South Carolina has evolved as much as anyone under a single coach. Last season, Frank Martin largely eschewed his reputation as a grind it out style coach for an offense which switched gears into a tempo which ranked among the top 20 teams in the country. Martin’s approach defensively is much the same so the tempo increase has all come on the offensive side. Will the switch in approach be enough to vault the Gamecocks past the rest of the middle of the league?
Previous SEC Previews
- No. 8 Arkansas Razorbacks
- No. 9 Auburn Tigers
- No. 10 Texas A&M Aggies
- No. 11 Ole Miss Rebels
- No. 12 Georgia Bulldogs
- No. 13 Mississippi State Bulldogs
- No. 14 Vanderbilt Commodores
#7 South Carolina Gamecocks
Last Season: 18-13 (10-8 in conference) No. 69 KenPom
My Prediction: 16-11 (9-9, 7th in conference)
SEC Media Prediction: 8th in conference
KenPom Projection: 14-11 (9-9 in conference) No. 61
HEAD COACH: Frank Martin | Ninth Season, 147-118
Murderball no more? With Frank Martin embarking on his 9th season in the other Columbia and just one NCAA tournament in his back pocket (albeit a Final Four in that one trip), he’s changed gears a little by focusing his offense on more tempo. Something has to give, as even the relatively moderate expectations in South Carolina are likely to expect more on their return than the investment has provided. He’s yet to break through with recruiting a somewhat fruitful state, and even with him consistently outperforming expectations in league play, the results need to crest over into tournament appearances with a little more frequency.
Seat Temp: TEPID
Martin has stabilized South Carolina, that much is certain. Where Darrin Horn had sunk the Gamecocks, Martin has brought them back to respectability. Their worst season since the full turnaround was a 7-11 performance in league play, with the next worst being last season’s 10-8 record. But while the consistency in record has steadied, the offensive and defensive performances have kept South Carolina from pushing into the next tier. With just two NCAA appearances in twenty years, are the expectations to be regularly competitive in the league, or to be regularly competitive in making the tournament?
SO, WHO’S GONE?
One of the real reasons for optimism is the Gamecocks don’t lose much over a team which won 10 games in the league last year. South Carolina really was a lot closer than people think last year, and the only real loss was Maik Kotsar, whose seemingly 10-year run of eligibility finally ran out. It’s hard to believe it, but Kotsar was a freshman on the Gamecocks Final Four team. He was a skilled big man who struggled shooting the ball later in his career, but was still effective around the rim and as a passer. Jair Bolden split minutes at the off-guard spot in his one year of eligibility last year. The Gamecocks brought back nearly all of their guards, so he transferred to Butler for a larger role. And Micaiah Henry never really found much of a role in the front court after transferring in as a graduate senior.
THEN, WHO’S BACK?
A.J. Lawson | JUNIOR | COMBO GUARD
Steering the ship in the 2020-21 season is A.J. Lawson, the slender and talented guard going into his third season. For the last two, the Gamecocks have largely gone as far as Lawson was able to take them. He’s a skilled shot maker who has struggled from distance, but if Lawson is able to add that dimension he becomes even more of a threat to boost the profile of the program. Lawson is exactly the kind of player who has a chance to turn pro, but opts for another season in college and gets his team into the tournament. South Carolina is close as it is; Lawson might just put them over the top.
Martin returns nearly everyone who contributed a year ago, which should give hope. Keyshawn Bryant is one of the more exciting players in the league with his ability to get to the rim. Bryant has limitations in the half court, but he’s so good in the open floor and off cuts, and he’s very likely to end up on SportsCenter by dunking on just about anyone who gets in the way. Alanzo Frink is probably the leading candidate to start in the front court, and I’d best describe him as adequate. He’s strong and physical, and that’s probably enough.
The rest of the returnees are a mix of potential and guys who found minutes in fits and spurts. Justin Minaya has struggled to stay healthy, but he’s an athletic defender and a good outside threat. He struggled to make shots last year, but made nearly 36% as a freshman. TJ Moss provided good support minutes at combo guard. He’s a capable ball handler and good in the mid range. Trae Hannibal was largely inefficient as a freshman point guard, but he was well regarded as a prospect and should push for more minutes this year. Jalyn McCreary is the combo forward version of Hannibal, highly regarded as a recruit, failed to fully break through but could help them this year. And Wildens Leveque is a big body who should help with some minutes at the five.
I’m intrigued by Seventh Woods, the South Carolina native who wowed people with highlights on YouTube, and landed at North Carolina in a limited role. He’s transferred back to his home state school in hopes of fulfilling his early promise. Woods might be the case of a player who peaked too early, or he could be the case of a player who needed a change of scenery.
Jermaine Couisnard | R-SOPHOMORE | COMBO GUARD
If there was a breakout player for the Gamecocks last year, that player was Couisnard. He redshirted thanks to a flagged test score, but that didn’t slow him down last season, as he was a double-digit scorer in 14 of the 18 SEC games, including two 25-plus point efforts. On top of his scoring, Couisnard is also a playmaker, with an assist rate near 25% in conference play. A starting backcourt with Lawson and Couisnard should leave plenty of room for optimism with Gamecocks fans.
AND, WHO’S NEW?
With so many players coming back, there was no real need for a giant incoming class of players, and established leadership and established roles would impact your ability to recruit high end talent. So Martin got what he could, in a couple big men who look like developmental types, and one who has already checked out of the program in Patrick Iriel. Ja’von Benson is a big body who good feet, and he’s the kind of prospect who could be a solid post with some development of his skillset and body. But I wouldn’t expect a big impact this season.
|(1) Point Guard||Jermaine Couisnard||Trae Hannibal|
|(2) Combo Guard||Seventh Woods||TJ Moss|
|(3) Wing||A.J. Lawson||Justin Minaya||Trey Anderson|
|(4) Combo Forward||Keyshawn Bryant||Jalyn McCreary|
|(5) Post||Alanzo Frink||Wildens Leveque||Ja'Von Benson|
Certainty lies in Jermaine Couisnard and A.J. Lawson starting, after that it’s a little bit of guesswork. It wouldn’t be surprising to see any combination 1-4 that included Seventh Woods, Trae Hannibal, T.J. Moss, Justin Minaya, Jalyn McCreary, or Keyshawn Bryant. I opted to give Woods the nod, plus Bryant. Because of the overabundance of guards, going small makes sense to get them all the necessary minutes, with McCreary, Frink, and Leveque managing the bulk of the minutes a the five.
My Projected Record: 16-11 | KenPom Projected Record: 14-11
|Nov 29||Neutral||TCU / Tulsa||53 / 90||L|
|Dec 14||Away||George Washington||193||W|
|Dec 23||Home||South Carolina St||355||W|
|Jan 2||Home||Florida A&M||320||W|
Frank Martin set himself up with a decent non-conference slate. Nothing crazy, but a very tough game at Houston, who should be a top 25 team most of if not all the year. Plus a neutral court matchup against Northwestern and TCU is challenging but very winnable. And Frank always likes to slip a Division 2 school into the midst.
|Jan 6||Home||Texas A&M||68||W|
|Jan 9||Away||Ole Miss||42||L|
|Feb 6||Home||Mississippi State||78||W|
|Feb 13||Home||Ole Miss||42||W|
|Feb 24||Away||Mississippi State||78||W|
No one wants to open your conference season at Kentucky, but if there was ever a year to do it, a pandemic coupled with an absence of fans in Rupp might be just the right mix for an experienced team to take on a talented one still working on its chemistry and rotation. The first game could be a sign of whether or not South Carolina is in a different gear this season. Win that game and suddenly the outlook changes a lot. With Ole Miss, Georgia, Missouri, and Mississippi State, SC has eight games against teams who are likely to be worse, or at least in the same group. 6-2 is very possible with those matchups, then try to steal one game against Tennessee and win your remaining home games and you’re looking at a possibility of 12 wins.
A year ago South Carolina won 18 games overall, and ten in league play with a new approach on offense. Then factor in they had FOUR losses to teams outside of the KenPom top 100, and two of those losses were at home to Boston University and Stetson, and it’s easy to see why there might be some realistic optimism in Columbia. If that South Carolina team had simply flipped the results against two bad mid-majors, beaten Ole Miss on the road and defeated a bad Vanderbilt team on the last day of the year, they’ve have been 22-9, and 12-6 in conference play. But this has been the sort of performance which has haunted Frank Martin since he’s been in Columbia.
“Beat the teams you should beat, and steal a few others” is the mantra every mid-tier high major program should live by on an annual basis. You hope to do at least that, and then on the chances you can get old, make your move. South Carolina is on the precipice of all of these things. They have experience and talent in the backcourt, they have a bonafide star in A.J. Lawson, a budding star in Couisnard, and it’s all sitting there on a plate.
So why aren’t they rated higher? Well, for one the front court isn’t good, and the SEC is fully of really good big men. It’s difficult to see them taking the next step when everyone ahead of them has more front court help. If Martin can find a way around a very mediocre front court and deploy his guard depth in a manner which overcomes a potential lack of rebounding, there’s no reason the Gamecocks can’t surprise everyone.
Even a 9-9 record is just three flipped games from 12 wins. It’s also three away from 6 wins.
It’s hard to see Carolina being anything other than at least pretty good, so I think this prediction is far closer to the floor than the mean. They’re favored in 11 of the 18 conference games according to KenPom, so 10 or 11 wins is probably closer to the median. I believe in Lawson and Couisnard, Bryant is proven, and even Frink — while not spectacular — is serviceable. With some adequate outside shotmaking, say Minaya returning to form, suddenly scoring around the basket gets easier for a team who likes to attack.
There’s a lot of things to like about this roster and the chance Frank Martin has in what is likely to be a weird season. And if there’s a guy who needs a breakthrough it’s probably him.
Reasons to be OPTIMISTIC
Returning over 70% of the offensive value, minutes and points from a team which won 10 games a year ago should be reason for anyone to be optimistic. They have guard depth for days, and finally seem to have found an offensive style to fit the talent around him.
Reasons to be PESSIMISTIC
Frank Martin’s teams have continually stubbed their toe early in the season and at least once or twice in the regular season, even in their good years. Until he breaks that habit, it’s hard to think this year and this team will be the one, especially with so many challenges in the front court.
About the preview: In past years we’ve had a single Google Form where a number of respected basketball bloggers were asked to submit one pick of the entire league schedule game by game. Because the Coronavirus has impacted just about everything, the schedule came out so late we were unable to run through this process. I worked with Matt Harris to get as much of a consensus between our two outcomes of picks (they are still game by game) but in the end these are all MY picks. I’ve tried to include the SEC Media’s predictions and KenPom’s preseason ratings into the preview to set some kind of balance.
* - 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.