Houston center Brison Gresham set the tone for the Cougars' defense Sunday, as the Gamecocks had no clean looks. Travis Bell/SIDELINE CAROLINA

COLUMBIA — Judging from past history, South Carolina will tremendously help itself after Christmas. Three of coach Frank Martin’s last four teams have finished in the top four of the SEC standings.

The problem is that just like last year, the Gamecocks’ postseason hopes are going to depend on that help, because they sure won’t get any from anywhere else.

Houston topped USC 76-56 on Sunday as the Gamecocks (6-4) dropped their latest chance to boost their postseason resume. After a bad early loss to Boston and then going 0-2 against potential tournament teams Wichita State and Northern Iowa in Cancun, USC needed a win over a name team to help itself in March.

That didn’t happen Sunday.

“We got a lot of growing up to do,” Martin said. “We’re not as disciplined as we need to be, and that’s my job, and man-to-man, we’re not as tough as we need to be, and that’s players taking ownership individually to get better at what they need to be better at.”

If USC doesn’t do well in the SEC, none of it matters anyway. But Martin’s teams traditionally play better at the end of the season.

And if they do this year, they’ll be left to depend on potential wins at Clemson, at defending national champion Virginia and a home win over Stetson to boost their ledger. All are large “ifs” considering how badly USC played Sunday, and the wash-rinse-repeat version of its problems.

“Coach’s message is we need to be more physical,” said Maik Kotsar, who led the team with 12 points. “This team was a lot like Wichita State. They came at us, and we just couldn’t respond.”

The Gamecocks are challenged offensively. They couldn’t buy an inside bucket against Houston’s height and length. They are in line to be the worst free-throw shooting team in school history.

Throw in that their trademark defense is exposed game after game as one that leaves wide-open looks from 3, and a 6-4 record almost seems joyous.

It isn’t. The Gamecocks are healthy. They have stellar talent at the guard spots. Frankly, there’s no excuse to be playing this badly.

“It’s hard to be the aggressor when you’re always on your heels,” Martin said. “We could never, ever become sustained.”

Words from the other side

It was distressing to see how easily Houston coach Kelvin Sampson broke down the Cougars’ success. They practiced against keeping USC out of the paint and got back in transition.

“Do that, and they’re a half-court offense,” he shrugged.

A.J. Lawson hit two 3-pointers for USC’s first six points. The Gamecocks made 14 two-point field goals for the entire game.

“I think they did a good job keeping the ball out of the paint. I also think that as guards, we have to do a better job of attacking them in the paint,” Justin Minaya said. “It’s frustrating, but it’s on us.”

Gotta make ’em

The Gamecocks shot 32 percent for the game and missed another six free throws (not that making those would have made a difference). They got great looks but couldn’t hit.

“You got no options when you’re not making jump shots,” Martin said. “Our guards have not answered the bell, and that’s disappointing to me.”

The importance of the next three games has been elevated. With a chance to win at Virginia considered tiny, the Gamecocks have to beat Clemson on the road in a week. Spending any non-exam time working on free throws may be the key.

Looking ahead

The Gamecocks are off for another week for exams. They’ll next play Dec. 15 at Clemson.

Follow David Cloninger on Twitter @DCPandC.

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