From Rock Hill, S.C., David Cloninger covers Gamecock sports. He will not rest until he owns every great film and song ever recorded.

Frank Martin

Frank Martin's Gamecocks have lost three straight games. AP/L.G. Patterson

COLUMBIA — This was always going to be the season of COVID. And when South Carolina had to pause its program three times before Jan. 15, basically wiping out a month and a half of practices and games, the season’s final result would heavily weigh the pandemic’s effect in terms of how it was judged.

There’s no telling where specifically that line is, or where it will be in March.

But if the Gamecocks have more results like Saturday’s 109-86 debacle against Auburn, the COVID reason will be at least fighting for top billing with, “this team just isn’t that good.”

“We didn’t have a single guy that put up a fight defending the ball,” coach Frank Martin said. “They just toyed with us.”

USC (3-5, 1-3 SEC) dropped its third straight game and all of its problems were revealed. The Gamecocks had no identity, no flow, no semblance of a plan as it tried to top the Tigers (9-7, 3-5), who have voluntarily pulled themselves from the postseason due to an NCAA investigation but still looked like they had plenty for which to play.

The lack of a post presence, which sprung Auburn for 46 points in the paint and numerous dunks, can be legitimately blamed on the Gamecocks still being without starting center Alanzo Frink and top backup Jalyn McCreary (both were in the arena Saturday but not dressed to play). USC simply doesn’t have a lot of forwards.

Yet the consistent defensive lapses, the inability to hit open shots and being one of the country’s worst free-throw shooting teams? It’s worth it to point out that when the program is paused, the Gamecocks can’t practice and can’t even go to a local gym, as university rules threaten suspension from school if caught outside quarantine.

It’s also worth it to point out that this is supposedly Martin’s best team since the magical Final Four run of 2017, full of veteran talent and experience, and it had no rhythm despite being in its most rhythmic stretch of the season. USC has played three games and had all of the requisite practices over the past week, yet gave up the most points it ever has during Martin’s nine-year tenure.

“All we’ve talked about the last five days I’ve been back is we can sit around and make excuses or embrace the situation, the hand that we’ve been dealt. Everyone has to be self-accountable to a greater extent that we usually are,” Martin said. “We haven’t had the time to become who we need to be as a team.”

Auburn scored 57 points in the first half, held a dunk contest throughout and showed that talent from a 9-7 team that will not be in the postseason was better, more disciplined and wanted it more than the Gamecocks.

“To get past this, we just got to work together as a team and communicate, grind it out, be gritty,” said A.J. Lawson, who scored 23 points. “Effort-wise, we didn’t give it as much as we got.”

There’s still plenty of time to turn the season around but the Gamecocks first have to play five more games to get to the minimum threshold to qualify for NCAA Tournament consideration, and are at the point of having to win nearly all of their remaining games to get a serious look. If they don’t get there, it will be the fourth straight season since the Final Four where they haven’t sniffed the NCAAs.

COVID is a reason, but with all of the other factors that have played into not repeating that success, when does COVID become another excuse?

Looking ahead

The Gamecocks host Georgia at 7 p.m. on Wednesday.

Follow David Cloninger on Twitter @DCPandC.