COLUMBIA - A year ago, surging South Carolina was building for a run to the Final Four. These days, the Gamecocks are struggling to keep their heads above .500 on their longest losing streak in four years that threatens to keep them out of the NCAA Tournament altogether.
South Carolina (13-13, 4-9 Southeastern Conference) has lost six straight , its most consecutive defeats since Frank Martin's second year as coach in 2013-14. And the losing is likely to continue with the SEC's first-place team in No. 10 Auburn headed to town Saturday.
That game will be another celebration of last year's success with three key members of the Final Four team in guards Sindarius Thornwell, Duane Notice and P.J. Dozier returning to receive their Final Four rings. That all three starters moved on - Thornwell and Notice were seniors, Dozier was a rising sophomore who entered and went unpicked in last June's NBA Draft - is a big part of South Carolina's change of fortune.
Martin has liked his players, but has said his team is beset with a lack of leadership.
"That's kind of where we floundered," Martin said.
With so many key pieces gone, Martin has filled his roster with freshmen and first-year graduate transfers like guards Frank Booker and Wesley Myers. South Carolina has had its moments of success - it defeated ranked opponents in Kentucky and Florida in a three-game stretch last month - but more often lately has found itself struggling to keep up. Three of last four losses have come by 14 points or more.
Returning starters from last year in junior Chris Silva and sophomore Maik Kotsar and Booker, who played previously at Oklahoma and Florida Atlantic, have attempted to fill the biggest leaders voids left by Thornwell and Notice. Martin said it has not been a natural process for players unaccustomed to those roles.
"When you're in the locker room with your peers, it's not comfortable being a leader because you're going to rub some people the wrong way," Martin said.
The losing streak has taken its toll on the Gamecocks. Martin won't change his approach to practice or his message that South Carolina must compete hard at practice and do the right things on the court.
"I don't judge them based on the scores of game, I judge them on them doing stuff the right way," he said. "And unfortunately, right now, we're not as connected as we need to be. The scores of the game are irrelevant to me from that standpoint. It's a matter of getting our guys to practice with a greater sense of urgency. To be more connected as teammates, to be more understanding of what we're trying to do."
It doesn't help, Martin said, when the SEC is considered as strong as its been in years with some projections having eight of its 14 teams make the NCAAs. That means any slipups by the Gamecocks have been costly. On Tuesday night, the Gamecocks wiped out most of a 14-point, second-half deficit to throw a scare into No. 18 Tennessee before losing 70-67.
"Six years ago, the SEC was a little more forgiving," Martin said. "Now, it's not forgiving."
And they'll be no let up for the Gamecocks after the Tigers: South Carolina's final four opponents in Georgia, Mississippi State, LSU and at Auburn all have winning records.
Booker believes if South Carolina stays strong in practice, good things can happen down the stretch.
"It just shows that we can be a good team if we just follow what Coach Frank talks about and preaches to us in practice," Booker said after the Tennessee loss. "That one, we let it slip away, but we got more games to play."
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