COLUMBIA — Every fan base has its conspiracy theories and South Carolina is no different. A popular one is that the SEC still views the Gamecocks as interlopers despite their nearly 30-year membership, and there’s an unwritten league rule that if there’s ever a chance to job USC, it must be taken.
The Gamecocks’ current situation would be easier to stomach if that theory was true. As it is, USC basketball is having to readjust its defensive philosophy, mindset and identity so it can actually finish a game with most of its roster intact.
“The way we defend, teams come in and they’re basically, ‘We’re not going to run the offense that we run against everybody else, we’re just going to give it to this guy, and just put your head down,’” coach Frank Martin said. “You hear the coach from the other bench, yelling, ‘Go! Go!’”
Martin’s teams, proudly stubborn of their defensive intensity, are having a hard time living up to that reputation. Their youth-dominated squad can’t consistently stop guards driving to the basket, and when they do, the whistles often negate the effort.
USC is No. 348 (out of 350 teams) in personal fouls per game with 22.5. The Gamecocks went into halftime of Saturday’s win over Vanderbilt with nine players holding two fouls each.
It would be a lot easier to blame it on an overzealous official, or a dark SEC agenda. That way Martin wouldn’t have to keep telling his players to change their style of play game-to-game depending on how frequently he hears the whistle.
“(We have to watch) the hand-checks, and what Frank always tells us is get in the gaps when somebody’s driving so we don’t have to create the fouls that put pressure on the bigs,” guard A.J. Lawson said. “If you get in the gaps, it will stop them from driving.”
College basketball underwent a change for the 2015-16 season, asking officials to watch physical play with a greater emphasis. Anything that restricted an offensive player’s “freedom of movement” should be deemed a foul.
It worked for the game’s viewership numbers. Offensive numbers increased.
Frustration on how to play tight, physical defense without getting a foul called increased, too. Bodies colliding under the rim these days are met with a lot of swallowed whistles while hand-checks, swatting at the ball on the perimeter and reach-in fouls are treated as capital crimes.
Examining just one call in the Vanderbilt game pointed the lens on USC’s struggles. An off-balance pass had a Vanderbilt player trying to keep his foot inbounds on the sideline. USC’s Jair Bolden barely brushed the player's jersey with his outstretched arm.
Foul. Martin, already warned for talking about previous calls, complained and was issued his second technical foul in the past three games.
“We got to get better. Got to take charges. You got to put up a fight,” Martin said. “You went to school, that one guy that was older would show up and whack you, and if you didn’t put up a fight, he’s going to whack you again. You might get your butt kicked, but when the game’s over, they’re going to say, ‘All right, don’t mess with that guy anymore.’ And eventually, you get better because of it.
“That’s the one thing that I’m still trying to drag out of some guys, is that you got to put up a fight.”
The foul disparity in the last three games (two of which USC won) had the Gamecocks on top by 13 fouls, one foul and six fouls. Yet teams are getting into the bonus and collecting shooting fouls much more often than the Gamecocks, the last three opponents shooting a staggering 97 free throws to USC’s 41.
That’s not such an issue because free throws didn’t cost USC the one game it lost in the last stretch. And the way the Gamecocks shoot from the line (61.2 percent, No. 345 in the country), free throws haven’t been the key to winning this season anyway.
But trying to play defense the way Martin desires, and the building frustration with not being able to, stings. Especially when about to play an Arkansas team that averages about 20 free-throw attempts per game on Wednesday.
“That’s the main thing, is not letting off the gas,” guard Trae Hannibal said. “Eventually we get in between the gaps and things like that. We work on it in practice so it will translate.”
Translate into better defense or less whistles? That is the question.