The South Carolina basketball team moved up in the polls once again this week, and depending on the poll they are has high as 15th in the nation.
The Gamecocks have started SEC play with back to back wins – at Auburn and at home against Vanderbilt – to remain unbeaten at 15-0 on the season. Here are the top eight factors in Carolina’s early season success.
The building of this team has been a four year process and now with three seniors and two juniors among the top six players, all that building is starting to take hold. From the players staying connected in their team defense, to the ball movement and balanced scoring on offense, this team truly plays as one. You can also tell that this team genuinely likes each other and plays hard for their coach and teammates.
Never underestimate the power of a enjoys playing together and really trusts each other on the court. The most notable indication of this is junior guard Duane Notice, who led the team in scoring a year ago while starting all 33 games. This season he has been asked to come of the bench to provide an offensive spark, and he has both accepted and excelled in his new role.
Championships aside, a true mark of good coaching is how the player’s individual game evolves over his time in the program. If you have followed this team for a while, you can’t help but notice the improvement in the older players. Each of the Lithuanian big men have made gigantic leaps forward since they arrived as part of Frank Martin’s first recruiting class.
At the time they were looked at as projects or fillers for a first recruiting class, but they are both now legitimate SEC post players averaging double digits. Michael Carerra is the prime example of this, he came here as an undersized post who brought toughness and emotion to the court. Now he is a true wing player and leads the team in scoring, rebounding and 3 point shooting at over 50%.
6: Free Throws
This year’s Carolina team is not shooting as well from the line as they did a season ago, where they set a school record for team FT percentage, but they are getting to the line, a lot. In their last no-conference game against Memphis, Coach Martin’s squad set both school and SEC records for free throw attempts (63) and a school record for FTs made(46) in a game.
The Gamecocks are known as a physical team and usually embrace that side of the game. With new NCAA rules in place this season to help with “Freedom of Movement”, Carolina has benefited from its aggressive play, getting to the line more often than opponents.
Besides a renewed emphasis on attacking the basket and a more concerted effort to go inside to the post players, I believe there is another reason, albeit a sneaky one, that South Carolina has had the advantage of foul calls. The fact that Coach Martin’s teams run an actual offense, with cutting, screening, and ball movement, puts extra pressure on defenders to stay close their matchup, and a lot of times that has resulted in grabbing, pulling, and more off the ball fouls than usual.
Rarely over the first three years of the Frank Martin era have the Gamecocks had this. His first two years this roster was the Division 1 basketball version of a FEMA disaster relief project. Last season, due to suspensions and injuries, Carolina was down to 7 players at points in the latter stages of the year.
Turn the page to year four, and the Carolina has a nine man rotation with the ability to use one or two more players at the end of the bench effectively. This is beneficial in multiple areas, combating fatigue and managing foul trouble being the most obvious.
The four upperclassmen starters and sixth man Duane Notice all average double figures in scoring. This team struggled to find points most of last season, leading to multiple close losses that should’ve been wins. Now they have a good balance of inside and outside scoring, and have at least seven players capable of leading the team in points on a given night.
Junior guard Sindarius Thornwell has emerged over the last few games as the most likely candidate to be the go to guy when USC needs a big bucket. He has stepped up his play lately with 18, 22, and 19 points in the last three games as SEC began.
3: Beating Clemson
Beating the orange team from the upstate is always a good thing, who can argue with that? Now that they have started ACC play at 3-1 with a win over ranked Louisville, they are helping the Gamecocks RPI.
Coach Martin’s teams are known for tough, in your face defense. They extend the floor and make running your basic offense a chore. The depth of this team also plays in to the defense, with their being four really good perimeter defenders, Carolina can maintain intense pressure on an opponent’s ball handlers all game long.
This was most evident in the game at Auburn to open SEC play. Kareem Canty averages 19 pts a game for the Tigers and started off hot early in the game, but the constant pressure of fresh defenders wore him down and he was noticeably gassed by the 2nd half. Notice, Thornwell, and sophomore Marcus Stroman are all aggressive on ball defenders, and freshman P.J. Dozier is coming along in that regard. The interior defense has been solid, and Carolina is among the nation’s leaders in rebounding.
Too many times over the past few years, solid performances were wasted as the Gamecocks found different ways to turn wins into losses. To this point in the year, they have found a way to reverse that trend. Close games like Memphis, Clemson, and Vanderbilt might have gone the other way a year ago.
This year, with the experience of losing those close games and the poise of a team full of upperclassmen, South Carolina has found a way to make plays down the stretch. The ability to either get a clutch basket or make a big stop to hold on to a victory is becoming the new norm for a team that fell short in close games so often the last few years.
It has been a long process to get his team to this point, but Frank Martin has stayed steady to his approach and it is paying off in a big way. A good start to SEC was something I believed was a key to keeping this season successful, and now that they have started 2-0 the expectations and possibilities for this team will only rise. Next up for the Gamecocks is a trip to Alabama on Wednesday, where I’m sure they will still be celebrating.