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February 28, 2012
South Carolina is nearing the end of a frustrating season.
Its next opponent knows the feeling - from the opposite end of the spectrum.
Reeling Mississippi State comes to Columbia on Wednesday trying to break a five-game losing streak, which is enough of a challenge. Once a Top-15 team that had its eyes on a deep run in the NCAA tournament, the Bulldogs have plummeted from a lock for the postseason to just barely hanging onto the bubble.
MSU is fighting to get back inside the bubble - and fighting with itself.
Brad Locke, the MSU beat writer for the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, received some startling answers from some of the Bulldogs' players during a routine press availability on Monday. Forward Arnett Moultrie took some shots at his teammates and their attitudes, and later said that he didn't much care to talk about what the team was going through with his fellow players, only with his friends and family outside the program.
Moultrie could perhaps be excused for venting some frustration, if he didn't publicly finger-point and worked it out behind closed doors. That didn't happen.
"Things have definitely been down the wrong path lately. We've let it get too deep," Moultrie told Locke. "It shouldn't have went this far. A five-game losing streak is unheard of at any level of basketball - especially when you've got all this talent."
Moultrie was asked if the team had the fortitude to snap the losing streak.
"Maybe not. Probably not," Moultrie answered.
The Bulldogs (19-10, 6-8 SEC) have a very strong team, led by Moultrie, a junior who transferred from UTEP, center Renardo Sidney and guard Dee Bost. They have had a notable injury - freshman Rodney Hood is sidelined with a knee problem - and backup guard Shaun Smith was recently lost for the season after breaking a finger.
But the injuries aren't an excuse for the sniping that's going on, and now it's been publicly aired.
Moultrie said that he doesn't talk to his teammates about what they're going through, and only speaks to his circle of outside friends and his high-school coach. "Everybody's got their own agendas," he said.
Moultrie further pointed out that a lot of the Bulldogs are talking about how they feel they have the talent to make a Final Four run, but "everybody don't work as hard as they say."
Bost, the senior, would naturally be looked at for leadership and to guide the ship through troubling times, but he fired back at the presumption. "Man, at this stage right now, man, I can't do nothing," Bost said. "You have to be self-motivated. If you're not self-motivated then you shouldn't be playing."
Coach Rick Stansbury said that there was nothing wrong in the locker room, but when told of Moultrie's comments, he mentioned that it's easy for separation to occur during a bad string of games. He also said that it's hard for a team to stay together and fight when things are not going well, but didn't offer a solution for how he can get his team to reunite.
The Gamecocks (10-18, 2-12) are just trying to finish the season on some good notes. Coach Darrin Horn has liked how his team has stayed together through a horrible year, the players still enthusiastic in practice and supporting each other. But he also mentioned during the SEC coaches' teleconference on Monday that for the first time, his team's confidence that it can get a win or two may be slipping.
"I'd be lying if I said it was high," Horn said.
USC wants to send Malik Cooke out with a win on his Senior Night, and is facing an opponent with its own set of problems. MSU clearly has more talent than the Gamecocks, but talent isn't always the answer. Team camaraderie is invaluable.
USC has that. Whether it will be enough to overcome the gap in talent remains to be seen.
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