Lithuanian Duo Fueling South Carolina’s Hot Start

Posted by Greg Mitchell on November 27th, 2015

A dark horse is emerging in the SEC, as South Carolina knocked of Tulsa to win the Paradise Jam and cap off its first 5-0 start since 2003-04. Two of the main reasons for the great start have been a pair of senior forwards from basketball-crazed Lithuania — Laimons Chatkevicius and Mindaugas Kacinas. One of the storylines coming into the season was whether the Gamecocks’ senior-laden frontcourt could support its rotation of dynamic, big-bodied guards. Early on, the bigs have done far more than just support.

Mindaugas Kacinas and Sindarius Thornwell took home all tournament honors en route to South Carolina's Paradise Jam championship (photo courtesy @GamecockMBB).

Mindaugas Kacinas and Sindarius Thornwell took home all tournament honors en route to South Carolina’s Paradise Jam championship (photo courtesy @GamecockMBB).

Chatkevicius has been an offensive force, scoring 17 points a piece against Hofstra and Tulsa, and dropping 27 in a home win over Oral Roberts. The 6’11” center struggled to stay on the court for long stretches in his first two years, but showed improvement sustaining minutes last season (22.8 MPG). He is never going to be a 30-plus minute per night player given his giant frame, but he appears to be at a point this season — in terms of conditioning and avoiding foul trouble — that Frank Martin can rely heavily on him. He’s got an efficient back-to-the-basket game (seen in the video below) and range out to the three-point line, making him the type of player that can help the Gamecocks withstand cold nights from the perimeter.

His fellow countryman Kacinas has been just as good. The senior had never averaged more than 6.1 PPG in a season, so his 14.4 PPG thus far this year have been a pleasant surprise. He’s been known mostly as a quality defender and rebounder, but was forced to play somewhat out of position in the past in the post on thin rosters. This year he’s starting on the wing and gives the Gamecocks yet another large defender to frustrate opponents on the perimeter. You also can’t discount the quality season Michael Carrera is having (10.4 PPG, 6.4 RPG). While he never truly grew into the player his freshman year suggested he might be, he’s still another experienced forward that is excelling in his final year.

McDonald’s All-American P.J. Dozier hasn’t lit the world on fire yet, and that’s fine. Elite freshman are, after all, still allowed some time to develop in the one-and-done era. Unlike Kentucky or LSU, however, South Carolina isn’t entirely dependent on its elite freshman to lead the team right away. When Dozier is on the court, he’s surrounded by four players all capable of getting a basket for themselves, which takes the pressure off of him. The fact that Sindarius Thornwell (who won the Paradise Jam MVP award) hasn’t been mentioned yet tells you how well the Gamecocks main contributors are playing thus far. At this point, Dozier’s development is icing on the cake, and that’s an exciting thing for Gamecock fans.

South Carolina should continue to surge, and could conceivably enter conference play undefeated. The two biggest challenges left on the schedule don’t look that daunting, since they’re a neutral site game against rival Clemson and a home game against a Memphis team that dropped a home game to UT Arlington. That won’t inspire much confidence from the Committee, but the Tulsa win should continue to pay dividends down the road, if nothing else. The big question, if the Gamecocks do continue to play well, will be whether they can maintain it in conference play. Martin is just 16-39 in the SEC and has never finished better than tied for 11th. There is also the memory of last year, where the Gamecocks were on the verge of being ranked after beating Iowa State to close the non-conference season before promptly falling apart. But this team feels different. The majority of its rotation are either juniors or seniors, and you know Martin’s teams will always play hard and defend well. It could be that South Carolina has finally arrived in Martin’s fourth year, in no small part because of a fast start from its Lithuanian duo.

Greg Mitchell (@gregpmitchell) (231 Posts)

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