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SEC Basketball Season Preview: South Carolina

South Carolina is my pick for 12th in the SEC.

NCAA Basketball: South Carolina at Florida Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Team: South Carolina Gamecocks

Dates: January 8, 2022 (in Nashville); January 26, 2022 (in Columbia)

Times: 11:00 AM on January 8 (ESPNU); 6:00 PM on January 26 (ESPNU)

Last year: 6-15 (4-12 SEC), 124th in KenPom

Tom’s Prediction: 12th in SEC

Head Coach

Hiring Frank Martin away from Kansas State, where he’d gone 117-54 and made four NCAA Tournaments in five years including an Elite Eight run in 2010, was seen as a coup at the time, but then so was hiring Dave Odom away from Wake Forest in 2001, and so was hiring National Coach of the Year Eddie Fogler away from Vanderbilt in 1993 (after Bobby Cremins took the job and then backed out two days later.) With the exception of Darrin Horn (and even he had a Sweet 16 run at Western Kentucky), South Carolina has spent the last 28 years coached by men who were already accomplished before they took the job.

At the same time, the Gamecocks have made the NCAA Tournament just four times in that time span, and they’ve won four NCAA Tournament games — all in Martin’s Final Four run in 2017. South Carolina might have the greatest disparity in the country between the actual success of the program and the apparent attractiveness of the job to coaching candidates, at least judged by the coaches they’ve been able to hire — or, perhaps, South Carolina has just happened to be in the right place at the right time when those coaches needed an out from their previous job.

SEAT TEMPERATURE: Hot

So, yeah, Frank Martin went to the Final Four in 2017. That also represents his only NCAA Tournament appearance in nine years in Columbia, and only in 2016 (when they were 24-8 and 11-7 in the SEC on Selection Sunday) were they really close to making the tournament. Since the Final Four run, the Gamecocks are 57-60.

Martin is the only coach in the SEC whose seat I would truly call “hot,” at least among coaches whose programs are not the subject of an active NCAA investigation. That’s because, frankly, I’m surprised that he’s still here — perhaps because his employer gave him a pass on 2020-21 due to COVID, or perhaps because they couldn’t afford to pay both him and Will Muschamp to go away. Either way, Frank Martin appeared to be looking around for another job after last season similar to the end of the Kevin Stallings era at Vanderbilt — but then, when he found no takers, South Carolina just decided to retain him. This is a confusing situation, but it’s also one that, at least on paper, looks like a situation where South Carolina is going to have to make a decision (again) after the upcoming season.

Who’s Gone?

A grand total of eight players who played for South Carolina last season are no longer with the team. The Gamecocks did lose their leading scorer, A.J. Lawson (16.6 ppg/4.1 rpg), to the NBA Draft, and important role player Justin Minaya (7.0 ppg/6.3 rpg) transferred to Providence. Seventh Woods (5.4 ppg/1.9 apg) started 13 games but posted a ghastly 76.8 Offensive Rating; he’s off to Morgan State. Alanzo Frink (3.3 ppg/3.7 rpg) started the first three games before being lost for the season; he’s off to East Carolina.

The remaining departures were bench players, all sophomores last season, who might or might not have developed into something useful. Trae Hannibal (6.0 ppg/3.2 rpg) went to Murray State, Jalyn McCreary (5.1 ppg/2.5 rpg) to Murray State, T.J. Moss (4.3 ppg/2.4 apg) to McNeese, and Trey Anderson (2.5 ppg/1.2 rpg) to San Jose State. None of those transfer destinations scream that these are guys who will be truly missed, but the net effect is that South Carolina is turning over a lot of its rotation from last season.

Who’s Back?

There’s at least some continuity here with three players returning who combined to start 37 games last season. 6’6” senior Keyshawn Bryant (14.4 ppg/5.4 rpg) finally made the jump last season, turning into the Gamecocks’ second-leading scorer, and it’s good news for Frank Martin that he’s back for his fourth year in Columbia. Also returning is 6’4” redshirt junior Jermaine Couisnard (10.1 ppg/3.2 apg), who struggled with his shot last season after performing well as a freshman. 6’10” junior Wildens Leveque (6.1 ppg/4.8 rpg) does a lot of the dirty work of rebounding misses down low and also shot 58 percent from the floor.

Also returning are 6’9” TreVaughn Minott (2.5 ppg/2.4 rpg) and 6’7” Ja’Von Benson (2.0 ppg/2.0 rpg), both of whom saw limited action as freshmen but at least have size — Minott is listed at 270 and Benson at 250.

Who’s New?

Like a lot of teams, South Carolina was active in the transfer portal, with six players coming in with Division I experience (though USC Upstate transfer Brandon Martin, the son of the head coach, is a walk-on.) Unlike a lot of teams, the most important addition might be a freshman: Devin Carter, a 6’3” combo guard who ranked #85 in the 247 Sports composite.

That might say more about the quality of the transfers that Frank Martin added than anything, though, because there isn’t a single obvious starter among this group. 6’3” junior Chico Carter (12.7 ppg/1.9 apg at Murray State), 6’4” fifth-year senior James Reese (10.9 ppg/4.3 rpg at North Texas), and 6’7” fifth-year senior A.J. Wilson (7.8 ppg/5.0 rpg at George Mason) were role players from mid-major programs; 6’4” senior Erik Stevenson (9.3 ppg/3.6 rpg at Washington) was an inefficient role player for a bad power conference team; and 7’0” sophomore Josh Gray (0.8 ppg/1.2 rpg) barely got off the bench at LSU. Like Tom Crean at Georgia, these transfer additions feel more like scrambling to fill out the roster than they do like an active plan to make the team better.

Two more freshmen join the program in addition to Carter: 6’2” Jacobi Wright was rated fairly highly (#128 in the 247 Sports composite); 6’8”, 280-pound TaQuan Woodley (#257 in the composite) wasn’t, but seems like the kind of player Frank Martin has had success with in the past.

Projected Rotation

We can probably assume that Keyshawn Bryant will start on the wing, Jermaine Couisnard at one of the guard spots, and Wildens Leveque down low. Beyond that, I really have no idea.

Who is the point guard for this team? Couisnard can fake it but is really better playing off the ball; but if he’s not the point guard, I’m not sure who is. Freshmen Devin Carter and Jacobi Wright are also best described as combo guards, and none of the transfer guards appear to be point guards. Sorting out all the incoming guards (a list that also includes Chico Carter, James Reese, and Erik Stevenson) is Frank Martin’s first task.

Down low, Martin has a bunch of big bodies — TaQuan Woodley, TreVaughn Minott, Ja’Von Benson, and Josh Gray — that he can rotate. Between those four and Leveque, well, Frank Martin has 25 fouls to give.

Schedule

In recent years, South Carolina has frequently hurt its NCAA Tournament chances with poor performances out of the gate before getting things together in SEC play. That could happen again this season; November sees visits from UAB and Wofford, teams that are capable of beating the Gamecocks (though they may be favored in one or both), in addition to facing Princeton and either Western Kentucky or Minnesota in the Asheville Championship. The season opener against USC Upstate should be a comfortable win; a November 28 visit from Rider is the kind of game that South Carolina has stupidly shot itself in the foot with in the past. And in December, South Carolina hosts Georgetown, plays a neutral-site game against Florida State, and visits Clemson, though they’ll also host Division II Allen along with Army and South Carolina State, all of which should be wins.

In SEC play, South Carolina draws Georgia twice, but that’s about the only favor the conference office did for them: two games against Auburn bookend the conference schedule, and the Gamecocks also drew preseason Top 25 Tennessee twice as well as Mississippi State and Vanderbilt, both of which should be improved.

Outlook

Like Sam Snelling at Rock M Nation, I’ve found it hard to get a read on South Carolina annually: when I hate their roster, they tend to overachieve; when I actually like their roster, they underachieve. The latter happened last year; perhaps because of COVID-19, the Gamecocks could never seem to get into a rhythm. On paper, the threesome of A.J. Lawson, Keyshawn Bryant, and Jermaine Couisnard looked like it could contend; in practice, Bryant missed time, Couisnard couldn’t find his shot, Seventh Woods didn’t live up to the hype, and a lot of the underclassmen off the bench weren’t ready. The result was a team that couldn’t score (13th in the SEC in offensive efficiency) and more alarmingly couldn’t defend (11th in defensive efficiency), and the final KenPom ranking of 124th was the worst that South Carolina had seen since Frank Martin’s first season, when the remnants of the Darrin Horn era were simply overmatched by the SEC.

There’s some hope for a bounceback with the return of Bryant, Couisnard, and Wildens Leveque, but I’m not seeing it. Comparing the outgoing players with the incoming players, it’s hard to imagine that South Carolina’s roster actually got better in the offseason; A.J. Lawson and Justin Minaya were pretty good players, and they’re being replaced with a bunch of guys who were role players at mid-majors. I just don’t see how this is an improvement, so you’re really hoping for the returnees to be able to carry the team, and I’m not sure that will happen.

Record Prediction: 12-19 (4-14 SEC)

Yeah, I’m just not seeing it, and the nonconference schedule is rough enough that the Gamecocks will pick up a few losses before January.