How did we get here?
If nothing else, South Carolina under Frank Martin learned how to peak at the right time.
Over Martin’s eight seasons, Gamecocks have arrived at the NCAA Tournament only once – but of course, that one appearance at the NCAA Tournament has made Gamecocks reach the Final Four. Since then, after an expected year of rebuilding in 2017-18, South Carolina has started to slow down matches in each of the past two seasons – but both seasons have seen them end with a SEC record above 0.500. This included a 2018-19 campaign, in which South Carolina ended December with a 5-7 record and then went 11-7 in the SEC game, good for fourth place. Last season, Gamecocks ended December with an 8-5 record – marked by a loss to Stetson just before the New Year – and was 10-8 in the SEC game.
The twists mean that South Carolina has been better than 0.500 on the SEC in four of the past five seasons. So how did this result in just one appearance at the NCAA tournament? Well, the easy answer is … November and December. Gamecocks may have gone 11-7 at the SEC in 2018-19, but their overall record was only 16-16. Last year it went from 18 to 13, with the team likely playing their 2-4 tournament exit to end the regular season, including a defeat for the last placed Vanderbilt at the end of the season. (Obviously, there was no NCAA tournament in 2020, but South Carolina probably wouldn’t have done it anyway.) In 2016, the culprit was a weak non-conference schedule, meaning the overall 24-8 record Gamecocks included few quality wins.
The key, then, is to start well – not just end well. Getting 10 SEC wins over an 18 game schedule consistently can be a decent way to keep your job (especially when your resume includes “Final Four”), but it is not enough to impress the NCAA Selection Committee when you is losing to names like Boston U. and Stetson in December. The good news, then, is that South Carolina was actually legitimately Good once the SEC game started – Gamecocks overcame the opposition by 4.3 points per 100 possessions in conference games, second only to Kentucky, Florida and LSU.
And the other good news is that Gamecocks return nine players who averaged at least 9.8 minutes per game last season and 74.5% of the minutes in possession – the SEC’s second largest brand, only behind Missouri. A team that was already very good also has everyone back. This is a good formula when you are operating a program that is not regularly kicking NBA players or recruiting five-star recruits.
|Jair Bolden||21.4||8.5||2.4||1.4||0.1||0.8||transfer / butler|
Maik Kotsar managed to have his best season in a South Carolina uniform as a senior and ended up leading the team in steals, blocks and rebounds, as well as being Gamecocks’ third top scorer and second in assists. None of your numbers really jump off the page for you, but a guy who did 6’11 ”/ 270 and did a lot of good things will not be easy to replace. Neither did Jair Bolden, who shot 41.2 percent from a distance and was the Gamecocks’ only real threat from the depths.
That said, those are the only significant losses. South Carolina also lost Micaiah Henry, a graduate transferred from Tennessee Tech who played just 35 minutes throughout the season.
Who came back?
|AJ Lawson||Jr.||6’6 “||177||29.1||13.4||3.7||1.9||0.1||1.2|
|Jermaine Couisnard||Soph.||6’4 “||216||26||12.1||2.8||3.2||0.1||0.8|
|Keyshawn Bryant||Jr.||6’6 “||195||21.5||9.1||4.4||1.3||0.8||0.8|
|Justin Minaya||Jr.||6’6 “||215||29.8||7.8||6||two||0.9||0.6|
|Alanzo Frink||Jr.||6’8 “||264||14.3||5.3||3.7||0.5||0.7||0.5|
|Jalyn McCreary||Soph.||6’8 “||235||11.5||4.1||2.7||0.3||0.4||0.3|
|Trae Hannibal||Soph.||6’3 “||220||12.7||4||2.1||1.2||0.1||1.2|
|Wildens Leveque||Soph.||6’10 “||242||9.8||2.4||2.6||0.2||0.5||0.3|
|TJ Moss||Soph.||6’4 “||175||11.8||two||0.9||1.5||0||0.3|
|Trey Anderson||Soph.||6’6 “||205||2.8||0.3||0||0||0||0.1|
6’6 ”junior AJ Lawson didn’t quite make the expected leap after a promising freshman season. Lawson averaged 13.4 ppg in the first year – and 13.4 ppg in the second year, but hidden in that was an increase in efficiency. His effective percentage of pitches improved from 47.7% to 50.1%, and he also reduced his turnover. The latter may have to do with the appearance of Jermaine Couisnard; after staying out of his freshman year on campus, Couisnard took on the duties of a point guard as a redshirt freshman and performed reliably, ending the season as Gamecocks’ second highest scorer – although his shot percentages (45.8 percent within arc and 29 percent off) could improve. 6’5 ”junior Keyshawn Bryant missed the first eight games of the season and seemed to have a hard time adjusting for a while afterwards, but averaged 15.6 ppg in the last five games of the season.
But then, this is a Frank Martin team, so low percentages of pitches are not necessarily a problem; Gamecocks will miss many shots and also counteract many of their own mistakes. Martin has three great bodies that are relatively good at 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 recorded his career record of 22 points against Georgia at the end of the season. McCreary and Leveque are sophomores who are a little rude and fake at incredible rates (and really, Frink too, who missed three times last season, twice in games where he played 9 and 12 minutes – which, uh, not as impressive as Leveque missing 7 minutes in Arkansas.)
The wildcard here is the 6’6 ”junior redshirt Justin Minaya, who basically lost all of 2018-19 due to a torn ACL and also lost nine games at the end of last season, during which the Gamecocks went 5-4. Minaya’s numbers won’t jump off the page for you, but he often seemed to be the glue that kept Gamecocks together.
Second-year students, TJ Moss and Trae Hannibal, complete the Gamecocks defense; both were quite inefficient and prone to turnover last season and will have to fight for playing time.
|Ja’Von Benson||Fr.||6’7 “||253||420|
|Seventh woods||Sir||6’2 “||184||48||transfer / North Carolina|
South Carolina hired two big men in the 2020 recruiting class, but one of them – Patrick Iriel – is already out of the program. This leaves the local product Ja’Von Benson as the team’s only freshman.
However, in fact, the incoming player with the most consequences is likely to be Seventh Woods. A former recruit in the top 50 (and also from Columbia), Woods never really found a job in three years in North Carolina and will now make his final year in South Carolina in an attempt to save his college career. The question is whether he’s still the top-50 talent that everyone 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 squad may not have a player over 6’8 ”, with Couisnard and Lawson on the backcourt, Bryant on the side and Minaya and Frink as four and five minors, respectively (although what Frink has no height, he makes up for in circumference.) The three players taller than that – according to Wildens Leveque and freshmen Patrick Iriel and Ja’Von Benson – probably don’t deserve many minutes at this stage in their careers, although given the propensity for basically all big problems, everyone will probably play real minutes. And Frank Martin has the option to go big, with Minaya able to play against all three.
The only real question on the court is where Seventh Woods fits into all of this. Jermaine Couisnard probably won an opening slot, but if Woods is really capable of playing at the level he left high school, he should have no problem replacing Couisnard as a regular point guard. TJ Moss and Trae Hannibal are clearly reserves in this team.
Honestly, I got tired of doubting Frank Martin right now. His last two teams did not look so good on paper at the beginning of the season, with a mix of players who were not classified as recruits – Seventh Woods is the only player on the list who got to rank in the top 100 out of 247 compound sport, and it is a transfer – and whose contributions do not jump off the page for you, but the results have been very good. In the past five years, Gamecocks have been 51-39 in SEC play – which doesn’t seem like much, but that is tied with Tennessee for the third best conference record in that period, just behind Kentucky and Florida.
And all of this before you entered this year’s list. Martin has made a living from guys who have been neglected as recruits and turning them into good college players, or at least role players. Because of the large number of players returning, South Carolina enters the season with probably the fewest question marks from anyone at the SEC, and where there is doubt, they are more of the “this transfer owner is good enough to defeat to start last year? “
This year’s goal is to smooth the edges (read: avoid losing to teams like Boston U. and Stetson) and get back to the NCAA Tournament, and with just one senior player and no potential NBA players in the squad, there’s a chance decent this list can return practically intact again in 2021-22 and potentially try a SEC title. Returning to the tournament is certainly possible when Martin has won 21 SEC games in the past two years, with lineups arguably worse than this one.
Now, this is where I get a little convinced to leave South Carolina: the fact that this list only has one recruit in the top 100 and no obvious NBA candidate means that the advantage is probably limited. South Carolina may have a higher floor than some of the teams in front of them, but the roof is also lower – which is why I chose them to finish sixth. But this is a team that should have the NCAA Tournament as a clear objective.