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SEC Hoops Preview Series: South Carolina

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To get everyone up to speed on the upcoming basketball season, AOG is running down all fourteen teams in the SEC. Today's preview: Sindarius Thornwell and the South Carolina Gamecocks.

Well, they beat Kentucky last year...
Well, they beat Kentucky last year...
Lance King

We're counting down the days to basketball season, and to get everybody up to speed on the state of hoops in the SEC, I'm writing previews for each of the 14 teams.  All work is my own, though I am relying on kenpom.com and sports-reference.com for some statistics.  Teams will be previewed in reverse order of projected finish (according to me, anyway), so as this is the seventh of 14 previews, this is the team I project to finish 8th in the conference.

South Carolina Gamecocks 2014-15 Basketball Preview

How Did We Get Here?

Darrin Horn was a disaster almost from day one at South Carolina.  Although he went 21-10 in his first year in Columbia, that was with an experienced roster inherited from Dave Odom.  On his own, he went 15-16 in his second year, followed by 14-16 in his third year, before bottoming out at 10-21 in 2011-12, including 2-14 in the SEC.

Under new coach Frank Martin, who had built a solid program at Kansas State, things got worse before they got better.  While the record (14-18) in Martin's first year was slightly better, that was as much a reflection on a complete joke of a non-conference schedule and a down SEC as it was on any improvement; indeed, the Gamecocks went from 163 in Pomeroy's ratings in Horn's final season to 210 in Martin's first year.

Quite intentionally, Martin induced some roster turnover from year one to year two, running off some of the holdovers from Darrin Horn and bringing in some of his own players.  While the Gamecocks only won 14 games again, they were more competitive, going from an average scoring margin of -7.9 ppg in SEC play in 2013 to -5.5 ppg in 2014 -- still nothing to brag about, but a credible performance by a team that had seven freshmen and three sophomores (and only one senior) on the roster.  Basically everything points to improvement in year three under Frank Martin.

Projected Depth Chart

Quick note: For starters, I'm using the five "traditional" positions on the floor even if the players may be listed otherwise on the roster, so you may see guards appearing as forwards, forwards appearing as centers, etc.  Recruiting rankings are the composite rankings from 247sports.com.

Losses
  • Brenton Williams (30.3 mpg, 14.9 ppg, 1.4 apg; graduated)
  • Jaylen Shaw (9.7 mpg, 3.0 ppg, 1.1 apg; transfer/Coastal Carolina)
  • Desmond Ringer (10.4 mpg, 2.1 ppg, 2.0 rpg; transfer/Mercer)
Starting Five
  • PG Duane Notice (6'2", 216 Soph., Woodbridge, Canada)
  • SG Ty Johnson (6'3", 196 Sr., Plainfield, NJ)
  • SF Sindarius Thornwell (6'5", 215 Soph., Lancaster, SC)
  • PF Michael Carrera (6'5", 212 Jr., Anzoategui, Venezuela)
  • C Demetrius Henry (6'9", 227 Soph., Miami, FL)
Top Reserves
  • G Marcus Stroman (6'2", 185 Fr., Columbia, SC); #27 PG and #130 overall
  • F Laimonas Chatkevicius (6'11", 250 Jr., Klaipeda, Lithuania)
  • F Mindaugas Kacinas (6'7", 228 Jr., Klaipeda, Lithuania)
Bench
  • F Reggie Theus Jr. (6'6", 218 Soph., Los Angeles, CA)
  • G Justin McKie (6'4", 196 Soph., Columbia, SC)
  • F Brian Steele (6'5", 197 Jr., Greenville, SC)
Redshirting this season
  • G TeMarcus Blanton (6'5", 208 Fr., Locust Grove, GA); #26 SF and #111 overall
  • G/F Shamiek Sheppard (6'6", 215 Fr., Brooklyn, NY); #65 SF and #315 overall

For the first time in this preview series, the depth chart isn't complete guesswork: South Carolina has already played an exhibition game (on October 26, a 92-47 win over Benedict) and while there's generally little to be learned from an exhibition game, at the very least we have some idea how Frank Martin is going to use his roster.  The starting five listed above are the five players who started the exhibition, although we know from experience that Martin's usage of his roster tends to vary over the course of the season.

The big reasons for optimism in Columbia are simple.  The Gamecocks return 76 percent of their minutes from last year, the highest figure in the SEC, and the only player of significance they lose is Brenton Williams.  It's certainly not to say that Williams won't be easy to replace; guys who shoot 42.7 percent from three and 93 percent from the foul line are, shall we say, rare.  Another reason for optimism is that Carolina had, as mentioned before, a lot of underclassmen playing last year; it's only reasonable to think that all those freshmen last year will get better with a year of college ball under their belts.

A third reason for optimism: the Gamecocks have a legitimate NBA prospect on the wing in Sindarius Thornwell.  Thornwell came in and did about what you would expect a top recruit on a bad team to do: he was the Gamecocks' second-leading scorer, but wasn't terribly efficient, shooting 38.6 percent from the floor and averaging 3.1 turnovers a game.  Both of those numbers need to improve, but a lot of improvement should come simply from the players around him getting better this season.

Thornwell can play the point, but with three point guards on the roster he'll almost certainly spend most of his time on the wing.  The Gamecocks will effectively have two point guards on the floor with Duane Notice and Ty Johnson.  Notice, like Thornwell, had his struggles as a freshman but should get better as a sophomore, and in fact an injury to Johnson last year probably forced him into a bigger role than he was ready for.  Last year's South Carolina team might have been better than it was had Johnson, a transfer from Villanova, not gotten hurt in the third game of SEC play.  Johnson was considerably more advanced and is much more of a scoring point guard; given his greater scoring ability, figure on Johnson spending more time off the ball and giving the point guard duties to Notice.

South Carolina has a third point guard on the roster in freshman Marcus Stroman, who will (in all likelihood) be the only member of a four-man recruiting class who will actually play for the Gamecocks this year: fellow freshmen TeMarcus Blanton and Shamiek Sheppard both suffered season-ending injuries and will likely redshirt, while 6'8" forward James Thompson never made it to campus.  Unlike last season, Martin has the luxury of bringing Stroman along slowly while he adjusts to the college game.  Justin McKie, the son of South Carolina all-time leading scorer B.J. McKie, showed some promise in limited minutes as a freshman and could play a bigger role this year.

In spite of being 6'5", Michael Carrera led the Gamecocks in rebounds and blocks last year; he's particularly adept at hitting the offensive glass.  But the Gamecocks do have some size down low as well, with 6'9" Demetrius Henry, 6'7" Mindaugas Kacinas, and 6'11" Laimonas Chatkevicius.  As you would expect from a Frank Martin team, all three hit the glass well and also commit a lot of fouls: South Carolina's 57.0 FTA/FGA ratio ranked 346th in the country.  (But given Martin's history, we have to admit that fouling a lot is basically by design; Martin's Kansas State teams were pretty good on the defensive end in spite of sending opponents to the line a lot.)  There's a reason why the guys over at Rock M Nation call Martin's style of play "Murderball."

If there's a problem on this team, it's depth.  While the Gamecocks go four deep up front, beyond that the only player available is 6'6" Reggie Theus Jr., who played limited minutes as a freshman and doesn't have much size.  Martin can also occasionally get minutes out of walk-on Brian Steele, but on a team with a lot of foul-prone bigs the lack of depth could become an issue.  Basically, opposing teams can just take the ball at the basket repeatedly, knowing that if the bigs pick up enough fouls (likely) the Gamecocks are likely going to have to go small.  Martin would probably be better off with a couple more players who can soak up minutes (and fouls) in the frontcourt if necessary.

In the backcourt, losing Blanton and Sheppard to injury means that Martin is going to war with only one wing player (Thornwell), and while having three point guards on the roster isn't exactly a problem, the Gamecocks aren't really going to have anybody other than Thornwell who can knock down shots from the outside.  The bigs do what they do (rebounding and defense), but there's really little indication that any of them are going to be a big-time scorer this year.

Basically, while Martin should be able to put together a good defense with this roster and the bigs should help extend possessions with offensive rebounds, it's unclear who other than Thornwell is going to handle the scoring load.  Johnson should be able to help, and maybe one of the bigs (Kacinas?) will step up, but exactly how far South Carolina can go this season depends on whether Thornwell gets a good sidekick on the offensive end.

Schedule

Non-Conference
10/26 Benedict (exh.)
11/14 North Florida
11/18 Baylor
11/20 vs. Cornell
11/21 Charleston Classic
11/23 Charleston Classic
11/26 UNC Asheville
12/1 at Marshall
12/6 Oklahoma State
12/19 Clemson
12/21 Coker
12/30 North Carolina A&T
1/3 vs. Iowa State (Brooklyn, NY)
Conference Home-and-Home

Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky, Georgia, Arkansas

Conference Home

Florida, Missouri, Texas A&M, Mississippi State

Conference Road

Ole Miss, Auburn, LSU, Vanderbilt

South Carolina's non-conference schedule isn't terribly imposing.  There's the marquee game with Iowa State in Brooklyn to end the non-conference schedule, as well as home games against Clemson, Oklahoma State, and Baylor (seriously... did Baylor schedule the entire SEC?)  Other than that, though, there's not much to write home about, with a few mid-major teams that don't project to be very good (and Coker.)  The Charleston Classic field is pretty weak, never mind that the tournament is in the Gamecocks' backyard; the best team in the field is... Miami?  Akron?

But the SEC schedule is a bit tougher; the Gamecocks draw Kentucky, Arkansas, and Georgia twice, while drawing Ole Miss, LSU, and Vandy on the road makes those three games a bit tougher.  The non-conference portion of the schedule might become an issue if the Gamecocks are on the bubble, and particularly if Oklahoma State and/or Clemson falls apart.

Outlook

After the disastrous hire of Darrin Horn (who replaced Dave Odom, who never really got it going at Carolina after a Tim Duncan-fueled run at Wake Forest), South Carolina hit a home run by hiring Frank Martin away from Kansas State, and all indications are that that hire should start to pay dividends this season.

No, the Gamecocks probably won't be contending for an NCAA bid, but that would actually be less of a surprise than another year at the bottom of the conference.  The sheer amount of returning talent, along with a coach who knows what he's doing, should be enough for Carolina to move up to the middle of the pack.

Basically, just looking at the roster and the coaching situation, it's almost a given that South Carolina will be a better team than they were last year; the only question is how much better.  If Notice or Johnson, or maybe even Stroman, can step up and become a consistent scoring threat alongside Thornwell, this team should be fine.  If one of the bigs can provide consistent offense, this team could actually be pretty good -- maybe even good enough to get on the NCAA bubble.

The better news is that, while this team is more experienced than last year, Ty Johnson is the only senior on the roster -- and that might actually be a misprint seeing that he only played one year at Villanova before transferring.  It wouldn't surprise me if Johnson got an extra year of eligibility (though, of course, Thornwell could be off to the NBA after this season.)  Either way, South Carolina has plenty of reason to be optimistic about the future under Martin, and this season should only be a start in the right direction.