Missing Big Men Define USC Season So Far

5'9" Devan Downey saved a 67-65 victory for South Carolina with a 4 point play against Alabama with 13 seconds remaining, then deflected a pass to the wing on defense to deny a Crimson Tide game winner and allow Gamecock fans to celebrate victory after an exciting and competitive game.

This victory capped a very special night for those who attended, as the all time greatest Carolina basketball player, John Roche, was honored at half-time.

But exciting games are not new to the Gamecock squad this year. There were at least 9 games the Gamecocks could have won, having led in the second half, but were relying on only perimeter play, or often inside penetration by the smallest player on the team, to sustain offense down the stretch, only to find meltdowns in point production late in the game.

Some of the blame seems to be the absence of a true post presence to generate inside scoring, and the inability to create more open looks on the perimeter. Getting to the foul line late in the games to add additional opportunities to put points on the board in order to protect late second half leads has also been a problem.

College basketball is a game of match-ups, angles and runs; the post position is essential to each phase. During runs, an effective post player can create low percentage points when needed, create passing angles as a target off guard penetration, and neutralize match-up challenges at critical times of a ball game. A post player doesn't always have to be extremely tall and large, but he must be physical and aggressive.

Evaldas Baniulis, at 6'7" 210, has recently emerged as a true wing player who has accepted a role as power forward, and has displayed a willingness to use his body to bang, push and frustrate other larger traditional post players. Since the lopsided loss to Tennessee on January 12th, Baniulis and Dominique Archie, another Wing or perimeter player forced into primary inside duties, have been pounding in the post with much larger opponents, while logging major minutes and carrying the majority of the post responsibilities.

During this eight game run, the Gamecocks have had a lead deep into the second half in 7 of those games, winning only 3, after they watched their opponents apply perimeter pressure, score inside and at the free throw line, while the Cocks missed jump shots, turned the ball over, didn't get the ball inside and did not shoot free throws.

The team has watched and finally, limited playing time by 6'7" freshman Mike Holmes has raised his level of effort, and now the Gamecocks are starting to get some additional help in the post.

Unfortunately, again Holmes, a small forward, trying to find a way to transform his highly touted skills into a power game, has begun to emerge as an additional answer to the vacant post presence. In 3 of the last 4 games, Holmes has made his presence known by giving the gamecocks much needed assistance in the lane, rebounding, scoring and even blocking shots, and even more, expanding the rotation, to give players needed rest to have legs and stamina at the end of close ball games.

Next, Sam Muldrow, the 6'10" 216lb freshman, who was the expected answer to the post needs, must commit to physical play and aggression when inserted into the game to make the growing improvement substantial in order to finish the season strong leading into the SEC tournament.

Conditioning Coach Pat Moore will have the off-season to develop the strength and physical stature of the current post players, but Muldrow will have to make the decision, as Baniulis did, to use his body in its current condition and play the game at the college level, banging, pushing, shoving, and to avoid dodging body contact.

With some level of strong post presence, South Carolina would have had opportunities to close out a 2 point loss to N.C. State, the 1 point loss to George Mason, its 3 point loss to UNC-Asheville, the heartbreaking losses to Florida by 2 and Vanderbilt by 1, not to mention the second half meltdowns to Southern Cal in Columbia, and Vanderbilt and Kentucky away, each wherein the Gamecocks led in the second half.

The one dimensional offensive success was simply not capable of sustaining the offense and denying in the post both defensively and on the glass. In all of these games, leads were established through tremendous transition and perimeter shooting, often displaying the great individual offensive skills of Devan Downey and Zam Fredrick

South Carolina's record is only 12-12, but it is just a few post players away from being easily 17-7 or 19-6, going into the final 6 regular season ball games. Better yet, rather than 4-6 in the SEC, try 6-4 or even 7-3. The up side, South Carolina has an outside chance to finish the regular season with a winning SEC and overall record. The road will be tough, but the post players are showing much improvement and will need to continue to improve in the one area that has been lacking, physical aggression.

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