SEC Transition Basketball: South Carolina GamecocksPosted by Brian Joyce on August 20th, 2012
It’s hot out there, and to many of us, college basketball is the last thing on our minds. But here at the SEC Microsite, we’re going to be rolling out mid-summer resets of each of the (now) 14 basketball programs in our league. We’re calling it Transition Basketball, and you can expect we’ll cover three or four teams a week until we’re done. By that time, we’ll actually start to be turning the slight corner into the fall, and from there it’s a smooth slope down to Midnight Madness in mid-October. Today’s update: South Carolina.
State of the Program
Last season couldn’t have been much worse for South Carolina. USC suffered early season losses to Elon, Tennessee State, Southern California, and Providence, and got a dose of high level basketball with a 25-point loss to North Carolina and a 34-point defeat to Kentucky. Things didn’t get any easier for the Gamecocks as they struggled to stay competitive all season. Coach Darrin Horn’s squad won just two games in conference play, and were eliminated in the first round of the SEC Tournament. However, there were a couple of bright spots as the season went on. Leading scorer Malik Cooke developed into a consistent threat, averaging 12.3 points and 4.7 rebounds per game. Forwards Damontre Harris and Anthony Gill progressed throughout the year, finishing up the season with offensive rebounding percentages of 10.8% and 9.0%, respectively. But after the season, a shakeup was inevitable. Horn was fired. Cooke graduated. Harris and Gill transferred. South Carolina basketball reached a low point, and digging it out of its deep hole seemed impossible. Enter Frank Martin.
Hope and excitement throughout Columbia was restored. Martin won at least 21 games in each of his five seasons as the head coach at Kansas State. He took four of those teams to the NCAA Tournament, including an Elite Eight appearance in 2010. How athletic director Eric Hyman lured Martin to South Carolina we will never know, but Martin is there to begin an epic rebuilding job. He inherits a team that hasn’t been to the Big Dance since 2004, and there’s not much talent to work with this season. It’s hard to imagine Martin not making progress over the next couple of years, but it’s also difficult to envision that happening this season.
The cupboards were left bare, but Martin has quickly restocked. He has five signees heading his way this season, including 7’0″ center Laimonas Chatkevicius. Chatkevicious originally signed with Kansas State, but received his release when Martin left Manhattan. Chatkevicious’ AAU coach says, “he’s got a kind of European game. He can shoot it all the way to the three point line. He’s long and can run — he just needs to add strength. He made a huge improvement in terms of learning the American game from his first summer to second summer.” Chatkevicious could see time on a depleted front line.
In addition to Chatkevicius, Martin added 6’3″ shooting guard Thaddeus Hall, forward Michael Carrera, a much needed point guard prospect in Tarik Phillip, and post player Minda Kacinas. The 6’6″ forward Carrera could also find himself playing extended minutes in the post position as there aren’t many others who can fill that role this season. The Venezuelan native says he can do a little of everything for Martin. “I play on the inside at the four and outside at the three,” he said. “I can play the two if I need to. I’m going to work hard and play with my heart like I always do.”
Bruce Ellington, a 5’9″ point guard, averaged double figures in scoring in each of his first two seasons in Columbia. Over that time, the Gamecocks relied heavily on the two-sport star as he took over 29 percent of the team’s shots when he was on the floor. His shot selection suffered, leaving him with a career 33.8% field goal percentage. After Ellington made a commitment in the offseason to give up football, he changed his mind, returning to the football field the same day South Carolina announced the hiring of Martin. Regardless of how many directions he is being pulled, the Gamecocks will need Ellington on the basketball court more than ever.
Only one other player on the Gamecocks roster averaged over 20 minutes per game last season (Damien Leonard). No other returner averaged over seven points per game. In other words, Martin will likely lean on Ellington even more than Horn did over the past two years. Of the eight guards named to the All-SEC postseason award first or second team last season, only three return to compete again. It says here Ellington elevates his game to compete heavily for one of those spots by the end of this year.
Three Questions With The Charleston Post and Courier’s Darryl Slater
Darryl Slater covers South Carolina sports as the beat writer for the Charleston Post and Courier. He took time out from covering a top 10 football team (the Gamecocks checked in at number nine in the preseason AP Top 25 football poll) to talk a little basketball with RTC’s Eric Moyer. Check out more of his stuff at the Post and Courier or on Twitter @DarrylSlater, but until then, let’s talk a little basketball.
Rush the Court: What have been the early returns on Frank Martin? How has the buzz surrounding him compare to other South Carolina hires (both inside and outside of basketball)?
Darryl Slater: People in Columbia have been very excited about the hire. It’s pretty safe to say that athletic director Eric Hyman, who has since left for Texas A&M, landed a much bigger name than most observers (fans, media mongrels) thought USC could attract. Martin’s national visibility could be an asset to USC, in terms of getting recruits to take a chance on a program that hasn’t done really anything at all lately. Obviously, USC landing Steve Spurrier in 2005 was a huge boost for a football program that had historically struggled. Martin’s previous success isn’t on par with Spurrier’s, but Martin is clearly a bigger name than his predecessor with the USC basketball program, Darrin Horn. Whether Martin has more success than Horn remains to be seen.
RTC: What are best-case and worst-case scenarios for year one with Martin?
DS: The best-case scenario would be a run at an NIT berth. That is the absolute best-case scenario. USC lost its two best post players, Anthony Gill and Damontre Harris, who transferred to Virginia and Florida. The roster is going to be completely overhauled. Point guard Bruce Ellington again won’t be with the team until early December because he’s playing football. Martin will bring in a one-year transfer in guard LaShay Page, who had success at Southern Mississippi. The rest of the roster is expected to be filled out by a four-man freshman class and the returning players, just two of whom were starters last year (Ellington and shooting guard Damien Leonard). So if you look at the roster and the fact that USC went 10-21 last year and 2-14 in the SEC, it’s difficult to envision this team making the postseason. A worst-case scenario? Well, it certainly can’t get much worse than last year. Repeating last year’s disaster would probably qualify as a worst-case scenario, since Martin is widely considered a coaching upgrade from Horn.
RTC: Did South Carolina win or lose out in the new SEC scheduling model?
DS: With the SEC going from 16 to 18 games, that means two more games against legitimate opponents in place of games against non-conference pushovers that teams would usually schedule. Or a team could play just as many non-league pushovers and decide to take on fewer legit non-league opponents. The impact on USC’s overall record – which would be the key factor in potentially getting an NIT bid – depends on how Martin molds his non-league schedule to account for playing two more league games. And the schedule isn’t out yet, so it’s hard to say. But it’s fair to say that beating any SEC opponent is going to be a challenge for USC this season, as it was last season.
Twitter Style 2012-13 Outlook
New head coach Frank Martin has the excitement level on high in Columbia, but expectations for his first year remain tempered at best.
Brian Joyce is a writer for the SEC microsite and regular contributor for Rush The Court. Follow him on Twitter for more about SEC basketball at bjoyce_hoops.