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November 9, 2012

Cloninger: Two teams, two expectations



"These are the words of success, expectation,
Middle, right or to the left."
----------------------------- FALL

Another pair of basketball seasons starts this weekend, South Carolina's women on Friday and the men on Sunday. The past month has been about analyzing and re-analyzing the schedules, the rosters, the leagues and trying to present what exactly the two teams are facing in 2012-13.

Sometimes, though, when writing news stories, the words can be lost in translation. A writer just can't say a lot of things that he or she wants to in a news story, which is why opinion pieces are so valuable. That's the true definition of what a writer means.

So after looking it over, many times, and talking with Frank Martin, Dawn Staley and their players, I can say with no doubt:

The Gamecock women are going to have a very strong year, perhaps one that rivals their tremendous 25-10 Sweet 16 season of a year ago.

The Gamecock men are going to have a very trying season.

First, come out and watch the women's team. They play good, fundamental basketball, they actually know what the little square on the backboard is for, they can turn it up and be exciting when they play the bigger names on the schedule. As Staley said, it may have taken her a little longer than she would have liked, but the Gamecocks are in fine position to continue the construction on an elite program.

I see a lot of chemistry and veteran toughness missing from the women's team, but I see so much raw talent in its place. I see a much easier schedule. I see that while a dangerous Texas A&M team comes into the SEC, I also see that USC only has to play it once (at home), gets Tennessee at home (and also only once) and that the rest of the league slate is very conducive toward topping the 10 league wins the women had a year ago.

The only hitch I see in the women's season is depth. The Gamecocks have 10 players, assuming that Tina Roy doesn't come back this year from an ACL injury in August. While most women's teams rely on a rotation of eight, and USC will actually have two more than that, one more injury has this team playing uphill. Still, though, the talent and the memories of last year, plus a wonderful mix of old and new players, has the Gamecocks looking good for a repeat appearance in the NCAA tournament.

As for the men, I do believe that Martin has this program pointed upward. It takes a special kind of coach to convince a national Top-30 recruit, who left his home state to go play at a college-showcase prep program for his senior year, to come back and play for his home-state school that barely cracked double-digit wins a year ago.

But, it's going to take a while to really see the results. This year, there's just not a lot of hope to be found.

The Gamecocks have a very favorable schedule. They don't play anyone that is a definite loss in the non-conference slate, and their first two SEC games are against the other two teams picked to finish in the bottom of the league. Who knows? USC wins eight or nine in the non-con, starts out 2-0 in the league … hey, winning breeds winning. After seeing Butler play for two straight national championships, and from a lifetime of watching the NCAA tournament, that underdog mentality can work wonders.

The problem is getting to that point. With Bruce Ellington gone until January, USC's only reliable scorer is LaShay Page, and he is a 10-to-12-point-per-game guy. The Gamecocks' best offense is the fast break - if they can consistently get their defense working, which involves pressuring the ball up the floor and spreading three at mid-court to try and trap the ball-handler, they can get a lot of easy buckets off turnovers.

Playing hard defense only results in so much - the point of the game is to put the ball in the basket, and the Gamecocks don't have anybody proven that can do that. I have seen teams that play so well on defense that they can get enough points to win every game 55-52, and that's fine - anything for a W, right? But I don't know if USC can get enough every night to do that.

I've never been one to go through the entire schedule game-by-game and pick wins and losses. It's ridiculous to do so, when you never know who's going to be hurt in a month, much less tomorrow. I will say, though, for the men to finish .500 overall would be an outstanding accomplishment. That would trigger an invite to the NIT, which would be a very strong step for this team.

Two teams, two sets of expectations. I know that at USC, expectations sometimes dwarf reality.

This year, the higher the better for Staley and her Gamecocks. I think she'll hit most of her goals.

As for the men's team, I've been wrong before. While this season seems to be a case of playing through it to get to next year, Martin knew it would be a rough season when he arrived. If he gets his kids to play with the same intensity with which he coaches, perhaps the reclamation project is sped up.



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