How Did We Get Here?
If nothing else, South Carolina under Frank Martin has learned how to peak at the right time.
Over Martin’s eight seasons, the Gamecocks have made the NCAA Tournament just once — but of course, that single NCAA Tournament appearance saw the Gamecocks get all the way to the Final Four. Since then, after an expected rebuilding year in 2017-18, South Carolina got off to slow starts in each of the last two seasons — but both seasons saw them finish with an SEC record over .500. That included a 2018-19 campaign, in which South Carolina ended December with a 5-7 record and then went 11-7 in SEC play, good for a fourth-place finish. Last season, the Gamecocks ended December with an 8-5 record — marked by a thud of a loss to Stetson right before New Year’s — and went 10-8 in SEC play.
The turnarounds mean that South Carolina has gone better than .500 in the SEC in four of the last five seasons. So how has that resulted in just one NCAA Tournament appearance? Well, the easy answer is… November and December. The Gamecocks might have gone 11-7 in the SEC in 2018-19, but their overall record was just 16-16. Last year it was 18-13, with the team likely playing its way out of the tournament over a 2-4 stretch to end the regular season, including a loss at last-place Vanderbilt in the season finale. (Obviously, there was no NCAA Tournament in 2020, but South Carolina likely would not have made it either way.) In 2016, the culprit was a weak nonconference schedule, which meant that the Gamecocks’ 24-8 overall record included few quality wins.
The key, then, is starting well — not just ending well. Squeezing 10 SEC wins out of an 18-game schedule consistently might be a decent way to keep your job (particularly when your resume includes “Final Four” on it), but it’s not enough to impress the NCAA Selection Committee when you’re losing to the likes of Boston U. and Stetson in December. The good news, then, is that South Carolina was actually legitimately good once SEC play rolled around — the Gamecocks outscored the opposition by 4.3 points per 100 possessions in conference play, ranking only behind Kentucky, Florida, and LSU.
And the other good news is that the Gamecocks return nine players who averaged at least 9.8 minutes per game last season, and 74.5 percent of their possession-minutes — the second-highest mark in the SEC, behind only Missouri. A team that was already pretty good also has everybody back. That’s a good formula when you’re operating a program that isn’t regularly pumping out NBA players or landing five-star recruits.
Maik Kotsar managed to have his best season in a South Carolina uniform as a senior and finished as the team’s leader in steals, blocks, and rebounds, while also being the Gamecocks’ third-leading scorer and second in assists. None of his numbers really jump off the page at you, but a guy who went 6’11”/270 and did a lot of things pretty well won’t be easy to replace. Neither will Jair Bolden, who shot 41.2 percent from distance and was the Gamecocks’ only real threat from deep.
That said, those are the only losses of any significance. South Carolina also lost Micaiah Henry, a graduate transfer from Tennessee Tech who played just 35 minutes all season.
6’6” junior A.J. Lawson didn’t exactly make the leap expected after a promising freshman season. Lawson averaged 13.4 ppg as a freshman — and then 13.4 ppg as a sophomore, but hidden in that was an increase in efficiency. His effective field goal percentage improved from 47.7 percent to 50.1 percent, and he also cut his turnovers. The latter might have had to do with the emergence of Jermaine Couisnard; after sitting out his first year on campus, Couisnard took over point guard duties as a redshirt freshman and performed credibly, ending the season as the Gamecocks’ second-leading scorer — though his shooting percentages (45.8 percent inside the arc and 29 percent outside) could stand to improve. 6’5” junior Keyshawn Bryant missed the season’s first eight games and seemed to struggle to adjust for a while afterward, but averaged 15.6 ppg over the last five games of the season.
But then, this is a Frank Martin team, so low shooting percentages aren’t necessarily a problem; the Gamecocks will miss a lot of shots and also rebound a lot of their own misses. Martin has three big bodies who are relatively good on the offensive glass at his disposal in Alanzo Frink (6’7”/260), Jalyn McCreary (6’7”/225), and Wildens Leveque (6’11”/230.) The most advanced of the three is Frink, who started 12 games and posted a career-high 22 points against Georgia late in the season. McCreary and Leveque are sophomores who are a bit rough around the edges and foul at incredible rates (and really, so does Frink, who fouled out three times last season, twice in games in which he played 9 and 12 minutes — which, uh, isn’t as impressive as Leveque fouling out in 7 minutes at Arkansas.)
The wild card here is 6’6” redshirt junior Justin Minaya, who missed basically all of 2018-19 to a torn ACL and also missed nine games late last season, during which the Gamecocks went 5-4. Minaya’s numbers won’t jump off the page at you, but he often seemed to be the glue holding the Gamecocks together.
Sophomores T.J. Moss and Trae Hannibal fill out the Gamecocks’ backcourt; both were rather inefficient and turnover-prone last season and will have to fight for playing time.
|Seventh Woods||Sr.||6'2"||184||48||transfer/North Carolina|
South Carolina signed two big men in the 2020 recruiting class, but one of them — Patrick Iriel — is already out of the program. That leaves local product Ja’Von Benson as the only freshman on the team.
Really, though, the more consequential incoming player is probably going to be Seventh Woods. A former top-50 recruit (and also from Columbia), Woods never really found a role in three years at North Carolina and now will play his final year at South Carolina in an attempt to salvage his college career. The question is whether he’s still the top-50 talent that everybody fell in love with out of high school or the guy who averaged 1.8 ppg in three years at UNC.
Honestly, South Carolina’s most effective lineup might not have a player taller than 6’8”, with Couisnard and Lawson in the backcourt, Bryant on the wing, and Minaya and Frink as an undersized four and five, respectively (though what Frink lacks in height, he makes up for with girth.) The three players taller than that — sophomore Wildens Leveque and freshmen Patrick Iriel and Ja’Von Benson — probably don’t merit too many minutes at this stage of their careers, though given the propensity for foul trouble of basically all of the bigs, everybody is probably going to play real minutes. And Frank Martin does have the option of going big, with Minaya capable of playing the three.
The only real question in the backcourt is where Seventh Woods fits into all of this. Jermaine Couisnard has probably earned a starting spot, but if Woods is really capable of playing at the level he was hyped out of high school, he shouldn’t have any problem displacing Couisnard as the starting point guard. T.J. Moss and Trae Hannibal are pretty clearly backups on this team.
Honestly, I’m done doubting Frank Martin at this point. His last two teams haven’t looked that great on paper going into the season, with a mishmash of players who weren’t rated highly as recruits — Seventh Woods is the only player on the roster who even ranked in the top 100 of the 247 Sports composite, and he’s a transfer — and whose contributions don’t jump off the page at you, and yet the results have been pretty good. Over the past five years, the Gamecocks have gone 51-39 in SEC play — which doesn’t sound like much, but that’s tied with Tennessee for the third-best conference record over that stretch, behind only Kentucky and Florida.
And all of that is before you get into this year’s roster. Martin has made a living off guys who were overlooked as recruits and turning them into good college players, or at least role players. Because of the sheer amount of players returning, South Carolina enters the season with probably the fewest question marks of anyone in the SEC, and where there are questions, they’re more along the lines of “is this transfer point guard good enough to beat out last year’s starter?”
The goal this year is to smooth around the edges (read: avoid losing to teams like Boston U. and Stetson) and get back to the NCAA Tournament, and with only one senior and no obvious NBA prospects on the roster, there’s a decent chance this roster could return virtually intact again in 2021-22 and potentially make a run at an SEC title. Getting back to the tournament is certainly doable when Martin has won 21 SEC games over the last two years with arguably worse rosters than this.
Now, here’s where I talk myself out of South Carolina a bit: the fact that this roster only has one top-100 recruit and no obvious NBA prospects means that the upside is probably limited. South Carolina might have a higher floor than some of the teams ahead of them, but the ceiling is also lower — and that’s why I have them picked to finish sixth. But this is a team that should have the NCAA Tournament as a clear goal.