him. He had to run from out-of-bounds across the floor to contest the shot. That was a real lazy defensive play by the other four guys.”

Now, it needs to be pointed out that 3-pointer somehow bounced off the backboard despite being shot near the baseline.

“Never forget there’s always a little luck involved in this game,” Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said. “I saw (Parker’s) shot bank in and I asked him after the game if he called bank and he said, no, but they put the backboard up there for a reason.”

Luck never was on USC’s side this season. Want more evidence? Vanderbilt came into the game ranked south of 300th in free-throw percentage. On Saturday, the Commodores hit 23-of-28 from the line.

And so it went for USC during this slog of a regular season. There were too few good times and a whole lot of bad.

But … perhaps we’re focusing on the wrong kind of narrative. Remember, this is a team that lost its leading scorer (Malik Cooke) to graduation, two other top players (Damontre Harris, Anthony Gill) to transfers and would not have its lead returning scorer (Ellington) until after the football season wrapped up.

And somehow, some way, this group matched last year’s win total before SEC play began and then doubled its conference win total from two to four games.

Close but not enough?

How about doing more with less?

With a ground floor in place, with a culture established, with recruits on the way and a reputation for battling secured, the future is bright for Gamecocks basketball.

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