Sports

Gamecock Hoops: Men Plummet In National Rankings

“You’ve got to learn fast …”

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After climbing to No. 11 in the nation last week, the University of South Carolina men’s basketball team plummeted in the polls after getting blown out by Auburn on the road and coughing up a sixteen-point lead at home against LSU last week.

The two losses – the first back-to-back defeats of the year for the Gamecocks – cost head coach Lamont Paris’ team nine spots in both The Associated Press Top 25 and the USA Today/ Coaches’ poll. South Carolina (21-5, 9-4 SEC SEC) was ranked No. 20 in each survey this week as it heads into a crucial five-game stretch to end the regular season.

It’s been a dream campaign so far for Paris – who has emerged as the runaway favorite for coach of the year honors in his second season in Columbia, S.C. Reportedly the fourth choice for the Gamecock job when he was hired in March of 2022, Paris watched his first team go 11-21 a year ago and lose its leading scorer, GG Jackson, to the NBA draft.

Picked dead last in the conference, the Gamecocks have defied the pundits so far – but they now face their toughest test of the year after getting humiliated on the plains last Wednesday by then-No. 13 Auburn. The Tigers (20-6, 9-4 SEC) eviscerated South Carolina 101-61 – which now stands as the largest-ever victory margin in this 51-game series and Auburn’s largest-ever margin of victory against a ranked opponent.

That’s not the sort of history Paris was looking to make …

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South Carolina seemed to have turned things around at home against LSU, taking a 41-25 lead over the Bayou Bengals with 16:58 to play in the second half of Saturday’s conference tilt at Colonial Life Arena. LSU just wouldn’t give up, though, clawing back to take a one-point lead on a pair of free throws after the Gamecocks surrendered the ball on a possession arrow tie-up with just under sixteen seconds left.

What happened on this pivotal play?

Graduate transfer forward B.J. Mack of Charlotte, N.C. took the inbounds pass and was immediately swarmed by two Tiger defenders on the full court press before he could call a timeout.

“I’ve just got to be stronger,” Mack said after the game.

Maybe so … but why was South Carolina responding to pressure by inbounding to its power forward when Paris has three players on his roster with point guard experience?

While Mack may have muffed that particular play, the 6-foot-8, 260-pound forward did pretty much everything else right for the Gamecocks – leading his team with eighteen points and nine rebounds. He also nailed a clutch three-pointer with only 55 seconds left on the clock – one of two late deep bombs that should have sealed the deal for South Carolina.

Even after the tie-up turnover, junior guard Jacobi Wright had a chance to win the game at the buzzer – but his three-pointer from the left corner ricocheted off the far side of the rim as time expired.

(Click to View)

South Carolina guard Jacobi Wright (1) reacts after missing the game-winning shot against LSU during second-half action in Columbia, S.C. on Saturday, Feb. 17, 2024. (Travis Bell/SIDELINE CAROLINA)

Paris said his team “ran out of chances” against LSU – but he remained optimistic that the shocking defeat would teach his players an invaluable lesson headed into the stretch run of the season.

“You’ve got to learn fast,” Paris said after the game. “There’s lessons to be taught and from winning and from losing and so the only real travesty about this game will be if you don’t learn something from it. There’ll be some learning for sure but I think it’s more about doing.”

South Carolina currently holds the fourth seed in the SEC tournament with five games left on its schedule. After a bye this Wednesday, the Gamecocks take to the road for games against Ole Miss this Saturday (February 24, 2024) and Texas A&M next Wednesday (February 28, 2024). Home games against No. 24 Florida (March 2, 2024) and No. 5 Tennessee (March 6, 2024) are next, followed by a regular season finale on the road against Mississippi State (March 9, 2024).

After that, it’s SEC tournament time … followed by postseason invitations. South Carolina is looking for its first trip to the NCAA tournament since 2017, when the Gamecocks made it all the way to the Final Four prior to losing to Gonzaga. As of this writing, South Carolina is a sixth seed according to most projected NCAA brackets – but Paris’ squad can improve on that positioning starting this Saturday afternoon.

Saturday’s tilt in Oxford, Mississippi is set to tip at 3:30 p.m. EST. It will be televised nationally on the SEC network with Richard Cross handling play-by-play duties and Pat Bradley providing color commentary.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR …

(Travis Bell Photography)

Will Folks is the founding editor of the news outlet you are currently reading. Prior to founding FITSNews, he served as press secretary to the governor of South Carolina and before that he was a bass guitarist and dive bar bouncer. He lives in the Midlands region of the state with his wife and eight children.

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