This past basketball season, USC fans got the chance to see Frank Martin coach a team.
Next season, they’ll be able see what happens when Frank Martin coaches his team.
A Frank Martin team has the ability to improvise within a base, high-post offense. It boasts a defense in which defenders with long arms choke off passing lanes, fight through screens, and disrupt motion offenses.
There will be 11 Martin recruits on the court for the Gamecocks during the 2013-14 season, counting the three rising sophomores from Martin’s partial first class and eight newcomers. Along with holdovers Brenton Williams and Bruce Ellington, the Gamecocks should be well-equipped to handle a more difficult schedule, battle in close games and improve on this past year’s 14-18 record.
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Here is a closer look at the future of USC men’s basketball:
On Dec. 17, Villanova transfer Tyrone Johnson will hit the court. Johnson will be classified as a rising junior by USC’s compliance department after playing nine minutes in a Villanova exhibition game before transferring to USC for the spring semester.
Johnson has established himself as a leader and a “glue” guy, much in the mold of Ellington. He also went to school with Michael Carrera.
At 6-foot-3 and 202 pounds, Johnson will be a dramatic change from the diminutive collection of point guards the Gamecocks used this past season.
“He has taken full advantage of his redshirt time to become best friends with strength coach Scott Greenawalt to work on his game and get himself as ready as possible for when his number is called,” Martin said. “He brings an unbelievable ability to pass the basketball and is a big strong guard that fits the personnel that we need.”
But Johnson’s delayed eligibility raises an intriguing question for the Gamecocks as the season begins: Who will play the point? Ellington will not be available for much of the semester because of football.
The team’s lone scholarship senior, Brenton Williams, has worked at times to learn the point but is more an undersized shooting guard capable of scoring in bunches.
So in the void, the Gamecocks could find themselves leaning on incoming Hartsville freshman Jaylen Shaw. The speedy 6-0 point guard shared most valuable player honors this past month at the first Columbia vs. The State all-star game at Benedict College.
His high school coach, Aric Samuels, has said Shaw is an efficient passer who gets his teammates involved. And like Williams, he can score in bunches, especially from the outside. His 3-point acumen was on display during that all-star game, leading to a game-high 37 points.
By the start of SEC play, Martin’s point guard rotation should be ideal. With Johnson running the offense, the burden will be off Ellington, allowing him to do what he does best — defend and speed up the game as a role player.
It’s not unusual for shooting guards to be among the team leaders in rebounding in a Martin-coached scheme. That’s because he favors a rotation of tall, lean shooting guards who can create mismatches at the three position.
At that all-star game in which Shaw excelled, Thornwell earned co-MVP honors by scoring 36 points with an array of moves and showtime dunks. He is at his best in transition, which is where a Martin-coached team spends a lot of its time in ideal circumstances.
Thornwell played a significant amount of that game against Irmo’s Justin McKie, giving those in attendance a tantalizing preview of what both players bring to the position.
When the 6-4 McKie signed his letter of intent in November, Martin said his rapid improvement bode well for his arrival at USC.
“In my seven months here, Justin has improved as much as any player that I have watched,” Martin said at the time. “We really like his toughness, his ability to play defense in a system that is similar to ours and his length and size on the perimeter.”
Thornwell, of course, is the most highly touted member of Martin’s recruiting class. The 6-5 Lancaster native played his senior season at Oak Hill Academy, leading the team to a 33-5 record. His extreme athleticism and versatility will allow him to help the Gamecocks at the point guard position until Johnson and Ellington arrive.
“Sindarius has a chance to be a special player in our program,” Martin said in November. “He is another big guard who can play the point guard position as well as the two and three.”
And in keeping with Martin’s philosophy of bigger, stronger, faster at the guard position, 6-2, 200-pound Canadian Duane Notice is another player who will make a strong impact on the boards from a traditionally light-rebounding position.
“Duane is an unbelievable competitior,” Martin said. “(He) gives us much-needed size and strength at the guard spot.”
There is no good term to describe the position played by post players in Martin’s scheme. The are not so much traditional forwards and centers as they are low and high post players. Their primary roles are to rebound, choke the lane down low and play a key part in distributing the ball by passing out of the high post.
USC struggled with size and depth at those positions this past season, with 6-5 Michael Carrera and 6-5 Lakeem Jackson being relied upon to battle against brawnier competition. With the additions of 6-8 Desmond Ringer and 6-9 Demetrius Henry, the Gamecocks have the ability to find the best spot on the floor for Carrera to wreak havoc.
Henry possibly is the most important addition to the team, if not more highly touted than Thornwell.
“I’m excited about his toughness and the rebounding he brings to our team,” Martin said. “He brings much-needed size to our front line.”
As does Ringer, who at 6-8, 260 pounds could be the beefiest Gamecock next season. Considered a developmental project when he signed with USC in November, Ringer scored 17 points and grabbed 14 rebounds in leading his high school team to its first state championship this spring.
Like McKie, his growth during his senior season could lead to more playing time than anticipated.
“(Ringer) gives us size, strength, athleticism and skill on the front line,” Martin said. “He is a guy that understands how to play and he has great size and real good hands. Desmond is someone that we feel will become a big-time presence on the front line for many years to come.
Last but not least is 6-6 forward Reggie Theus Jr., who is the son of a former NBA player. He excelled during his senior season in Los Angeles, earning consensus all-city honors. He has the capability of complementing both Carrera and Thornwell on the wing as a player with similar length to those two.
“After completing the season, we felt we needed to continue to improve our length and size on the perimeter,” Martin said. “And Reggie gives us that.”
Of course, this bounty of inside players will be anchored by rising sophomores Laimonas Chatkevicius and Mindaugas Kacinas. Martin remains high on Chatkevicius as the team’s best option distributing the ball from the high post.
The question mark among the USC scholarship players is 6-10 forward Carlton Geathers, who continues to struggle with a knee injury. Martin has said he is weighing options on Geathers, including a medical hardship waiver.
In all, the 2013-14 Gamecocks will boast as much talent as any USC squad of recent vintage despite being almost painfully young. There will be growing pains and the absence of Johnson and Ellington will be felt early on.
A second adjustment period, as the team gets used to playing once more with Ellington and Johnson, could lead to a slow start in SEC play. That said, Martin’s philosophy on the basketball season is to be better in March than in November and to be peaking in time for the conference tournament.
Viewing the upcoming season through those lenses, it’s not hard to understand why excitement has returned to the men’s basketball program.