The South Carolina men’s basketball team is sputtering through the throes of SEC play. Nothing first-year coach Lamont Paris throws at the table — lineup changes, pep talks, benchings — seems to be working as the Gamecocks falter against the more talented teams of the league.
The Gamecocks (8-11, 1-5 SEC) capped off a three-game homestand on Saturday with their third-straight loss, falling to No. 16 Auburn 81-66.
Just like USC’s previous two losses against visiting Ole Miss and Texas A&M, the Gamecocks never held a lead against Bruce Pearl’s Tigers (16-3, 6-1), playing catchup from the opening minutes of the game.
Just when it had seemed like USC might’ve turned a corner with a surprising win at Kentucky last week, the reeling Gamecocks will now take a three-game losing streak into road games at Florida and Georgia.
For the second time since USC’s trip to Kentucky, Paris made a tweak to his starting lineup.
With USC’s big men struggling to make much of an impact on either end of the court, Paris opted for a smaller three-guard lineup against the Tigers. Sophomore guard Jacobi Wright started alongside backcourt regulars Meechie Johnson and Chico Carter Jr., with big men Benjamin Bosmans-Verdonk and Josh Gray both sitting on the bench. The 6-foot-9 GG Jackson and 6-foot-5 Hayden Brown comprised the team’s starting frontcourt.
The smaller lineup is one that Paris has turned to often during games, especially once Bosmans-Verdonk or Gray runs into foul trouble. In fact, per KenPom.com, the three-guard configuration was USC’s most-used five-man lineup in the team’s last five games.
However, the group lacked effectiveness against the Tigers. In fact, Paris called a timeout just three minutes into the game — and USC down 9-2 — to sub out Wright and install Gray at center.
Gray had taken over the starting center spot from Bosmans-Verdonk since the Kentucky game, but both players have been largely ineffective in the post, with the guard Johnson out-rebounding both big men this season.
USC’s struggles in the paint have been well-documented. The Gamecocks have shown this season that they can’t win if they don’t shoot at a high level — like Johnson’s six 3-pointers in the win at Kentucky.
But the Gamecocks haven’t shot well since returning home from Rupp Arena, and those difficulties continued against Auburn.
USC got off to an especially poor start shooting the ball, shooting just 26% in the first half and making just two of 14 3-point attempts.
The freshman Jackson, USC’s leading scorer this season, once again delivered for the Gamecocks with a career-high 30 points on 10-for-21 shooting. But outside of Jackson, the Gamecocks had little production. Jackson made 10 of the team’s 20 field goals, and non-Jackson Gamecocks shot 10 for 35.
Quiet games from veterans
The Gamecocks don’t have the depth or experience to weather quiet games from their veterans.
Though Jackson still put up a hefty point total, the typically reliably Brown, Johnson and Carter didn’t provide much additional offensive firepower.
Brown committed three fouls before the end of a scoreless first half and saw his minutes limited because of it. Johnson missed each of his first seven 3-point attempts before finally making one in garbage time, giving him 11 points for the game.
Carter finished just behind him with eight points, but USC had no consistent scoring option outside of Jackson.
Next four USC MBB games
Jan. 25: at Florida, 7 p.m. (ESPN2)
Jan. 28: at Georgia, 6 p.m. (SEC Network)
Jan. 31: Mississippi State, 6:30 p.m. (SEC Network)
Feb. 4: Arkansas, 3:30 p.m. (SEC Network)
This story was originally published January 21, 2023 5:31 PM.