Last season: 18-13 (9-9 SEC, T-5th)
Head coach: Lamont Paris (first year at South Carolina, 6th year overall, 87-72)
Possession-minutes returning: 15.9 percent
Scoring returning: 14.9 percent
Projected record: 13-18 (5-13 SEC)
SEC rank: 13th
How Did We Get Here?
It turns out that a Final Four run at a place like South Carolina only buys you so much equity.
Frank Martin had a solid ten-year run at South Carolina. After two years of cleaning up the mess left behind by Darrin Horn, Martin had seven seasons of .500 or better in eight years, with the only losing season coming when COVID-19 decimated the roster in 2020-21. A 70-72 SEC record over that stretch doesn’t sound great — until you realize that South Carolina went 45-83 in conference play in the eight years before he arrived. In fact, in 21 seasons prior to Martin’s arrival, South Carolina had a winning record in the SEC three times; Martin did it four times from 2016-20. And, right, there was the Final Four run in 2017.
That was also the only time that South Carolina made the NCAA Tournament under Martin. Which, fine, South Carolina made the tournament four times between 1974 and 2016 (and didn’t win a game in any of those appearances, either.) But you can’t just live off a single deep tournament run forever, even at a place like South Carolina. Martin’s problem wasn’t March, it was November and December. The team went 11-7 in the SEC in 2019 and missed the tournament because of a 4-7 record before New Year’s. Last season, they lost to Coastal Carolina (by 24!) and Princeton early on and didn’t even make the NIT with a 9-9 SEC record.
With all that said, the danger in getting rid of a coach like this is that trading stability for a fresh start can go very wrong. You might build on that and reach a new level, or you might be Ole Miss trading Andy Kennedy for Kermit Davis (who might still work out, but it’s not looking great), or Vanderbilt trading Kevin Stallings for Bryce Drew (which the program is still arguably trying to recover from.) Obviously we get the urge to not be satisfied with a high-floor, low-ceiling program... but you might also simply be lowering the floor.
Anyway, Lamont Paris is in after a good five-year run at Chattanooga. Paris had a rough start to his coaching career, going 10-23 and 12-20 in his first two seasons there; but over the last three years, Chattanooga went 65-29 and nearly took out Illinois in the first round of the NCAA Tournament last year. Much like his first year at Chattanooga, he’s basically starting over. Unlike his first year at Chattanooga, he has a future NBA player to work with.
The Portal Taketh Away
You’re going to notice a recurring theme with the teams that made coaching changes: they’re all losing a lot. But unlike Georgia yesterday (which returned the players it wanted to keep while losing spare parts and sub-replacement level players), South Carolina... well, lost its top six scorers from last season. One of those, James Reese V (10.4 ppg/2.3 rpg), is out of eligibility. The others entered Portal-land, and like Georgia, you can read something into where they ended up, but again unlike Georgia, what you’re reading into it is bad news. Leading scorer Jermaine Couisnard (12.0 ppg/3.2 apg) is now at Oregon, Erik Stevenson (11.6 ppg/4.7 rpg) left for West Virginia, promising freshman Devin Carter (9.0 ppg/3.8 rpg) went to Providence, and mercurial Keyshawn Bryant (8.7 ppg/4.0 rpg) bounced to South Florida. Three more players — 6’11” Wildens Leveque (6.6 ppg/4.7 rpg), Brandon Martin (2.4 ppg/2.5 rpg), and 6’8”, 280-pound freshman TaQuan Woodley (2.0 ppg/3.0 rpg) — followed Frank Martin to UMass.
That’s a lot. The players that South Carolina lost accounted for about 85 percent of their production last season. That sounds like a typical offseason for John Calipari at the height of the one-and-done era; any other program is headed for a major rebuild after that.
None of South Carolina’s five returning scholarship players averaged more than 15.6 minutes per game last season.
None of them seem all that promising, either. 6’2” sophomore guard Jacobi Wright (3.4 ppg/1.8 apg) was the leader in minutes among returnees, but his efficiency last season (81.5 Offensive Rating) was simply dreadful, with the brutal combination of a low shooting percentage and high turnover rate. 6’2” senior guard Chico Carter Jr. (4.2 ppg/0.6 apg) struggled a lot with the transition from Murray State to the SEC, though he did make 11 of his 29 three-point attempts — but that was considerably less than the 44.2 percent he shot in his sophomore season at Murray State.
The other three returnees — 7’0”, 255-pound junior center Josh Gray (2.9 ppg/3.5 rpg), 6’7”, 253-pound junior forward Ja’Von Benson (3.3 ppg/4.2 rpg), and 6’9”, 258-pound junior forward Tre-Vaughn Minott (2.0 ppg/1.9 rpg) — were the type of big guys that were a staple of the Frank Martin era. Also a staple of the Frank Martin era: these three combined to shoot 17 of 48 from the free throw line. But at least Lamont Paris knows he has size on the bench.
The Portal Giveth
Well, actually, South Carolina’s most important newcomer didn’t come by way of the transfer portal. In July, Columbia native G.G. Jackson, a 6’9”, 215-pound Columbia native and (at the time) the #1 recruit in the Class of 2023, announced that he’d be reclassifying and enrolling at South Carolina.
The reclassification knocked him down to the #6 prospect in the Class of 2022, but make no mistake: Jackson is likely the biggest recruit in South Carolina history and a massive coup for a first-year coach. (Reclassifying also makes him eligible for the 2023 NBA Draft, as he’ll turn 19 in December 2023; odds are this will be his only season at South Carolina.)
The four transfer acquisitions don’t include any obvious difference-makers, though. 6’2” junior guard Meechie Johnson Jr. (4.4 ppg/1.2 apg at Ohio State) is a former four-star recruit who will probably be the team’s starting point guard by default, though his two seasons with the Buckeyes were more “genuine disappointment” than “got buried behind better players.” 6’8” junior forward Benjamin Bosmans-Verdonk (1.6 ppg/2.1 rpg at Illinois) at least had a good rebounding rate in limited minutes. The other two transfers are only here for a year: 6’6” Ebrima Dibba (8.1 ppg/5.4 apg at Coastal Carolina) is an interesting all-around player, though he’s not much of a scorer. And 6’5” Hayden Brown (18.8 ppg/9.5 rpg at The Citadel) was one of the few bright spots on a bad team.
Paris also held on to Frank Martin’s two early signees, 6’8” Zachary Davis from nearby Orangeburg, who’s listed as a point guard; and 6’8” Daniel Hankins-Sanford from Charlotte. Both are three-star recruits who probably won’t contribute much immediately, but there’s nothing really standing in the way of playing time if they’re ready.
With this roster, you can write G.G. Jackson in ink pen as a starter in the frontcourt. I mean, really, even if he’s less than advertised, he’s almost certainly the best player on this team.
Beyond that, well... Meechie Johnson is the starting point guard almost by default. One of Jacobi Wright, Ebrima Dibba, or Chico Carter will probably start at the second guard spot, with Dibba functioning as the backup point guard. Hayden Brown is probably starting on the wing? Paris could throw one of the big-bodied Martin holdovers out there as a true center alongside Jackson, or he could go small. Okay, maybe the non-Jackson freshmen will play because I can’t figure out who else does.
Lamont Paris’s nonconference scheduling strategy is bold, to say the least. Three in-state mid-majors (South Carolina State, USC Upstate, and Presbyterian) will visit along with Clemson, so that’s fun. If you’re going to do buy games, at least bring in opponents that will be fun for the fans instead of random teams for non-competitive games, I guess. It’s probably what I would do if I were a coach. The Gamecocks will also play in the Charleston Classic starting on Nov. 17, where they’ll open with Colorado State; the field also includes Charleston, Davidson, Furman, Old Dominion, Penn State, and Virginia Tech. They’ll head to D.C. to play both George Washington (Nov. 30) and Georgetown (Dec. 3), and going to UAB (Dec. 14) is living dangerously. Western Kentucky at home (Dec. 22) is tricky as well.
The Gamecocks did get a bit fortunate with the SEC schedule: four of the five home-and-homes are Georgia, Vanderbilt, Mississippi State, and Ole Miss, none of which are projected to be NCAA Tournament teams. That by itself might end up being enough to avoid the basement.
If you can’t tell, I hate this roster. When you’re returning 15 percent of your production from the previous year, you’d better be willing to either swallow a rebuilding year or bring in some impact players from the transfer portal. Instead, South Carolina has a disappointment from Ohio State, a guy who barely got off the bench at Illinois, and a couple of intriguing mid-major guys who probably aren’t impact players at this level. Several of those will probably start for this team.
They also have a player who will probably go in the first few picks of the 2023 NBA Draft, and I can’t understate how much that’s worth.
Still, looking at the rest of this team, it’s hard to see how G.G. Jackson alone is enough to make this team good. But it’s easy to see how Jackson makes this team not terrible. Guys who are 6’9” and can do the things he can do on a basketball court do not simply grow on trees.
We’ll see how the Lamont Paris era goes; this season, though, is likely going to be a struggle. I have South Carolina just narrowly avoiding last place — mostly because of the presence of G.G. Jackson.