The South Carolina men’s basketball team has struggled in the SEC thus far, sitting at a 1-3 record and scoring the least amount of points per game in conference play, while giving up the second most.
After an up and down out-of-conference schedule that yielded a 7-6 record, the Gamecocks have struggled to adjust to the physicality of the SEC, losing its first two home games by more than 40 points each.
“Coincidentally, the teams that we've lost to by 20-plus points have been teams that are tough. They're tough, gritty, tough guys,“ head coach Lamont Paris said after the team’s loss to Texas A&M on Jan. 14. “At some point, we're going to have to stand up to that and make some changes that allow us to play in those games.”
The team’s 85-42 loss to Tennessee on Jan. 7 was the Gamecocks' worst SEC loss in program history. It almost topped that mark two games later after suffering a 41-point loss against the Aggies. During both games, the team was outworked physically and failed to respond.
“You got a lot of things that are going on in this game, and then boom, it's on you. And next thing you know, Mike Tyson came out and hits you in the liver,” Paris said after the loss to the Volunteers. “And we did not respond well to that at all.”
In its four conference games, the team has allowed over 80 points three times — the two home games and an overtime loss to Vanderbilt. Over those three contests, the team was out-rebounded 140-75 and shot under 36% from the field.
Rebounding has been an issue for the team all season, as it ranks in the bottom three in the conference in rebounds per game. In the loss to Texas A&M, the Aggies recorded four more offensive rebounds than the Gamecocks had in total rebounds.
The SEC is full of good teams, so getting wins is not easy. All but two teams — South Carolina and Ole Miss — have an overall record above .500. The Gamecocks currently rank last in offensive and defensive rating and are the only team in the conference with a negative net rating at -12.6.
“Every team is good. You can't come out one day and play, and then come out the next day lackadaisical, not playing good defense or anything like that,” sophomore guard Jacobi Wright said. “You got to bring it on both sides of the court every game when it gets to conference play.”
Freshman forward GG Jackson has also experienced some growing pains in his first SEC games. Jackson ended out-of-conference play averaging 17 points and eight rebounds per game, scoring above 10 points in every game. However, in South Carolina's four conference games, his production has dipped to less than 9 points and four rebounds per contest.
Jackson’s worst performance of the season came against Tennessee when he scored 0 points on 0-8 shooting with just 1 rebound. He struggled from the floor in the game against Texas A&M as well, scoring 5 points on 2-13 shooting.
"I told him, 'Here's where you are. Your body language is not good ... you have to inspire your teammates, man,'" Paris said. "Play with some fire, some juice actually is what I call it ... I didn't see juice."
Jackson did have solid scoring outings against Vanderbilt and Kentucky, though, with 13 points and seven rebounds against the Commodores, followed by 16 points against the Wildcats. Yet, the biggest concern is Jackson's recent shooting slump — he’s hit under 30% of his shots in three of the Gamecocks' four conference games and went 2-19 from the 3-point range during that stretch.
Despite these hurdles, there remains reason for optimism, as sophomore guard Meechie Johnson has continued to score at an efficient rate, setting a new career-high with 26 points in the team’s first win at Kentucky since 2009.
“I just see rim, and I just shoot and it goes in, and today it was going in,” Johnson said following the South Carolina's win over Kentucky. “I say it's a gift that I can shoot that, and obviously I want to keep hitting to help the team win.”
In the game against the Wildcats, the Gamecocks flashed potential. Jackson scored his 16 points on 6-10 shooting, including 2-2 from the three point line. South Carolina out-rebounded Kentucky 32-28 and made eight more 3-pointers than the Wildcats.
“We also were very deliberate about getting back into the stuff that we wanted to do,” Paris said. “What our game plan was and attacking when we had a chance to attack and spacing the floor.”
The Gamecocks are just four games into conference play. With 14 games left to go, there is still plenty of opportunities for the Gamecocks to get in SEC form. However, the team knows getting wins won’t be easy.
“We're just gonna keep encouraging. We can't get down on each other,” senior guard Chico Carter Jr. said. “We can just watch the film, see what we did wrong, see what we did good. Capitalize on the good and try to take out some of the bad stuff, so we can get some wins.
The Gamecocks' next game is at home on Jan. 17 at 6:30 p.m. against Ole Miss, which is seeking its first conference win of the season with an 0-5 record. The game will be aired on SEC Network.