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At South Carolina, is A.J. Lawson ready to make the jump?

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South Carolina is picked to finish 11th in the SEC.

NCAA Basketball: SEC Conference Tournament-South Carolina vs Auburn Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

How Did We Get Here?

South Carolina had one of the more bizarre seasons imaginable.

The Gamecocks went 11-7 in the SEC — tied with Final Four participant Auburn for fourth place in the league. On the other hand, they not only missed the NCAA Tournament; they missed the NIT. The reason was obvious: South Carolina opened the season 4-7. They lost to Stony Brook in the second game of the season — which turned out not to be that embarrassing (Stony Brook won 24 games), but probably not a result that squares with a fourth-place finish in the SEC. They lost to Wofford at home, which turned out not to be embarrassing at all, but Wofford won by 20 points. And then they lost at Wyoming, which did turn out to be embarrassing — Wyoming went 8-24 and ranked 317th in KenPom. That started a four-game losing streak, and while the other three losses (at Michigan, Virginia and Clemson at home) were hardly bad losses, it left them behind the 8-ball entering SEC play.

And then they opened SEC play by winning at Florida. Home wins over Mississippi State and Missouri followed, and then they came back from a 12-point deficit at Vanderbilt to improve to 4-0 in the conference. After a predictable loss at LSU, they beat Auburn at home to improve to 5-1. As far as the NCAA Tournament went, their fate seemed set in stone after the dreadful start, but Frank Martin managed to rally the troops and salvage a .500 overall record. That was something.

Now, South Carolina isn’t quite starting over. The Gamecocks return 46.8 percent of their possession-minutes from last season, but that number is probably a little bit lower than it should be: two players who figured to play key roles last season instead missed most of the season with injuries, and a third redshirted due to an eligibility issue. There aren’t a ton of proven commodities, particularly inside, but there are some players with promise. This is one of the SEC’s hardest teams to get a read on.

Who’s gone?

Player MPG PPG RPG APG SPG BPG Notes
Player MPG PPG RPG APG SPG BPG Notes
Chris Silva 26.7 15.2 7.6 0.9 0.9 1.9 graduated
Hassani Gravett 29.6 11.4 3.8 2.4 0.8 0.3 graduated
Tre Campbell 26.9 7.1 1.7 2.7 1 0.1 graduated
Felipe Haase 23.5 6.3 3.8 1.1 0.5 0.3 transfer/Mercer
Evan Hinson 9.5 1.3 1.1 0.2 0.2 0 transfer/Austin Peay
Jason Cudd 5.6 0 0.6 0 0 0 transfer/Olney Central

Chris Silva leaves in tenth place on South Carolina’s all-time career scoring list, something that seems very strange if you saw Silva as a raw, foul-prone freshman a few years ago. (Silva also leaves in sixth place all-time at South Carolina in rebounds and blocked shots, which frankly sounded about right to you if you saw him as a freshman and assumed he’d stay four years.)

That Silva was South Carolina’s leading scorer in each of the last two years is a function of the lack of consistent scorers around him. Hassani Gravett got hot from three for the entirety of SEC play last year (43.9 percent), which played a big role in the Gamecocks turning things around, and Tre Campbell was a pass-first point guard who did okay in his one season after transferring from Georgetown. Of the three underclassmen who departed, Felipe Haase — a guy with a decent three-point stroke at 6’9” and 250 — is the concerning loss.

Who’s back?

Player MPG PPG RPG APG SPG BPG Notes
Player MPG PPG RPG APG SPG BPG Notes
A.J. Lawson 29.9 13.4 4.3 2.9 1.1 0.2
Keyshawn Bryant 24.3 9 3.8 1.4 0.7 0.5
Justin Minaya 25.6 7.4 5.6 1.6 0.6 0.2 medical redshirt
Maik Kotsar 23.4 6.7 4.7 0.9 1 0.9
T.J. Moss 20.6 6.3 1.9 1.9 0.6 0 medical redshirt
Alanzo Frink 8.8 2.7 1.8 0.2 0.3 0.3

A.J. Lawson is thought to be the budding star here. After reclassifying from the 2019 class, Lawson scored 23 points in his second college game, the first of six 20-point games he had as a freshman. But his overall numbers on the season — 45.1 percent on twos, 35.8 percent on threes — could use some work, and he was a bit turnover-prone for a wing. The potential is there, but he wasn’t quite ready to be a star as a freshman.

Of course, Lawson’s breakout game came after fellow freshman Keyshawn Bryant, who scored 21 points in the season opener — a number, though, that he would not match the remainder of the season. The 6’6” wing ended the season shooting 48.5 percent on twos, and a woeful shooter from the three-point arc and at the foul line. Inside, 6’11” senior Maik Kotsar has started 90 games over the last three years but has never really developed much over where he was as a freshman; last season, he shot 43.8 percent from the floor, an awful number for a post player. Alanzo Frink has impressive girth at 6’7” and 260 pounds but didn’t do a whole lot as a freshman.

South Carolina also “returns” Justin Minaya and T.J. Moss, both of whom were lost to injuries early in the season. Minaya showed promise as a freshman, averaging 7.9 ppg and 4.2 rpg, and looked to be a key player early on before suffering a knee injury. T.J. Moss was the #207 recruit in the Class of 2018 and showed promise early before being lost to a foot injury.

Who’s new?

Player Height Weight Notes
Player Height Weight Notes
Jalyn McCreary 6'7" 225 #150 in 247 Sports composite
Trae Hannibal 6'2" 217 #153 in 247 Sports composite
Jermaine Couisnard 6'4" 211 #218 in 247 Sports composite (2018)
Wildens Leveque 6'11" 230 #311 in 247 Sports composite
Trey Anderson 6'6" 203 #516 in 247 Sports composite
Micaiah Henry 6'9" 235 graduate transfer/Tennessee Tech
Jair Bolden 6'3" 215 transfer/George Washington

Frank Martin has frequently gotten a lot of mileage out of recruits who haven’t been rated particularly highly, Lawson, for instance, was ranked 146th in the Class of 2018. That’s about where Jalyn McCreary and Trae Hannibal are ranked. Jermaine Couisnard was expected to contribute in 2018-19, but redshirted due to an eligibility issue, and Jair Bolden averaged 11.2 ppg and 3.1 apg at George Washington two years ago. Micaiah Henry, who averaged 1.8 blocks per game last year at Tennessee Tech, and Wildens Leveque have much-needed size. This isn’t a great recruiting class by any means, but given Martin’s history it won’t be surprising if there are one or two immediate contributors in this group.

Schedule

Date Opponent
Date Opponent
11/6 North Alabama
11/10 Wyoming
11/15 Cleveland State
11/19 Boston University
11/22 Gardner-Webb
11/26 vs. Wichita State (Cancun Challenge)
11/27 Cancun Challenge
12/1 George Washington
12/4 at Massachusetts
12/8 Houston
12/15 at Clemson
12/22 at Virginia
12/30 Stetson
1/7 Florida
1/11 at Tennessee
1/15 Kentucky
1/18 at Texas A&M
1/22 at Auburn
1/25 Vanderbilt
1/29 at Arkansas
2/1 Missouri
2/5 at Ole Miss
2/8 Texas A&M
2/12 at Georgia
2/15 Tennessee
2/19 at Mississippi State
2/22 LSU
2/26 Georgia
2/29 at Alabama
3/3 Mississippi State
3/7 at Vanderbilt

South Carolina’s early schedule shouldn’t be imposing, but then things ramp up quickly around Thanksgiving. The Gamecocks face Wichita State and either Northern Iowa or West Virginia in Cancun, and following a “break” against George Washington and UMass, they face the trio of Houston, Clemson, and Virginia, with the latter two on the road. There are at least five potential losses on the schedule, though if they can go 9-4 against this schedule, they’ll actually be in really good shape entering SEC play.

The Gamecocks’ early stretch of SEC play is downright brutal — home games against Florida and Kentucky sandwiched in between trips to Tennessee, Texas A&M, and Auburn. Overall, though, getting Texas A&M, Vanderbilt, and Georgia twice is a pretty significant win; they also have two games each against Tennessee and Mississippi State.

Outlook

I have South Carolina 11th in the SEC, which isn’t too much of an insult — I think basically anybody outside of Vanderbilt could make the NCAA Tournament and I wouldn’t be too surprised. That said, this is a really difficult team to get a read on, perhaps the most difficult in the conference.

At the end of December, South Carolina sat at #127 in KenPom and had a 4-7 record against Division I competition. Was that the real South Carolina, or was it the team that went 11-7 in the SEC and finished 70th in KenPom in spite of the awful start? A.J. Lawson has a lot of upside, but is he ready to make the jump now that he doesn’t have Chris Silva around to be the focus of opposing defenses? The Gamecocks will be helped a lot by getting Justin Minaya and T.J. Moss back, but how much? (Remember, both were playing during at least a part of the awful stretch early in the season.) How much will the newcomers contribute? Frank Martin is a good coach; how much can he get out of this group?

This all just creates a lot of confusion. I personally see less to like here than I do with a few other teams in the SEC, but opinions on this team are going to be all over the place.