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February 18, 2013

Hood: National focus on several fronts

In case you haven't noticed, South Carolina has been in the national news a lot lately.

With the topics ranging from Jadeveon Clowney to Shawn Elliott to Frank Martin, the Gamecocks have benefited from a splash of publicity perhaps unrivaled in recent memory.

In fact, has any other major program been in the news more over the past couple of weeks than USC? Doubtful.

The ball started rolling downhill, of course, with the lightning-rod issue of whether Clowney should skip his junior season in order to avoid a catastrophic injury and preserve his supposed status as the No. 1 pick in the 2014 NFL Draft.

Unfortunately, a column by a newspaper columnist in Charlotte in which he merely expressed his opinion about Clowney's situation morphed into a nation-wide Abbott and Costello comedy act.

Coincidentally (or not), one of the major teams this columnist happens to cover on a daily basis is North Carolina. Gee, who does USC face in the season opener on Aug. 31? Yeah, that blue-tinted program based in Chapel Hill, N.C.

Apparently, some respected analysts that should know better misinterpreted the column to mean that Clowney was actually considering sitting out. Either that or they were so starved for football discussion in mid-February that any morsel, however illogical or irrational, would do. Anything to avoid talking about the NBA, NHL and college basketball, I guess.

And so the frenzy began. Eventually, the discussion reached the realm of absurdity before settling down within the last few days as other topics grabbed the short-term attention of pundits.

How farcical did things get? A national writer acknowledged last week that he contacted USC sports information director Steve Fink and requested an interview with Clowney. When he was told Clowney wasn't talking with the media and that "right now he is planning on playing," the writer asked (breathlessly, we assume) Fink if the words "right now" meant Clowney had given himself "wiggle room" to change his mind.

Short answer: No.

Clearly, some media folks will refuse to let the matter die completely until Clowney stands up and officially announces to the world that he will return next season.

That will likely happen on March 5, the first scheduled day of spring practice.

Clowney will, of course, purchase a multi-million insurance policy and play in 2013. What else is he going to do for the next 14 months? Lift weights and run sprints in an attempt to stay in shape? Sounds like fun.

Todd McShay of ESPN summed it up best late last week. He explained that should he sit out the season, Clowney would unnecessarily raise a number of red flags about his competitive spirit, attitude, desire to play the game and willingness to give full effort on every snap. One of the oldest adages about football is that if you play not to get hurt, you'll get hurt.

The heated Clowney debate also exposed the feelings some people have for the NFL's three-year rule, which prohibits a player from entering the NFL Draft until three years after his high school class has graduated.

Some argued that Clowney should challenge the rule in court. But Maurice Clarett and Mike Williams tried that approach in 2004 and lost. The three-year rule is a matter of collective bargaining between the player's union and NFL owners (thus making it exempt from antitrust laws), so if anybody out there is convinced the rule is unfair, feel free to address your concerns to the NFLPA.

Not only will Clowney play in 2013 - and become a leading contender for the Heisman Trophy in the process - USC offensive line coach Shawn Elliott will return as well after interviewing with Alabama last week.

When you consider the premier programs that have approached and/or hired USC's assistants in the past two years, it truly shows how far the Gamecocks have come in the last few years. Success on the field typically translates to other schools sniffing around and larger bank accounts for in-demand coaches.

Jay Graham was lured away by Tennessee. Ellis Johnson was named head coach, albeit for just one year, at Southern Miss. Brad Lawing was hired by Florida.

Alabama's pursuit of Elliott made national headlines last week, as well as his decision to stay at USC. Sensing an opportunity to cast the school in a positive light (that's their job, after all), the media relations office fired off a press release in which Elliott was quoted as saying, "We've had a lot of success here over the past three years and I'm committed to being part of that continued success for many years. I'm proud to be a Gamecock."

Nick Saban doesn't fool around. With a seemingly unlimited budget, he pursues the best coaches and offers them the highest salaries. How far the talks got between Elliott and Alabama, we don't know (Elliott was falsely reported to be offered). But they did talk.

The thought of a USC assistant publicly turning down Alabama would have been unfathomable a decade ago, but that is today's reality because of the significant strides the Gamecock program has taken in recent years.

Unfortunately, if there is one USC program that has not made satisfactory progress in the last three or four years, it's the men's basketball team. The 2012-13 season reached the nadir last week when the Gamecocks suffered a dreadful home loss to LSU, in which they shot below 30 percent and looked lethargic for most of the 40 minutes.

As we know, Martin went on a rant for the ages after the game, describing the performance as perhaps the most embarrassing of his 28-year coaching career. He threw many other verbal jabs at his team over the course of the post-game press briefing, even mentioning the dreaded E-word.

Soon, the rant went viral on Twitter as national college basketball analysts offered their opinion on the matter.

USC's performance improved in a 68-58 loss at Alabama when it shot 45.1 percent (23-for-51) from the floor, but the Gamecocks made the fatal mistake of starting slowly on the road in the SEC, falling behind by 15 points midway through the first half. Unlike the LSU game, they showed some fight in the second half, but it was too-little, too-late.

The major problem with this team is the same as the past three or four years - it can't shoot the basketball consistently. The TV color analyst for the LSU loss exclaimed, quite accurately, that USC has players incapable of hitting open jump shots.

Right now, USC is 10th in the SEC in field-goal percentage (42.1 percent) and last in field-goal percentage defense (44.5 percent).

But when you look at the statistics in conference games only, the numbers are even bleaker - USC is last in field-goal percentage offense (37.7) and 13th in field-goal percentage defense (45.5).

That's a staggering difference of 7.8 percent.

You don't have to be employed as a rocket scientist to determine that's a poor combination. Look no farther than those two statistics to justify USC's lowly 2-10 conference record.

What can Martin do about his lack of talent dilemma? Recruit his way out of the hole. At this point, that's the only answer. USC needs four-star commitment Sindarius Thornwell and more players like him in order to make the long climb up the conference ladder.

Steve Spurrier managed to do it with football, and now Martin must accomplish the same thing in order to make USC competitive in the SEC.

Will Thornwell become USC basketball's version of Marcus Lattimore? Martin hopes so.

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