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SEC Basketball Preview: It’s a pivotal season for Frank Martin and the Gamecocks

Previewing the No. 13 team in the SEC, the South Carolina Gamecocks.

NCAA Basketball: South Carolina at Georgia Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s start here: picking the South Carolina Gamecocks to finish this low automatically means they will notch five to seven more wins than expected. Because Frank Martin’s at his best when universally doubted. That’s his M.O.

Over four seasons, I had a pretty good read on Martin’s program.

  • 2014-15: Picked them 11th, finished 11th
  • 2015-16: Picked 5th, finished 4th
  • 2016-17: Picked 6th, finished 3rd
  • 2017-18: Picked 13th, finished 12th

But then I lost the plot:

  • 2018-19: Picked 10th, finished 5th
  • 2019-20: Picked 12th, finished 6th
  • 2020-21: Picked 7th, finished 12th

Pinning down this group presents us with the same problem. When you don’t like a roster, you naturally pick them to finish near the bottom, they excel. The same goes for loving a roster that underachieves. And this season, it would really be in Martin’s interests to prove the naysayers wrong. So, what’s in store this year?


Previous SEC Previews

#13 South Carolina Gamecocks

Last Season: 6 - 15 (4-12 in conference) No. 124 KenPom

My Prediction: 14 - 17 (5-13, 13th in conference)

The Masses Prediction: 5.3 - 12.7 (11th in conference)

SEC Media Prediction: 11th in conference

KenPom Projection: 16 - 14 (7-11 12th in conference) No. 86

NCAA Basketball: South Carolina at Vanderbilt Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

HEAD COACH: Frank Martin | Tenth Season, 153-134

Last year was tough for Martin, who built his reputation on formidable, physical defenses and embracing fast-paced offenses. Lots of programs dealt with issues stemming from COVID-19. But the Gamecocks were hit especially hard. Martin twice tested positive for the virus, and the program endured multiple shutdowns. The program only played four non-conference contests and limped to a 6-15 record overall.

At the same time, Martin’s been rumored as a possibility for openings like UNLV, Cincinnati, and New Mexico. Despite taking the Gamecocks to a Final Four, the program couldn’t capitalize on the momentum—it’s just 57-60 over the last four years—and it’s fed the notion that Martin is looking for a way out. Frankly, I’m not sure Carolina’s administration would loathe a coaching search.

Martin’s elevated the floor after a decade on the job, but he has just one NCAA tournament trip and one top-50 finish in KenPom. So, this season feels like one where both sides may have to choose whether the relationship continues.

Seat Temp: WARM

south carolina gamecocks preview 10 year look 2021

As mentioned, South Carolina has had just one appearance in the big dance this decade. The chart also reinforces the slowly declining on-court performance. I consider last year more of an aberration than anything, but there’s still a trend emerging. And as you’ll see, I’m not sure this is the year where the Gamecocks bounce back.

It’s also worth asking: what are the expectations from Martin’s bosses for the program? If they move on, is there the commitment from the school and its fanbase to elevating it beyond one whose ceiling is a mid-table finish?

SO, WHO’S GONE?

name reason GP %min %pts %ov %poss
name reason GP %min %pts %ov %poss
AJ Lawson professional 21 78.45% 22.92% 21.88% 18.43%
Justin Minaya transfer 20 71.79% 9.13% 13.08% 9.59%
Trae Hannibal transfer 20 39.64% 7.81% 9.03% 8.78%
Seventh Woods transfer 18 40.60% 6.37% 3.82% 8.38%
Jalyn McCreary transfer 17 26.79% 5.71% 5.57% 5.52%
TJ Moss transfer 18 39.40% 5.12% 4.46% 6.75%
Alanzo Frink transfer 3 6.55% 0.66% 0.37% 0.83%
Trey Anderson transfer 13 11.07% 2.17% 2.95% 1.47%
Nathan Nelson* graduation 15 13.57% 1.71% 2.26% 0.95%
62.86% 61.60% 63.42% 60.70%

Given how the program’s stagnated, a healthy bit of roster churn isn’t the worst thing. This offseason, the Gamecocks lost 60 percent of its possessions. Just one player, A.J. Lawson, went pro. The remainder hopped in the transfer portal.

Lawson was one of the few reliable offensive threats on the roster, leading the Gamecocks in minutes and points. When he sat, they were six points worse per 100 possessions, per hooplens.com. The other departures make up a collection of players who flashed but didn’t consistently fill their roles.

At his best, Justin Minaya was a low-usage, high-efficiency veteran. But he struggled to stay healthy, and when he returned as a redshirt sophomore, he was far from the shooter who hit a 36 percent clip from long range. Trae Hannibal, Seventh Woods, and T.J. Moss both played a healthy amount of minutes for a backcourt that needed consistent scoring, and none provided it.

Jalyn McCreary saw limited minutes around the basket the last two seasons, but his offensive rating never eclipsed 100.0. I was a little surprised to see Alanzo Frink transfer, but he also struggled with injuries last year and saw limited action in the first three games due to an undisclosed medical issue. Finally, Trey Anderson was a lightly used wing from the West Coast, so it wasn’t surprising to see him transfer closer to home.

THEN, WHO’S BACK?

player year pos gp %min %pts ts% %ov
player year pos gp %min %pts ts% %ov
Keyshawn Bryant SR CF 18 57.74% 17.01% 52.70% 16.62%
Jermaine Couisnard JR CG 17 54.76% 11.23% 40.00% 7.56%
Wildens Leveque JR POST 21 46.19% 8.47% 60.80% 10.81%
Tre-Vaughn Minott SO POST 8 8.69% 1.19% 53.00% 1.58%
Ja'Von Benson SO POST 3 2.74% 0.51% 34.20% 0.52%
Mike Green JR CG 5 1.90% 0.44% 0.00% -0.52%
Ford Cooper Jr JR WING 1 0.12% 0.00% 0.00% 0.00%
34.43% 38.85% 36.57%
NCAA Basketball: South Carolina at Tennessee Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

Keyshawn Bryant | SENIOR | COMBO FORWARD

Bryant is one of those players who is hard to figure out. He’s a freak athlete and a monster in transition, but his shooting can be a handicap in the half-court. No, you don’t want him initiating offense, but you can play him all over the rest of the floor. He’s assertive and unafraid to meet anyone at the rim as a secondary attacker. However, Bryant also did improve his shooting last year, and taking another step forward could make him nearly impossible to defend.

The fact Martin brought back both Ja’Von Benson and Tre-Vaughn Minott left me a little bit surprised. The pair only logged 94 minutes and 26 points combined. Meanwhile, they have a solid contributor in Wildens Leveque, whose athleticism and defense are limited but can still serve as an effective big around the rim.

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

Jermaine Couisnard | Junior | COMBO GUARD

Couisnard regressed a little bit last season, but that’s what happens when you’re banged up and dealing with COVID pauses. Still, he was a bit of a bell cow, and when he played well, the Gamecocks usually won. As a freshman, he was a microwave scorer off the bench and eventually became a starter over the back half of the season. Last year, he transitioned into the starting five, and I imagine that won’t change this year. Martin needs Couisnard to be more consistent offensively, and if he’s able to do that, he’ll make a nice one-two punch with Keyshawn Bryant.

AND, WHO’S NEW?

class player ht wt rating ranking pos
class player ht wt rating ranking pos
Fr Devin Carter 6'3 190 ★★★★ 85 CG
Fr Jacobi Wright 6'2 180 ★★★ 128 CG
Fr TaQuan Woodley 6'8 280 ★★★ 255 POST
So Josh Gray 7'0 255 Transfer LSU POST
Jr Chico Carter Jr 6'3 190 Transfer Murray State PG
Sr James Reese 6'4 170 Transfer North Texas WING
Sr Erik Stevenson 6'4 210 Transfer Washington WING
G-Sr AJ Wilson 6'7 230 Transfer George Mason CF

The Gamecocks welcome a large and interesting crop of newcomers. Let’s start with Devin Carter, a four-star combo guard who’s the fifth-highest ranked recruit to pledge to South Carolina, per 247sports.com. Carter is a capable ball-handler, a plus athlete, a good shooter, and sports some flowing locks. (Not basketball-related, but when you watch him on YouTube, the har certainly stands out.) I also really like Jacobi Wright, a high three-star guard out of Legacy Charter in Greenville, South Carolina. He played alongside Bryce McGowens, a five-star who will suit up at Nebraska, and Ike Cornish, who is headed to Maryland. Despite that surrounding talent, Wright was frequently the best player on the floor.

But if you’re looking for instant-impact additions, the transfers Martin added are probably a better bet. Eric Stevenson is a nice pickup after spending last season at Washington and his first two at Wichita State. He’s a streaky shooter whose efficiency numbers leave a little to be desired. But he could serve as a viable third or fourth option as a floor-spacer. On the other hand, George Mason transfer A.J. Wilson didn’t soak up possessions, and it’s hard to project exactly what he has to offer.

I do like the pickup of James Reese, however. The rangy wing transferred in from North Texas, where he was the second-leading scorer on an NCAA Tournament team. He was also influential in those tournament matchups against Purdue and Villanova — enough that you could see his skillset translating to the SEC. He’s also a Palmetto State native who grew up just outside Columba.

Another local product coming home is Chico Carter, who spent his first two years at Murray State. He ate up a ton of minutes for the Racers, but still proved to be an efficient and reliable shooter. That’s something Martin could certainly use.

Inside, Josh Gray is built like Adonis, but he isn’t a polished product and barely saw the floor at LSU. Taquan Woodley is a big kid, checking in at 6-foot-8 and nearly 300 pounds. I’d expect that pair to battle it out with returners for reserve minutes in the post.

DEPTH CHART

position starter backup third
position starter backup third
(1) Point Guard Chico Carter Jr Jacobi Wright
(2) Combo Guard Jermaine Couisnard Devin Carter
(3) Wing Erik Stevenson James Reese TaQuan Woodley
(4) Combo Forward Keyshawn Bryant AJ Wilson Tre-Vaughn Minott
(5) Post Wildens Leveque Josh Gray Ja'Von Benson

The best place to start with any projected rotation is with Bryant and Couisnard. Leveque has plenty of experience as the starting big, but maybe Martin tinkers with Gray, Woodley, Minott, or Benson in that role. It would seem obvious to pencil in Carter as the starting lead guard, but will Martin bank on the higher upside of players like Wright or Carter. Finally, Stevenson and Reese will battle it out on the wing.

SCHEDULE

My Projected Record: 14-17 | KenPom Projected Record: 16-14

NCAA Basketball: Georgetown at Seton Hall Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

NON-CONFERENCE

Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Nov 9 Home USC Upstate 336 W
Nov 12 Neutral Princeton 164 W
Nov 14 Neutral WKU / Minnesota 90 / 120 L
Nov 18 Home UAB 71 L
Nov 23 Home Wofford 126 W
Nov 28 Home Rider 234 W
Dec 1 Home Coastal Carolina 209 W
Dec 5 Home Georgetown 76 W
Dec 12 Neutral Florida State 24 L
Dec 14 Home Allen W
Dec 18 Away Clemson 59 L
Dec 22 Home Army 253 W
Dec 29 Home South Carolina St 350 W
172.91 9-4

You can bank on the Gamecocks taking a non-conference loss that leaves you muttering, “WTF.” Last year, it was a neutral-court loss to Liberty. Two years ago, it was a pair of home loss to Boston University and Stetson. Three years ago, Stony Brook picked off the Gamecocks, who also suffered a road defeat to Wyoming.

So, who will it be this season?

UAB is going to be really good, and I’m not sure that would qualify as a surprise. I’ve got my eyes on a stretch that includes Wofford, Rider, and Coastal Carolina. Coastal was a top-200 team last year, and Wofford finished 127th in KenPom — just behind the Gamecocks. Be weary of those games. If Martin’s bunch comes out of non-con with four losses or less, things are trending the right direction.

CONFERENCE

Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Jan 4 Home Auburn 28 L
Jan 8 Away Vanderbilt 79 L
Jan 11 Away Tennessee 13 L
Jan 15 Home Florida 25 W
Jan 18 Away Arkansas 15 L
Jan 22 Home Georgia 159 W
Jan 26 Home Vanderbilt 79 L
Jan 29 Away Texas A&M 78 L
Feb 1 Away Mississippi St 65 L
Feb 5 Home Tennessee 13 W
Feb 8 Home Kentucky 17 L
Feb 12 Away Georgia 159 L
Feb 15 Away Ole Miss 57 L
Feb 19 Home LSU 43 W
Feb 23 Home Mississippi St 65 W
Feb 26 Away Alabama 19 L
Mar 1 Home Missouri 96 L
Mar 5 Away Auburn 28 L
avg 57.67 5-13

Again, I fully expect South Carolina to beat my meager projections, because it’s Frank Martin’s mission in life to make me look foolish. Still, the start to the SEC schedule is bumpy: Auburn, at Vanderbilt, and at Tennessee. The good news with South Carolina is it usually pulls off a road upset, and there are plenty of opportunities. The Gamecocks face Kentucky on a Tuesday in early February, and that’s a game to circle. There is also a path for this group to exceed expectations: split with Vanderbilt, sweep Georgia, and holds serve on the other games. Do that, and they’re at seven wins. If they beat a visiting Missouri and steal a road win against Texas A&M, you’re looking at a .500 record.

OVERVIEW

Describing Martin’s teams used to be easy. They’re tough and win more games than you expect. But they also stub their toes enough to miss the NCAA tournament. Then last year, everything fell apart. A team full of returners bottomed out.

Was it COVID tripping them up? Or has the league gotten too good for Martin’s model?

tennessee synergy 2020

If you like the advanced stats, which we do around here, you can point to the Gamecocks’ efficiency metrics or KenPom ratings not lining up with their win totals. For example, in 2018, South Carolina went 7-11 in league play and was the 80th-rated team per KenPom. The following season they improved their rating by 10 spots but improved by four wins in league play. Then, in 2020, they finished just one place higher in KenPom — and went 10-8. That year, three teams had worse league records but were rated ahead of the Gamecocks. In 2019, six teams were ranked higher.

Efficiency metrics don’t always line up perfectly with wins and losses, but it’s a good starting point to determine who is good and who isn’t. Still, you can’t expect to outplay what the metrics say you are. Perhaps that’s what I’ve always liked about Martin. He doesn’t make any sense.

NCAA Basketball: South Carolina at Florida Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

One thing Martin has done is shift his offense to play much faster, a change that’s come with mixed results. Once known for fielding tough physical defenses and playing at a middling pace, Martin’s faster paster pace has led his defense to go missing. In 2017, the Gamecocks played at an average pace, and the defense was third nationally in adjusted efficiency. Last year, the tempo was third nationally, and the defense was 113th in adjusted efficiency.

The crux is can Frank Martin get this roster back to where we were accustomed to a Frank Martin team playing. Or will it look more like the last few seasons, where the Gamecocks were a bit of a mess?

The pieces aren’t bad. But It’s hard not to be concerned about the interior rotation, and the Gamecocks weren’t a good defensive rebounding team a year ago. However, with the additions via the transfer portal, two young guards, and veterans like Couisnard and Bryant, there’s enough to make some noise. How much noise? I don’t know.

I wouldn’t get too excited by an odd win here and there, because the efficiency catches up to you. There is just too much inefficiency throughout this roster.

Reasons to be OPTIMISTIC

Frank Martin has certainly taken worse rosters to better records, and there’s a nice combination of experience, reliable holdovers, and incoming talent which could work their way up in an SEC that has seen a huge amount of turnover this offseason. With Bryant and Couisnard leading the way, the Gamecocks could be a legitimate threat to make the NCAA tournament. They just need to flip a few key games their way.

Reasons to be PESSIMISTIC

Things have been trending downward in Columbia since their Final Four season, and there are no surefire NBA players on the roster. That puts the Gamecocks at odds with a lot of teams at the higher end of the conference. It’s hard to see how this group is the one to get it done.


About the preview: a number of respected basketball bloggers were asked to submit one pick for 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 Masses” picks. 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.