How Did We Get Here?
There are rebuilds, and then there are rebuilds. Frank Martin inherited an awful team from Darrin Horn in 2012, and the program bottomed out in his first year — Ken Pomeroy doesn’t go back that far, but according to Sports Reference’s SRS rating, you’d have to go all the way back to Frank McGuire’s first year (1964-65) to find a Carolina team that wretched (The 14-18 record wasn’t too terrible, but that was boosted significantly by a joke of a nonconference schedule, and by some other SEC teams also being terrible).
Martin spent the next two years rebuilding the roster, and that produced better teams, even if the record (14-20 in 2013-14, 17-16 in 2014-15) didn’t really reflect it. South Carolina upset Kentucky late in 2014 and rolled through the nonconference schedule in 2014-15, only to hit a wall in SEC play.
That all culminated in 2015-16. The Gamecocks featured a smothering defense again, which has been a hallmark of Frank Martin’s teams, but the real improvement came on the offensive end. The Gamecocks weren’t good on offense in 2015-16, but improving the shooting from wretched to merely bad, combined with the usual offensive rebounding prowess (37.0%, best in the SEC), meant that the offense was at least functional. And that was enough to produce a +1.5 efficiency margin in SEC play, a 25-9 record (11-7 in the SEC)... and, somehow, no NCAA Tournament bid.
That last part was rather controversial. There were some clear reasons for that — a weak nonconference schedule, some questionable losses (Tennessee, Mississippi State, Missouri), and only two wins over tournament teams (Vanderbilt and Texas A&M, though the latter was on the road). Still, by almost any other measure, South Carolina’s 2015-16 season was a success — the Gamecocks had only won 25 games once before, in 1969-70 (That season also ended without an NCAA bid, though for entirely different reasons. Hmmmm).
Now that the rebuild is complete, the challenge for Frank Martin is going to be to keep the program at this level. The Gamecocks lost three starters off the 2015-16 team — Michael Carrera, Laimonas Chatkevicius, and Mindaugas Kacinas — who also just happened to be Martin’s first three recruits at South Carolina. Carrera was the heart and soul of last year’s team, leading the team in scoring and rebounding. The two big Lithuanians weren’t flashy but did a lot of the dirty work down low. All three will be missed. South Carolina also loses some depth off last year’s team (thanks mostly to some off-court shenanigans that resulted in several players being dismissed), which could hurt the program in a couple of years, though the effects may not be immediate.
The good news is that the Gamecocks’ backcourt returns almost entirely intact, and while they will need to find some replacements in the frontcourt, at least one player earned significant experience on last year’s team. So the losses aren’t likely to result in a collapse, and there’s some reason to think South Carolina may not drop off that much from last year.
While I generally prefer taking the average ratings of recruits in a class over the “team rankings” (which place too great an emphasis on the number of recruits), there are limitations to that approach as well, and Frank Martin tends to show some of that: Martin’s brought in seven top 150 recruits in four years at South Carolina, but his tendency to bring in some really low-rated (or unrated) players at the back end of his recruiting classes drags down the average. For the record, all but one of the top 150 recruits are still on the roster and most of the low-rated recruits aren’t. So the recruiting rankings above likely understate the talent level of the roster.
That said, the rather heavy attrition at the back end of the bench has contributed to a team that’s not all that deep. South Carolina has a talented “core” of players but doesn’t appear to have much beyond that. What will that portend for 2016-17? The TSK contributors picked South Carolina to finish in a tie for 8th, but unlike some previous teams — where the individual rankings have been all over the map — basically everybody picked the Gamecocks to finish between 7th and 9th in the conference. There is, I guess, a lot of certainty that South Carolina will be right around the middle of the SEC.
And that might actually be underselling this team a bit.
|Marcus Stroman||14.7||2.3||2.0||1.3||1.1||0.6||0.6||Transfer (UL Lafayette)|
|Jamall Gregory||6.7||1.7||1.0||0.6||0.4||0.3||0.4||Transfer (Chipola JC)|
|2||Hassani Gravett||6'1"||183||SO.||NR||Transfer (Pensacola State)|
|1||Kory Holden||6'1"||181||JR.||NR||Transfer (Delaware); sitting out 2016-17|
South Carolina’s backcourt is experienced and talented, and the Gamecocks have some semblance of depth. This shouldn’t be a problem for the team.
Sindarius Thornwell’s season-by-season stat lines, particularly comparing his junior year to his freshman year, are almost eerie in their consistency. As a freshman in 2013-14, Thornwell averaged 13.4 ppg and shot 38.6 percent from the floor. Last year, he averaged 13.4 ppg and shot 38.2 percent from the floor. Which isn’t to say that he hasn’t improved; Thornwell has cut down on his turnovers and become less foul-prone as he’s become more experienced. But the 6’5” senior from Lancaster is basically playing the same role on the team that he did as a freshman, which isn’t a bad team as his efficiency has improved. The only question here is whether that’s his ceiling, or if he has a breakout senior season — like Carrera’s last year -- in him.
Duane Notice, a 6’2” senior from Canada, has been a capable sidekick to Thornwell for the last three years. That was especially true last year, when Notice moved off the ball and shifted into the role of a sixth man providing instant offense off the bench. The presence of P.J. Dozier (more on that in a minute) allowed Martin to play Notice in that manner, though it’s not entirely clear if that was the best thing for the team. But Notice is a solid shooter and thrives in a role where he’s not the focal point of opposing defenses.
If there was a criticism of Martin last year, it was the handling of Dozier. The 6’6” sophomore from Columbia was a McDonald’s All-American, a five-star recruit and one of the most important recruits in South Carolina history — and he flat struggled as a freshman. Actually, that’s an understatement: among SEC players who played at least 40 percent of their team’s minutes, Dozier was the least efficient. Dozier struggled with his shot, he struggled with turnovers, he struggled with fouls. And yet, in spite of the struggles, Dozier started 28 games and averaged 19 minutes per game. You got the sense watching the team that South Carolina really, really wanted Dozier to be the guy, even if Notice (at least last year) was clearly a better option. Whether Dozier will live up to his enormous potential this year is an open question. If there’s one significant advantage for Dozier, he’s a much better defender than Notice.
The other two holdovers from last year’s team played limited minutes, albeit for very different reasons. Justin McKie is a career backup, the kind who at a lot of programs would have transferred elsewhere for more playing time, but McKie has stuck it out and now will spend his fourth year as a backup guard. TeMarcus Blanton was a four-star recruit who missed his entire first year on campus with a hip injury. He managed to recover, but played only 32 minutes last season and it’s an open question if he’ll ever live up to his advance billing.
With a pair of reserve guards dismissed in the offseason, South Carolina added a couple of late additions to the roster in Hassani Gravett, who averaged 16.1 ppg and 7.1 rpg at Pensacola State JC last year, and Rakym Felder, a 5’10” freshman from Brooklyn. At the very least, Gravett and Felder should add depth in the backcourt. Kory Holden, who averaged 17.7 ppg at Delaware as a sophomore, will sit out this year as a transfer.
|Raymond Doby||6.8||1.8||1.3||0.3||0.4||0.1||0.2||Transfer (John A. Logan)|
|Eric Cobb||6.1||1.1||1.9||0.1||0.6||0.1||0.1||Transfer (Chipola JC)|
|14||Ran Tut||6'9"||210||JR.||NR||Transfer (Monroe CC)|
|24||Sedee Keita||6'9"||240||FR.||0.9316||Status questionable due to injury|
South Carolina suffered heavy attrition in the frontcourt thanks to both graduation (Michael Carrera, Mindaugas Kacinas, and Laimonas Chatkevicius) and dismissals (Eric Cobb and Raymond Doby), such that Chris Silva is the only holdover from last year’s frontcourt.
But that’s not a bad starting point. Silva had about as much of an impact as you can in 13.3 minutes per game; had he played enough minutes to qualify, he would have led the SEC in offensive rebound percentage, and also would have finished fourth in defensive rebound percentage and fifth in block percentage. He was also almost completely raw, shooting 46.6 percent from the floor (awful for a guy who was mostly taking shots around the basket) and 59.8 percent at the foul line. He also averaged an incredible 9.4 personal fouls per 40 minutes. But if Silva can add some offensive polish and stay out of foul trouble, he’s a potential star.
And he’ll need to stay out of foul trouble, because South Carolina doesn’t have a whole lot of depth up front — and that situation could be even worse with the news that Sedee Keita, the highest-rated recruit in the incoming class, is out indefinitely with a broken wrist. Keita probably won’t be ready for the season opener, and the Gamecocks’ coaching staff sounded particularly ominous about the timetable for his return.
If Keita doesn’t play, or if he’s limited, South Carolina has some other newcomers with size — though it’s questionable if they’re ready to play in the SEC. Ran Tut, a 6’9” junior from Australia, has experience at the juco level and averaged 10.4 ppg and 5.9 rpg. He’s got a decent stretch game and some athleticism, but otherwise doesn’t look all that polished. Maik Kotsar and Khadim Gueye might have even less polish — though it’s impossible to tell since I can’t find highlight videos of either and information about them is pretty minimal. Kotsar played for the Estonian U18 national team in 2014 — but averaged 2.5 ppg and 4.0 rpg at the FIBA European Championships. Gueye has size, obviously, at 7’0” and 235, but according to his profile on the team website averaged 9.3 ppg and 9.5 rpg in high school, which frankly aren’t numbers you normally see from a freshman who’s ready to make an impact in the SEC. But the thin frontcourt (and Silva’s propensity to commit fouls) means that both might be pressed into service earlier than preferable.
|11/6||Newberry (exhibition)||4:00 PM||SEC Network+|
|11/11||Louisiana Tech||6:30 PM||SEC Network+|
|11/13||Holy Cross||6:00 PM||SEC Network|
|11/15||Monmouth||6:30 PM||SEC Network+|
|11/18||South Carolina State||6:30 PM||SEC Network+|
|11/26||vs. Syracuse (Brooklyn, NY)||2:00 PM||ESPN3|
|12/1||Vermont||6:30 PM||SEC Network+|
|12/4||Florida International||2:00 PM||SEC Network+|
|12/12||vs. Seton Hall (New York, NY)||9:00 PM|
|12/17||at South Florida||1:00 PM||CBS Sports Network|
|12/27||Lander||7:00 PM||SEC Network|
|12/30||at Memphis||9:00 PM||ESPNU|
|1/4||at Georgia||7:00 PM||ESPNU|
|1/7||Texas A&M||1:30 or 4:30 PM||CBS|
|1/11||at Tennessee||6:30 PM||SEC Network|
|1/14||Ole Miss||6:30 PM||ESPNU|
|1/18||Florida||6:30 PM||SEC Network|
|1/21||at Kentucky||TBA||ESPN or ESPN2|
|1/24||Auburn||6:30 PM||SEC Network|
|1/28||at Missouri||8:30 PM||SEC Network|
|2/1||at LSU||9:00 PM||SEC Network|
|2/4||Georgia||2:00 PM||ESPN or ESPN2|
|2/7||Alabama||6:30 PM||SEC Network|
|2/11||at Mississippi State||8:00 PM||ESPN2|
|2/15||Arkansas||6:30 PM||SEC Network|
|2/18||at Vanderbilt||8:30 PM||SEC Network|
|2/21||at Florida||7:00 PM||ESPN|
|2/25||Tennessee||1:00 PM||SEC Network|
|2/28||Mississippi State||7:00 PM||ESPNU|
|3/4||at Ole Miss||8:30 PM||SEC Network|
At least part of the reason South Carolina missed the NCAA Tournament last year was the Gamecocks’ nonconference schedule, and that’s been addressed this year. The Gamecocks open the season with three quality mid-majors (Louisiana Tech, Holy Cross, and Monmouth), host Michigan and Clemson, play neutral-site (technically) games against Syracuse and Seton Hall, and have road games at South Florida and Memphis. The nonconference schedule won’t be an issue this year if the Gamecocks are in tournament contention.
South Carolina’s SEC schedule is about average; contenders Florida and Georgia are on the schedule twice, but so are more questionable outfits at Ole Miss, Mississippi State, and Tennessee.
The rebuild is over for Frank Martin, and now the challenge turns to maintaining cruising altitude. That’s the task that eluded Eddie Fogler — who won an SEC title at South Carolina, but couldn’t maintain the program at that level — and Dave Odom, who turned the Gamecocks into a perennial NIT team but couldn’t get the program beyond that. Can South Carolina break its 12-year NCAA Tournament drought -- or, even better, its 43-year drought since its last tournament win?
That might be a tall task. South Carolina should have a pretty good backcourt; both Sindarius Thornwell and Duane Notice are proven, and if Thornwell can make the jump from 13 ppg to 18 or 19 a game, it’s easy to imagine this being an NCAA Tournament team. PJ Dozier and Chris Silva have a ton of potential, even if both need a lot of work, and the Gamecocks also have plenty of depth in the backcourt.
The frontcourt, though, is a different matter, and it might be even worse if Sedee Keita doesn’t play or is limited. I can state unequivocally that South Carolina is not going to come anywhere close to the tournament if Silva is playing 13 minutes a night. The rest of the frontcourt is a bunch of unknowns, and while Martin doesn’t really ask a whole lot of his frontcourt players other than playing some defense and rebounding, even those are open questions with this group. The main issue I see here is that South Carolina wasn’t a good shooting team last year and mostly survived because they could generate extra shots via offensive rebounds and play some defense. And with Carrera, Chatkevicius, and Kacinas gone, it’s not entirely clear just who is going to do the dirty work down low. If Silva can stay out of foul trouble, the Gamecocks are closer to that goal, but Silva can’t do it by himself, and Martin will have to look for one or more of Tut, Kotsar, or Gueye (or Keita, if healthy) to step up and produce early.
And that’s too big of a question mark for my tastes. South Carolina’s guard play is good enough to get the Gamecocks to the NCAA Tournament, but the thin and inexperienced frontcourt will probably hold them back. This looks like a team that will finish around .500 in the SEC and make the NIT, but not do much more than that.