No one ever remembers the beginnings. It’s always the end.
So when talking about South Carolina’s 2015-16 basketball season, the discussion will always center on the final month, when a magnificent start destined for the one element of the game that always decides whether a season is good or not – making the NCAA Tournament – fizzled and fell.
The Gamecocks deserved to be in the NCAA Tournament. By numbers, comparison and body of work, they deserved to be playing last week. They did play, and in a fine postseason tournament – but one that, especially at USC, is viewed as a been-there, done-that consolation prize.
That’s the rub when describing what was a wonderful year. USC was gypped of an NCAA Tournament bid, but as the years go on, circumstances won’t be remembered, endings will. Even if the Gamecocks had stuck around longer in the NIT, the accomplishment wouldn’t have been celebrated as it should be because of the program’s past NIT mega-success.
None of that is this group’s fault. These Gamecocks shouldn’t be held accountable for the supposed sins of teams long ago. They deserve to be congratulated.
Because 2015-16 was one outstanding basketball season.
“You can’t be sad, you know? We had a great year,” Sindarius Thornwell said. “We did a lot of things that people didn’t think we could do.”
The Gamecocks tied a school record for wins (25) and set another for regular-season wins (24). They’re second in the school record books for wins to start a season (15) and posted their most SEC wins (11) since 1998, joining that team and two others as the only ones to post winning SEC seasons.
Michael Carrera had the first game of at least 30 points and 15 rebounds since 1987. The number of sellouts at Colonial Life Arena for men’s basketball could be counted on one hand until the Gamecocks did it three times this year. The tireless work coach Frank Martin and his team have done to promote the program has revived interest and put an average of 12,500 fans in the building for the regular season.
So what now? The hardest part of success is sustaining it. Before 15-0 and before the NCAA snub, folks would have been pleased to accept a postseason tournament. It was only after the big one got away that they had to settle.
The next step is to make it to the NCAAs. The Gamecocks have a blueprint – apparently scheduling but not beating strong teams counts for something. That can give them leeway when setting up their non-conference schedule, and then they have to hold serve in the SEC.
They won’t have four seniors (Brian Steele was as integral as Laimonas Chatkevicius, Mindaugas Kacinas and Carrera, although he didn’t play this year) who were around for the tough times. That can be good and bad – there won’t be as much automatic experience to lean on in a tight situation, but it could open up the offense a bit more, freeing P.J. Dozier and Thornwell to slash to the rim.
Those two and Duane Notice make up a solid core, and it could have a lot of help depending on the resolution of the five suspended players. With most or some back, USC would be OK. Without any of them, Martin would have to take a lot of chances on a lot of recruits.
The main focus is the Gamecocks know what it’s like to win now, they know what it takes. Winning 25 games, especially at USC, should never be sneered at.
It just can’t be like the winning seasons of the past, where one happens, everyone’s excited, and then comes a backslide. Key players are leaving, but key players are coming back.
“People didn’t think we would finish top-three in our conference, they had us picked seventh,” Thornwell said. “We accomplished a lot, and I’m proud of everybody.”
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Five good and bad things USC did in 2015-16
- The Gamecocks won 25 games, which only one other team in program history had done.
- USC posted just the fourth winning SEC season in 25 years.
- As he has throughout his tenure, coach Frank Martin promoted the brand of USC basketball and fans responded to the tune of 12,500 per home game, with three sellouts.
- USC won nine games away from Colonial Life Arena.
- The Gamecocks had an SEC superlative (SEC Sixth Man of the Year Duane Notice) for the first time since 2011 and a first-team All-SEC player (Michael Carrera) for the first time since 2010.
- USC was atrocious at defending the 3-pointer. The Gamecocks saw 806 opposing attempts, the second-worst figure in the SEC, and 287 of them bottomed (35.6 percent), also the second-worst mark in the league.
- The Gamecocks didn’t finish strongly, always a consideration by the NCAA committee. After beginning 15-0, USC ended 10-9. It was 5-6 in its last 11 before the NIT.
- USC’s good wins were overshadowed by its really bad losses. The Gamecocks lost to Missouri, Tennessee and Mississippi State, three of the bottom four teams in the league. And they lost three times to Georgia, which while it also made the NIT, was a real sticking point when the last came in the SEC Tournament.
- The Gamecocks’ offense had a lot of weapons but was maddeningly inconsistent. It was always an adventure when Laimonas Chatkevicius had the ball in his hands, not knowing if he would score 3 or 30. The excitement P.J. Dozier could bring was often short-circuited by foul trouble. USC would go on stretches where nobody could hit, or at least shoot a high-percentage shot.
- USC was built on getting to the free-throw line, which was a benefit when whistles were being blown and not so much when officials “let ’em play,” (and that’s on the referees, not the Gamecocks). The problem was USC, the SEC’s leader at getting to the line, shot 68.2 percent. That was ninth-best in the league.