COLUMBIA — Few, if any, teams in the modern age of college basketball have fully formed identities in early December. Too many teams rely on too many inexperienced players for coaches to know exactly what they’re going to get at this time of the year.
That much was obvious Sunday afternoon, as short-handed Clemson beat stray-shooting South Carolina 64-55 in a game that will win no beauty contests.
The Tigers (5-2) rebounded from Wednesday’s 12-point loss to Purdue. They shot 17 of 39, turned the ball over 13 times and committed 25 fouls. The Gamecocks (5-3) played better than Thursday’s 24-point defeat at St. John’s, but shot just 18 of 52, with 19 turnovers and 28 fouls.
USC led 31-28 with 17:14 remaining in the game, but Clemson rallied to go up 49-37 with 9:08 left. The Gamecocks never got closer than four points after that, mainly because they made as many shots in the second half as they made in the first half — nine.
They are far from a polished offensive team, and on Sunday, they ran into a Clemson squad that stuck to its tenacious defensive identity despite the absence of 6-9 senior forward Milton Jennings, their third-leading scorer and second-leading rebounder. Jennings is also one of two Clemson players, along with 6-8 senior Devin Booker, older than a sophomore.
Such youth can lead to hiccups, especially in situations like the Purdue game. Jennings’ marijuana possession arrest earlier Wednesday forced Brownell to scramble in shoot-around to replace him. Jennings on Sunday served the second of a two-game suspension and will return Saturday night at home against Arizona.
But at least for the USC game, Brownell knew well in advance that he wouldn’t have Jennings and could prepare Bernard Sullivan and Josh Smith to play alongside Booker.
“Those extra days certainly helped our team,” Brownell said. “We had some adversity this week and showed a lot of toughness and grit, finding a way to win.”
Booker and springy 6-6 sophomore K.J. McDaniels adeptly played their roles as Clemson’s most reliable players. McDaniels had 16 points, seven rebounds and five blocks, Booker 13, eight and two.
Still, there are surely times that Brownell isn’t sure what to expect from his young team. But at least Clemson’s third-year coach isn’t trying to overhaul a floundering program.
That’s the tall order that Frank Martin is beginning this season at USC. He knows his team’s identity will be based on defense, but no team, no matter how scrappy, can consistently win while averaging 19 turnovers a game, as USC is doing this season. In its three losses, USC shot 32.1 (Elon), 36.9 (St. John’s) and 34.6 percent (Clemson).
“We continue to battle and find the personality of our team,” Martin said. “When you try to score the basketball through individuality rather than team concepts and you play good teams, you shoot a low percentage and you turn it over. That’s the unfortunate trap that we continue to fall into. There’s a lot of behaviors that have to be changed and you don’t change those like turning lights on and off.”
One bad habit — lack of communication — continues to hamstring USC’s offense. Martin can only hope it improves with point guard Bruce Ellington’s presence. Sunday was the second of three games he will play before returning to football wide receiver duties for the three after that. Ellington will be back with basketball for good after USC’s Jan. 1 bowl game.
“You give me a team that loses, and I’ll give you a team of mutes,” Martin said. “You give me a team that wins and I’ll give you a team that never shuts up. That’s the culture that you’ve got to have. That’s a problem with our team right now.”
South Carolina and Clemson combined for 32 turnovers and 53 fouls in Sunday’s game in Colonial Life Arena.×
USC’s Bruce Ellington had 12 points in his second game back with the Gamecocks.×
South Carolina Gamecocks' Bruce Ellington rebounds a ball against Clemson Tigers' Bernard Sullivan during first half action in a college basketball at the Colonial Center on Sunday, December 2, 2012, in Columbia, South Carolina. (Van Hope/The State/MCT)×