Darrin Horn has repeated it throughout the year. For South Carolina to be at its best, it has to rebound and play strong defense. It's not so much for keeping the opponent at bay, but for setting up the most fluid way for the Gamecocks to score.
The point was again hammered home on Wednesday.
The Gamecocks lost 57-47 at Alabama, 20 turnovers and their worst shooting percentage of the season taking their toll. But it was also a case of the defense lapsing at critical times -- the Crimson Tide didn't dominate the game, but got far too many wide-open dunks.
"Got to make sure that we defend and rebound in a way that gives us an opportunity," Horn said during his Thursday call-in show.
The system is simple.
* Lock down on defense. Force the opponent to grind the shot clock and take a hurried attempt.
* When it misses, grab the rebound.
* First and second option on offense, hit Bruce Ellington, Lakeem Jackson or Ramon Galloway as the trail men and hope they can turn it into a fast-break layup or dunk. If not, go inside to Sam Muldrow and if he can't score, throw it back out to the perimeter.
When one piece breaks down, the entire system breaks down.
The Gamecocks have some shooters, some acrobatic scorers and some inside presence. They just don't have enough of any of them. It's not a matter of effort, it's a matter of consistently putting the ball in the hole -- the Gamecocks are not that kind of team.
They won't shoot their way past anybody without playing hard defense. Anything they do offensively has to be set up on the defensive end.
Against the Tide, they were doing that to start. The Gamecocks were trailing Alabama by only a handful of points in the game's first 10 minutes, even as the fouls mounted and their baskets didn't.
USC's plan was to take away Alabama's outside game, since the Tide's post players were taller and bulkier than the Gamecocks' anyway. Trying to limit them would just put Muldrow and the other bigs on the bench. Better to let them do what they do and take away the others.
They did. The Crimson Tide missed three early 3-pointers, then abandoned the outside shooting. Anything they took from outside 5 feet from the hole -- as in only 17 of their points -- was met with a hard bounce off the rim.
It enabled USC to hang with Alabama for most of the game, despite an awful shooting night and a case of fumble-itis severe enough to qualify it for a lack-of-support lawsuit. Eventually, the defense fell just enough so that when the Gamecocks did make a shot, they had to press -- the traps worked to a point, but when the man with the ball could simply look and see a wide-open man under the basket, then leap through the arms over his head and pass it to them ...
Dunk. Big lead.
"That's pretty tough, but that's part of the game," freshman guard Eric Smith said. "Some nights, shots are falling, some nights, they aren't. So you just have to play through it."
USC tried but was ultimately too far behind. The bad shots led to bad transition defense, to easy points, to hurrying to take another forced and bad shot.
See how things just get out of hand?
The Gamecocks head to Florida on Saturday. The Gators are a deep and balanced team, with four starters averaging double figures and another above nine points per game. Trying to take away one aspect of their game may leave another open for a breakout.
But it will come down to defense, all around the floor and not just in one facet. Get the first part of the system in place, then the others should work.
"Just highlighted the things we need to do better," Horn said of Thursday's practice. "I think turnovers are a big part of it. Because we turned it over, I think we pressed a little bit."
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