For Frank Martin’s South Carolina team, last season was record-setting. The Gamecocks finished third in the conference at 25-9 (11-7 SEC). This win total was the best in program history for the Gamecocks.
They started the season on a tear, winning their first 15 games of the season — most coming by double digits. And if you told a team that they would start the season in that fashion, they would tell you that it was a pretty safe bet they would finish strong and make the NCAA Tournament.
That was not the case for this South Carolina team. After the undefeated start, the Gamecocks lost eight of their final 17 games and ended up missing the Big Dance. There was controversy about them missing out on the tournament, as it was reported that they received a message from the NCAA that said they had made it, but were then left out. Controversy or not, the weak non-conference schedule came back to bite the Gamecocks.
Unfortunately for South Carolina, it doesn’t get any easier to break its 12-year tournament drought this season. Prior to the Gamecocks’ NIT opener last spring, five players were suspended and two were arrested. Now, three of those have been kicked off the team, leaving coach Martin with a good deal of inexperience in his fifth year in Columbia.
South Carolina was picked to finish eighth in the conference according to the preseason media poll.
Guard play will be without a doubt be the Gamecocks’ biggest strength. One of the SEC’s best backcourts is headlined by senior Sindarius Thornwell. Thornwell made the SEC All-Defensive team last season. While he struggled from three-point range, the senior guard averaged 13.4 points per game last season.
Thornwell’s backcourt mate is another senior leader on the team, Duane Notice. Notice was named the SEC’s Sixth-Man of the Year last season, and is primed for an even bigger role this year as he is expected to step into the starting lineup. Notice does a have the ability to shoot the long ball, and will be able to help compensate for Thornwell’s weakness there. Sophomore P.J. Dozier is also primed to have a breakout year at the guard position.
Defense will always be a staple of Frank Martin’s teams. The Gamecocks finished sixth in the conference in scoring defense last season, giving up just 69.3 points a game, and led the conference in rebounding margin at 6.1. No matter how much talent is in the cupboard, Martin will have his team ready to defend and play hard. And this year’s Gamecocks have the weapons to play with the intensity the coach wants his teams to be characterized by.
The biggest issue for the 2016-2017 Gamecocks is depth. South Carolina only has ten scholarship guys on this year’s team. The guards, while they are talented, don’t have many bodies after the trio of Thornwell, Notice and Dozier. The frontcourt has even less depth after the graduation of key pieces like Michael Carrera, Laimonas Chatkevicius, and Mindaugas Kacinas. Along with being thin in the frontcourt, the Gamecocks are also very inexperienced at the position. Chris Silva, who was suspended before the NIT, is the most-seasoned post player and he is only a sophomore.
Scoring may be another issue for South Carolina. They lost 36.9 points of their scoring production in the offseason to graduation and transfer. The jury is still out on if Sindarius Thornwell can carry a good deal of the scoring load this season, and Notice and Dozier will need to provide assistance in scoring out of the backcourt. Also for the Gamecocks to have success, there will need to be someone in the frontcourt that steps in and shoulders the team’s scoring down low.
Players to Watch
G P.J. Dozier, Soph. — Coach Martin said that Dozier took an “unbelievable jump” this offseason. The Columbia product will need to make that jump this season for the Gamecocks to have success. Dozier averaged 6.7 points a game last season, but he will need to shoulder more of the scoring in his second year. One area where Dozier could definitely improve would be his three-point shooting, where he only converted once in 21 attempts last season.
F Chris Silva, Soph. — Chris Silva was almost not a part of this year’s team. Silva was one of the five suspended players last spring, but was able to make his way back onto the team. That was big for the Gamecocks, as he is now the only forward with experience. He will need to provide a presence in the post this season if South Carolina is going to compete in the SEC.
F Malik Kotsar, Fr. — With only one forward with experience, there is going to be at least one of the freshmen forwards playing early and often for the Gamecocks. Kotsar, who hails from Estonia, is said to have the most-skilled offensive game out of the newcomers. With scoring being a potential issue for this team, he will be relied upon for some help on the offensive end of the floor.
Matchups to Watch
Dec. 21 vs Clemson — This is always a big game for people in the state of South Carolina. With the football game looking to go Clemson’s way this year, expect South Carolina fans to be excited for revenge in this game. For native South Carolina guys like P.J Dozier, this is always a game that will be looked to with anticipation.
Tennessee (Home and Away) — For some reason, South Carolina tends to struggle with Tennessee in basketball. Even after the Bruce Pearl years, the Vols were still able to get some wins in both Columbia and Knoxville when the Gamecocks had better opportunities. These meetings will be an opportunity for South Carolina to get two wins against a Tennessee team that is going to be down again this year. The Gamecocks travel to Knoxville on Jan. 11, and host the Vols near the end of the season on Feb. 25.
March 4 at Ole Miss — If the Gamecocks can find themselves in the NCAA Tournament conversation again this season, this final game of the regular season will most likely play a big factor. Both Ole Miss and South Carolina are both predicted to finish middle of the pack in the SEC. The stakes for both teams in this game will be massive if they are both on the bubble.
It was a disappointing end to a record-setting season last year for the Gamecocks. This year, it is difficult to expect too much from a team that doesn’t have much depth or experience like this one. However, Frank Martin knows how to coach, and he will get the Gamecocks into the SEC Tournament as the sixth seed. South Carolina will also be back in the NIT at season’s end.
Edited by Dalton King
Feature image by Craig Bisacre, courtesy of Tennessee Athletics