The month of December was not kind to the South Carolina men’s basketball team.
On Jan. 2, the Gamecocks played their first game since Dec. 5 after multiple outbreaks of COVID-19 put them on a 28-day hiatus. Currently, the team is back on pause after a third outbreak.
Before the first outbreak, the Gamecocks started the season 1-2 and were looking to adjust to what was sure to be an unusual season of college basketball due to COVID-19.
The problems kept coming due to either a positive test within the program or contact tracing resulting in mandatory isolation of players and personnel. The team had to pause all operations and could not practice or play.
“It was hard and difficult because, as a basketball player, you always want to hoop,” junior guard A.J. Lawson said during a Jan. 2 press conference. “For me, I just watched film and other teams, just basketball, because I couldn’t play.”
This break from basketball was not good for the team.
The constant cancellation of games put them behind in their season and they have only managed to play one conference game. Conference games are a key factor when determining the seeding for the NCAA tournament in Indiana this year.
After the first round of COVID-19 struggles, the team was able to resume practices together near the end of December. However, players and coaches were still worried that at any moment they would be told they have to shut it all down.
"There is this sense of doubt,” head coach Frank Martin said during his press conference on Dec. 29. “Can we finally play a game? Can we practice more than one day without getting shut down again?”
The team’s return started off successful with wins over Florida A&M and Texas A&M. Unfortunately, the resumption of their season did not last long.
After winning over Florida A&M and Texas A&M, the team had to cancel another game against Ole Miss due to another round of positive tests and contact tracing protocols on Jan. 7.
“Away we go again," Martin said in a Jan. 7 interview on Carolina Calls. "I don’t even know what to say to our players anymore. I’ve run out of words to keep their spirits in the right place and their enthusiasm for competing in the right place."
It feels like this team cannot catch a break.
With players such as Lawson looking to boost their draft stock, it is important to play as many games as possible.
As more games get canceled, it will be nearly impossible for any player to have consistent rhythm, which will only hurt their stock. Not being able to practice and having to isolate also hurts the player’s conditioning and mental health.
“This year — it’s not easy, man,” Martin said. “Mental health for these kids is a complicated formula because they’ve got no outlet right now.”
The team will attempt to continue to push forward through the adversity and play as many of their games as they can to get a bid for the NCAA tournament. Players and coaches know this season can change at any moment.
“We’re just going to play hard and take it day by day," redshirt junior forward Justin Minaya said at a press conference on Jan. 5. "Something we realized was one day your whole world could change.”
The team must do whatever they can to get back on a regular schedule now if they don’t want to fall behind in the season.
If these issues continue, it can be hard for the team to develop properly throughout the season.
To have a chance at competing this season the entire program will have to step up their game when it comes to staying clear from COVID-19. Whether it is enforcing a bubble-like mentality amongst players and coaches or being more strict about mask-wearing, the team needs to find a way to leave their COVID-19 problems behind and get back on the court.