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This feels like a pivotal year for a South Carolina team looking to break through.

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Previewing the No. 12 team in the SEC, the South Carolina Gamecocks

NCAA Basketball: Mississippi State at South Carolina Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

Following a season where South Carolina — the No. 70 squad in KenPom’s ratings from last year — used a little luck to buoy their way to an 11-win conference season, the Gamecocks have become a trendy pick to make the NCAA tournament. But before we jump into the preview, I just want to say this upfront: I really don’t hate this roster.

I couldn’t say that in the past. At times, I’ve thought head coach Frank Martin takes on players who don’t really fit in the SEC. But this is one of his better, deeper rosters. They don't have the top-end talent of the 2017 squad that made a run to the Final Four, but there is more depth— and that matters in this conference.


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No. 12 South Carolina Gamecocks

Last Season: 16 - 16 (11 - 7 in SEC) No. 70 in KenPom

My Prediction: 16 - 14 (7 - 11, T-11th in SEC)

The Masses Prediction: 6.0 - 12.0 (12th in conference)

SEC Media: 10th in conference

KenPom Projection: 17 - 13 (8-10 in conference) no. 69

NCAA Basketball: SEC Conference Tournament-South Carolina vs Auburn Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

HEAD COACH: Frank Martin | Eighth Season, 129-106

I also need to admit that I love Martin’s personality. Is he a bit of crank? Does he get really mad at his players? Will he occasionally say silly or stupid things? Yes. But generally speaking, he’s a standup guy who loves his players. Entering his eighth season in Columbia, though, Martin’s only reached the NCAA tournament once. Granted, he made that lone trip count. Still, that’s not a great track record, and it seems like he’s having to overachieve each season with spotty rosters.

But at what point is Martin held more responsible for the teams he’s constructed? The Final Four run alone carries a lot of weight. However, he needs to provide a little more consistency in maintaining the kind of talent that can continually get the Gamecocks into the field of 68.

Seat Temp: COOL

Five NCAA tournaments since 1980 and one since 2005. Does the standard need to be higher? Or is it properly calibrated? When Martin took over, the perception of the job changed. Yet the rest of the SEC has upgraded their coaches, facilities and recruiting since he bolted from Kansas State, so once again, it seems like the Gamecocks are playing from behind. If Martin could find a little more roster sustainability, I’d like to think one trip in seven years could at least be doubled.

But really, I ask because I’m not sure of the answer: What are the NCAA tournament expectations of South Carolina?

SO, WHO’S GONE?

name reason GP %min %pts %ov %poss
name reason GP %min %pts %ov %poss
Chris Silva graduation 32 66.61% 20.89% 25.28% 13.32%
Hassani Gravett graduation 32 73.70% 15.69% 15.94% 14.74%
Tre Campbell graduation 32 67.08% 9.80% 9.82% 13.42%
Felipe Haase transfer 32 58.52% 8.72% 8.80% 11.70%
Evan Hinson football 15 11.05% 0.86% 0.00% 2.21%
Jason Cudd transfer 5 2.18% 0.00% -0.12% 0.44%
Raymond Borup graduation 5 0.22% 0.00% 0.06% 0.06%
55.87% 55.96% 59.78% 55.89%

The 2019-20 season will be the Gamecocks’ first season — in what feels like approximately 17 years — without Chris Silva. Silva was, for several years at least, one of the few productive offensive players on the roster, and it will be hard replacing him in the middle.

One of the more undervalued players in SEC play last year was Hassani Gravett. The combo guard absorbed nearly 75 percent of the minutes at his position and posted a 113.2 offensive rating, per KenPom. Considering the Gamecocks’ offensive rating barely cleared 100, that efficiency made him an important cog. And while some freshmen showed moments of promise, the Gamecocks’ odds hinged on Gravett and Silva steadily producing.

Tre Campbell provided solid minutes at the starting point guard spot, mostly at replacement-level minutes. Still, his experience will be sorely missed. Meanwhile, big man Felipe Haase’s transfer is a bit of a weird one, considering the value of his role. He wasn’t a great player by any stretch, but he he was a big who could step out and shoot while also bullying guys in the paint. There’s value in that role, and now Martin needs to parcel out those minutes to players that lack the ability to stretch the floor.

AND, WHO’S BACK?

player year pos gp %min %pts ts% %ov
player year pos gp %min %pts ts% %ov
A.J. Lawson SO CG 29 68.79% 16.67% 52.60% 15.81%
Keyshawn Bryant SO WING 32 59.30% 12.33% 48.60% 10.25%
Justin Minaya R-SO CF 5 9.96% 1.59% 51.30% 1.90%
Maik Kotsar SR POST 30 54.32% 8.68% 45.30% 9.10%
T.J. Moss R-FR CG 7 11.21% 1.89% 50.40% 1.34%
Alanzo Frink JR POST 24 16.50% 2.79% 46.40% 1.81%
Nathan Nelson SO WING 4 0.47% 0.00% 100.00% 0.11%
Jermain Couisnard R-FR WING REDSHIRT
Jair Bolden R-JR CG TRANSFER
44.11% 43.95% 40.32%
NCAA Basketball: Mississippi State at South Carolina Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

A.J. Lawson | SOPHOMORE | COMBO GUARD

If you read any preseason excitement about the Gamecocks, it will largely start with the decision of A.J. Lawson to return to school. Lawson was a streaky player as a freshman, but one who provided enough flashes to intrigue scouts at the next level and put him in the NBA draft conversation.

Ultimately, Lawson, a wiry 6’6 combo guard, withdrew his name after a debut season where he shot a respectable percentage from deep and found himself with the ball in his hands a lot. But when you look into metrics tracking efficiency, you find that he lagged behind Silva and Gravett. Sure, his true-shooting percentage was OK, but it was also propped up by a high free-throw rate. Without getting to the line, his numbers look a little less sterling.

The potential for a breakout season is there, but Lawson needs to play cleaner. That hinges on player development, and given Martin’s track record at South Columbia, how much faith do you have that it all pans out?

Maik Kotsar is back after renewing his veterans contract for another five years—or so it would seem. Kotsar struggled offensively down the home stretch of the season, but even in his best days, he was limited offensively. Justin Minaya returns after sitting out most of last year with an injury, and should give the Gamecocks another look from the wing. If healthy and in proper form, he offers better spot-up shots than other wings on the roster. I am looking forward to what T.J. Moss can bring, along with Jermain Couisnard and Jair Bolden. All three sat out last year and could find a handful of available minutes in the backcourt this season.

NCAA Basketball: South Carolina at Louisiana State Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Keyshawn Bryant | SOPHOMORE | WING

If you’re looking for an explosive play, KeyShawn Bryant can provide it. He’s always been an elite athlete, but he was under-recruited due to some eligibility concerns. Once that house was in order, the Gamecocks scooped up a potentially high-upside prospect. Bryant burst onto the scene last year, wowing observers with his athleticism but not necessarily his shooting. He made just five of 28 attempts (17.9 percent) from beyond the arc, and was a poor 57 percent shooter from the free-throw line.

While Bryant might still be a work in progress offensively, he was more than able to impact things defensively. His block rate was nationally ranked, which for a wing is, uh, good. And when Bryant was on the floor, the Gamecocks’ overall defensive efficiency improved to a hair below 1.0 point per possession. If Bryant shows any ability to sink jumpers, he’ll be a huge asset for Frank Martin in Columbia.

THEN, WHO’S NEW?

class player ht wt rating ranking pos
class player ht wt rating ranking pos
Fr Jaylyn McCreary 6'7 225 ★★★ 150 POST
Fr Trae Hannibal 6'1 217 ★★★ 153 CG
Fr Wildens Leveque 6'10 230 ★★★ 311 POST
Fr Trey Anderson 6'5 203 ★★★ 515 WING
Fr Mike Green 6’1 188 G
Sr Seventh Woods 6'1 189 Transfer - PG
G-Sr Micaiah Henry 6'9 235 Grad-Transfer - POST

I’ve been plenty critical of Frank Martin’s roster management in the past, and this year really isn’t going to be much different. In losing Haase and Silva, Martin has turned to Micaiah Henry, a post from Tennessee Tech who was solid and consistent inside for the Golden Eagles the last few years.

Trae Hannibal steps into a crowded combo guard position, but he’s a strong and physical presence at guard who can step in early if he’s consistent offensively. Jalyn McCreary is a well-built prospect, and at 6’7, he’s listed as a power forward. McCreary runs the floor well and is an explosive athlete, but appears to be a little rough around the edges on offense. Both Wildens Leveque and Trey Anderson fit into a mold we’re accustomed to with Martin recruiting classes. Both were ranked lower, but fit into a physical profile Martin likes with his prospects. When that happens, guys either find a role on the team or they transfer out within a few years.

Seventh Woods might be the biggest name in the incoming class and his story is a little wild. He’s a highly rated 4-star prospect from South Carolina who committed to play for North Carolina, and then decided to transfer back to his home school of South Carolina. Only Frank Martin didn’t have a scholarship to give him, so he’s paying his own way to school this year while sitting out. It’s not every day an elite player volunteers to pay his own way to school after transferring out of a place like North Carolina.

DEPTH CHART

position starter backup third
position starter backup third
(1) Point Guard Jair Bolden T.J. Moss Trae Hannibal
(2) Combo Guard A.J. Lawson Jermain Couisnard Seventh Woods
(3) Wing Keyshawn Bryant Justin Minaya Trey Anderson
(4) Combo Forward Maik Kotsar Alanzo Frink
(5) Post Micaiah Henry Jaylyn McCreary Wildens Leveque

So here’s where we get into the whole, “I actually don’t hate this roster that much” part. When you look at the depth, it’s a little uneven, but it’s not bad. The Gamecocks have a lot of options in the backcourt, and there’s some versatility to the roster. They have size and length, and there are a lot of different ways the backcourt can end up. The front court is less intriguing. Kotsar is what he is at the four spot, but he’s been effective enough and reliable defensively, so he likely gets the start. Martin seems very interested in promoting Lawson and Bryant in the back court, so expect a competition from Bolden, Couisnard, and Moss for the other spot. The Gamecocks could also go with a larger lineup and start both Bryant and Minaya on the wings. But without a lot of depth in the front court and a bunch in the backcourt, it would make more sense to counter with four guards occasionally.

SCHEDULE

My Projected Record: 16 - 14 | KenPom Projected Record: coming soon

NCAA Basketball: Final Four-Semifinals-Virginia vs Auburn Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

NON-CONFERENCE

Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Nov 6 Home North Alabama 280 W
Nov 10 Home Wyoming 283 W
Nov 15 Home Cleveland State 312 W
Nov 19 Home Boston University 200 W
Nov 22 Home Gardner-Webb 205 W
Nov 26 Neutral Wichita State 62 W
Nov 27 Neutral WVU / Northern Iowa 59 / 113 L
Dec 1 Home George Washington 211 W
Dec 4 Away UMass 240 W
Dec 8 Home Houston 29 L
Dec 15 Away Clemson 79 L
Dec 22 Away Virginia 5 L
Dec 30 Home Stetson 329 W
avg 186.25 9-4

The early slate looks to stack up early wins for Martin, and if the Gamecocks don’t start 5-0, they’ve got bigger problems. At the Cancun Challenge, the competition heats up in a hurry with Houston, Clemson, and Virginia. With this schedule, reaching 10 wins should be difficult but not impossible, and it’s the gauge of where you think the Gamecocks will wind up in the SEC pecking order. If they hit that threshold, I think they can overachieve in conference play and expect to reach the NCAA tournament. Nine wins or less, and things will get sticky in a hurry.

CONFERENCE

Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Jan 7 Home Florida 12 L
Jan 11 Away Tennessee 19 L
Jan 15 Home Kentucky 2 L
Jan 18 Away Texas A&M 58 L
Jan 22 Away Auburn 22 L
Jan 25 Home Vanderbilt 148 W
Jan 29 Away Arkansas 44 L
Feb 1 Home Missouri 39 W
Feb 5 Away Ole Miss 60 L
Feb 8 Home Texas A&M 58 W
Feb 12 Away Georgia 55 L
Feb 15 Home Tennessee 19 W
Feb 19 Away Mississippi State 53 L
Feb 22 Home LSU 38 W
Feb 26 Home Georgia 55 W
Feb 29 Away Alabama 70 L
Mar 3 Home Mississippi State 53 W
Mar 7 Away Vanderbilt 148 L
avg 52.94 7-11

The trouble with Carolina’s SEC schedule is there’s no soft opening. Instead, they were handed home games against Florida and Kentucky, along with road trips to Tennessee, Texas A&M, and Auburn. If they can avoid a 0-5 start, that will be a big step. The rest of their schedule isn’t awful— single road game opponents Arkansas, Ole Miss, and Alabama are all teams in the middle of the SEC pack. Stealing a couple of wins isn’t out of the question. It’ll also be necessary considering that LSU and Missouri also visit Columbia.

If Martin can split tough home games and grab a tough road win or two, he’ll be on track. The challenge will be with their home-and-home contests against Vanderbilt and Texas A&M, a pair of teams projected to be at the bottom of the conference. The Gamecocks can’t afford to drop games to the bottom of the league and make the tournament.

OVERVIEW

Seven years of Frank Martin steering the ship of one of the most challenging programs in the country has accomplished what, exactly? Here’s is the resume:

  • One NCAA tournament trip (2017)
  • A 54.8 win percentage, including a 44.4 win percentage in conference
  • One KenPom Top-50 finish (2017)
  • Highest Offensive Efficiency Rating finish: 91st

Martin has made his mark defensively, and we’ve — somewhat affectionately — referred to his style of play as Murderball. He’s effective at turning most games into rock fights, giving the Gamecocks a chance to prevail late.

Last season, the Gamecocks hit conference play and suddenly turned into a team that shot the 3-ball exceptionally well. Against SEC opponents, they knocked 40.3 percent of those attempts, a significant uptick from the 30.8 percent clip in non-conference action.

South Carolina returners shot chart

So which is more likely this season? Chris Silva shot 48.9 percent from three last season, Hassani Gravett shot 40.9 percent, Felipe Haase shot 41.2 percent, and Tre Campbell shot 36.4 percent. Expecting an overhauled roster and a few returners — all of whom struggled to hit jumpers — to replicate last season’s results consistently is...optimistic.

NCAA Basketball: South Carolina at Vanderbilt Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

For Carolina to repeat what they did a year ago and go 11-7 in the conference, Martin will have to tweak his approach. The Gamecocks have some intriguing pieces to build a productive offensive attack. The strength of this roster is its backcourt, and using a more modern scheme would go a long way. Carolina is going to defend. They’re going to get on the glass. But it has to be better than mediocre on the offensive end to escape the lower half of the SEC standings.

Even with elite 3-point shooting last year, the Gamecocks finished ninth in the SEC for offensive efficiency. Ironically, the finished dead last in 2-point shooting. And while they led the SEC is accuracy from long range, they were 229th nationally in 3-point attempts. We can draw two conclusions:

  1. Martin’s offense didn’t maximize its strength
  2. The Gamecocks were prone to wild swings in productivity

Defensively, Carolina excelled in 3-point defense, but that can be a little flukey. They were middle of the pack in 2-point defense and foul-prone during SEC play. It explains how the Gamecocks finished seventh in the conference for defensive efficiency. With a more consistent attack, Martin’s teams might not find themselves having to eek games out at the wire.

There is a path the Gamecocks can follow to reach the field of 68. Picking up 10 non-conference wins and avoid utter disaster to start SEC play should position them to get on the bubble. To me, their home game against Florida and a road trip to Texas A&M’s will be barometers for the season, too. The closer Martin is to 14-6 instead of 10-10 in late January, the better the odds his program will be dancing. Of course, that also hinges on whether the Gamecocks offense hums consistently, and given Martin’s track record, can you really invest much faith in that happening?

Until I see it happen, I’ll be skeptical and downgrade the Gamecocks.


About the preview: a number of respected basketball bloggers were asked to submit one pick the entire league schedule game by game. Because these are game by game picks, they often tend to be a bit of a rosier picture of each teams potential. Each rep’s picks are reflected in the record prediction for the site listed at the top of the page, and within “the Masses” picks as well. Included in “the Masses” are various SEC media members who made picks at my request also.

If you’d like to submit your picks, click here for the Google Form we used.


GLOSSARY

* - an asterisk denotes a walk-on player

GP - Games Played

%min - percentage of total available minutes played, does not account for time missed due to injury

%ov - offensive team value, simple formula of (%points + %rebounds) - %turnovers/*100, similar to Offensive Rating but places more value on performance to the team

%poss - percentage of team possessions the player is responsible for ending a possession, whether by making a shot, missing a shot not rebounded by the offense or committing a turnover.

%pts - percentage of teams points scored

ts% - true shooting percentage, basically points scored divided by 2x fga +0.44*fta.