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South Carolina might be ready to contend again in 2018-19

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The Gamecocks took a step back a year after a Final Four run, but have most of their key pieces back.

NCAA Basketball: South Carolina at Mississippi State Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

How Did We Get Here?

South Carolina didn’t win an NCAA Tournament game between 1973 and 2017, and didn’t even make the tournament between 2004 and 2017. And then, the Gamecocks won four games in the 2017 tournament. A team that got snubbed in spite of a 24-8 record in 2016 got in as a 7-seed beat Marquette, Duke, Baylor, and Florida en route to the first Final Four in school history.

Predictably, the team took a step back with the losses of Sindarius Thornwell, P.J. Dozier, and Duane Notice — but just how big of a step back might have been a bit jarring. Chris Silva, a role player on the Final Four team, turned in an All-SEC type of performance, averaging 14.3 ppg and 8.0 rpg, but the parts around him never quite fit together. The Gamecocks posted the SEC’s worst offensive efficiency in conference play, averaging under a point per possession. Frank Martin’s teams don’t typically shoot well — the offense “works” mostly because they grab a lot of their own misses and get to the foul line a lot — but even that wasn’t enough to cover a unit that ranked 344th of 351 Division I teams in two-point percentage. In SEC play, the Gamecocks shot a ghastly 39.2 percent inside the arc. (For reference, the second-worst team, Georgia, shot 45.4 percent inside the arc.) Sometimes, the explanation really is that simple.

The good news is that most of the worst offenders in that department are no longer in the program, either through graduation or attrition. The Gamecocks do return 66.4 percent of their possession-minutes from last year, a number that includes basically the entire frontcourt, and they add six newcomers including a pair of talented guards. (They will not, however, add Brian Bowen, a central figure in the FBI scandal who transferred to South Carolina but declared for the NBA Draft after it became clear he had no hope of being declared eligible.) They dodged a bullet when Silva withdrew his name from the draft. Will he get enough help this year?

Backcourt

As a sophomore, Hassani Gravett functioned primarily as a backup shooting guard, but was thrust into the starting point guard role in 2017-18 after projected starter Rakym Felder was suspended (Felder was ultimately dismissed from the program in April.) His transition to being the Gamecocks’ starting point guard in 2017-18 was rocky, to say the least. Gravett did average 3.6 assists per game, but he also committed 2.3 turnovers, including committing 23 turnovers in the Gamecocks’ final five games of the season. He did shoot 39.5 percent from three in SEC play; he also missed three games due to a suspension and lost his starting job for eight games upon his return.

Gravett might be better suited playing off the ball, but South Carolina doesn’t have an obvious alternative. 6’0” senior Tre Campbell played three years at Georgetown, starting 21 games, but could never get his shot to fall: he shot 38.7 percent on two-pointers and 31.7 percent on threes for his career. He also didn’t play at all in 2017-18 following a knee injury in February 2017, though he did stay at Georgetown to complete his degree. 6’2” freshman T.J. Moss is another option, but is a freshman.

At the other guard spot, in addition to Gravett, South Carolina has a couple of freshmen joining the program. A.J. Lawson is a 6’6” combo guard who reclassified from the 2019 class, but was rated as a four-star recruit by Rivals. 6’4” freshman Jermaine Couisnard is another talent, but might not play in 2018-19 due to an academic issue.

6’4”, 240-pound Evan Hinson, a tight end on the football team, started 17 games in 2017-18 and will join the basketball team once football season is over.

Frontcourt

While the backcourt is unsettled, the frontcourt returns five contributors from last season, the biggest of which is Chris Silva. The 6’9”, 234-pound senior from Gabon stepped into the role of go-to guy last season and performed quite well, averaging 14.8 ppg and 8.0 rpg. He led the country in free throw rate (free throw attempts divided by field goal attempts) and also shot 74.9 percent at the line, quite good for a big man; he also posted the SEC’s best offensive rebound rate. He’s also a good shot blocker. The one real knock on Silva is that he still can’t seem to stay out of foul trouble: in 2017-18, he averaged 5.3 fouls per 40 minutes and fouled out five times as a junior, and committed four fouls in 13 other games. That was a big reason he only averaged 25.8 minutes per game — considerably less than you’d like to have your star player on the floor.

After a promising freshman season, 6’11” junior Maik Kotsar regressed last season, seeing his shooting percentage drop from 49 percent to 42.6 percent. There appears to have been some attempt to add an outside shot to his arsenal, as he went from zero three-point attempts to 27, but it didn’t go well — he only made six of them. 7’1” sophomore Jason Cudd played sparingly as a freshman (156 minutes on the season) and will probably need time to develop. 6’9” sophomore Felipe Haase backed up both Silva and Kotsar last season and shot 26.4 percent from three — and shot more threes than twos (he actually shot 50 percent on the latter.)

On the wing, Justin Minaya — the son of former New York Mets GM Omar Minaya — started 30 games as a freshman and, though he was part of the teamwide shooting malaise inside the arc, shot 35.8 percent from outside and Frank Martin clearly trusts the talent here. Three-star freshman Keyshawn Bryant is another option on the wing.

South Carolina also has another freshman in 6’6”, 265-pound Alanzo Frink, who wasn’t rated by any of the major recruiting services but looks like a Frank Martin special.

Schedule

Schedule

Date Opponent
Date Opponent
10/26 Augusta (exhibition)
11/6 USC Upstate
11/9 Stony Brook
11/13 Norfolk State
11/17 vs. Providence (Uncasville, CT)
11/18 Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame Tip-Off
11/26 Wofford
11/30 Coastal Carolina
12/5 at Wyoming
12/8 at Michigan
12/19 Virginia
12/22 Clemson
12/31 North Greenville
1/5 at Florida
1/9 Mississippi State
1/12 Missouri
1/16 at Vanderbilt
1/19 at LSU
1/22 Auburn
1/26 at Oklahoma State
1/29 Tennessee
2/2 at Georgia
2/5 at Kentucky
2/9 Arkansas
2/13 at Tennessee
2/16 Texas A&M
2/19 Ole Miss
2/23 at Mississippi State
2/26 Alabama
3/2 at Missouri
3/5 at Texas A&M
3/9 Georgia

Frank Martin certainly scheduled aggressively. After the first three games, the Gamecocks will play, in an eight-game stretch, Providence, either George Washington or Michigan, at Michigan, Virginia, and Clemson. Oh yeah, and Wofford, Coastal Carolina, and Wyoming aren’t pushovers (and the last one will be played in the highest gym in Division I, if you were looking to increase the degree of difficulty here.) You mean the people putting together the Big 12/SEC Challenge couldn’t have given them Kansas?

In conference play, South Carolina draws Georgia, Mississippi State, Missouri, Tennessee, and Texas A&M twice. That’s kind of a mixed bag: Georgia and Texas A&M will probably be toward the bottom of the league standings, Missouri seems like a middle-of-the-pack team, while Mississippi State and Tennessee are preseason Top 25 teams.

Outlook

South Carolina might never again reach the heights it reached in March and April 2017, and 2017-18 suggested they might not even become a fixture in the tournament. Overall, Frank Martin has done a good job here, with a 113-90 record in six seasons — albeit with a 45-63 SEC record (granted, his record in his first three years after picking up the pieces from Darrin Horn was 15-39.)

2018-19 will tell us a lot about how much staying power South Carolina will have under Martin. A step back last year was somewhat expected, but it was enough of a step back to create questions about how much had been built to withstand the loss of Sindarius Thornwell. Sometimes, building a team around a single great player can lead to short-term success without any real long-term change. (There’s also the continuing revolving door in the program, with 21 players leaving the program with eligibility remaining in Martin’s six years — not counting players who left early for the draft. That’s a trend that didn’t really slow down this offseason, either, with five players departing the program — six if you count Bowen, who never played a game at South Carolina.)

Entering this season, there are a lot of question marks in the backcourt, but the frontcourt, anchored by Chris Silva, should be fine. If South Carolina can get good guard play, the NCAA Tournament is a realistic goal — and Frank Martin has scheduled like that’s the expectation for the season. Fail in that goal, and it’s one NCAA Tournament in seven seasons for Martin. The SEC will be tough, but there’s no reason to think that South Carolina is incapable of making a push for the upper half of the standings assuming Silva is healthy — and if he finally figures out how to stay out of foul trouble, look out.