The South Carolina basketball program enters this season with an unusual amount of expectations, and the experience and depth on this team could make them attainable.
Finishing at 17-16 last season and again ending the year strong after a sub-par start to SEC play, things seem to be looking up heading into Frank Martin’s fourth year in Columbia. When you combine last years ending with the influx of talent a top 25 recruiting class brings, it’s easy to see where the optimism comes in.
Though not much has been proven so far, Carolina has looked solid in winning their first two games of the season, both at home, over Norfolk St and Oral Roberts. While certainly not playing at their best yet, balance and experience have earned the Gamecocks both wins so far. Senior big men Laimonas Chatkevicius and Mindagus Kacinas, along with junior guards Sindarius Thornwell and Duane Notice, have all averaged double digits thus far.
For the first time since his arrival in Columbia, head coach Frank Martin has a legitimate senior class and multiple upper class men to lean on. The two aforementioned Lithuanian post players, along with fan favorite Michael Carerra were all members of Martin’s first recruiting class, and have grown and developed into solid contributors over their careers in garnet and black.
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The hard work and improvement of these guys since their first year here to know has been quite impressive, and hopefully with end them raising the Gamecocks back into the upper half of the SEC and challenging for postseason play.
Chatkevicius set a new career high Monday night against Oral Roberts with 27 points, while Kacinas chipped in with 12 points and 13 rebounds. Notice and Thorwnell were the top two scorers last year, and will be leaned upon to carry that load again. Through a couple of games, Notice is being used as an instant scoring punch off the bench, and he seems to be comfortable and willing in that role.
Adding to the experience and leadership of a large group of upperclassmen, the Gamecocks brought in a freshman class that will bring much needed depth and athleticism. P.J. Dozier arrived at USC as not only a legacy, both his father and uncle played in Columbia in the late 80s, but also as one of the highest rated recruits in the history of the program.
He joined B.J. Mckie and Rolando Howell as the only 3 McDonald’s All-Americans to commit and play for the Gamecocks in the last 25 years. P.J. has started slowly in the first two games, showing his length and craftiness on defense along with his passing ability, but hasn’t shown much in the way of scoring just yet.
Joining Dozier in the freshman class are athletic wing Chris Silva and big man Eric Cobb. Silva will become a fan favorite before long, with his explosive jumping ability leading to many crowd pleasing highlights in the future. Cobb was a little more unknown before the season, but in a limited sample size he has shown good hands, balance and footwork for such a big guy. He lost around 20 pounds in the off season to get himself into better playing shape and is already in the rotation of post players.
Overall the team looks to be by far the best in Frank Martin’s tenure, being his most talented and his first squad with real leadership and depth. Lost in the late season surge last year was that South Carolina had multiple games in which they only dressed seven or eight scholarship players. That should not be a problem this season, and with his first recruiting class in their senior year, and his most heralded recruiting class just arriving, the blend should be a fun one to watch.
There are still a few red flags for this team before it can be penciled in for March basketball. Outside shooting and the ability to break down an opponent’s zone defense still needs to be worked on. The other factor that will weigh on the Gamecocks until it’s been reversed is the constant poor starts to SEC play.
This team cannot afford to start conference play at 1-4 or 2-5 like they have so many times since joining the league in 1992. Last year after a promising start and an upset of #9 Iowa St, a 1-6 start to SEC play derailed what was becoming a promising season.
With the experience up and down the roster and an influx of talent adding to the depth, they should be in a better position to compete on a nightly basis. Carolina will need to take care of business in the non-conference schedule, with notable games against DePaul, St. Johns, Clemson, and Memphis. It will also be extremely important to get off to a good start one conference play rolls around in January if this team wants to reach its full potential.
Extras: The Gamecocks will participate in the Paradise Jam this weekend, opening up with DePaul and with a possible match-up with Florida St if the brackets work out that way.