Frank Martin found out something about his young team in its exhibition win. It might have taken a senior to hit the big shot in the game, but it was another step forward in his freshmen finding themselves on the court.
There will be a lot of that this season. Starting Saturday, the results will be counted.
Martin’s second year at South Carolina begins with a matinee against Longwood. The Gamecocks have been discussed and rehashed several times over since the offseason departures and additions. Once the ball goes up at 1 p.m., Saturday all of it’s out the window.
There’s no telling how a team with seven freshmen will play night to night, especially when it plays its season-opener against a team with a first-year coach. The Gamecocks can scout returning personnel, but they have no idea if or how coach Jayson Gee has put in a new style.
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Longwood won eight games a year ago and was picked to finish sixth in its six-team division in the Big South Conference. What does that mean? Not much, against a Gamecocks team that is as unknown as almost any team in the country.
Martin described the first few weeks of the season as a learning curve. It’s one thing to practice and play pickup against your teammates over the summer; it’s another to get into the grind of devouring scouting reports, retaining all of it for 40 minutes, forgetting it and then re-learning another system before the next game.
The exhibition game began strongly, with USC working the paint well on both ends of the floor, taking advantage of college basketball’s new player-freedom-of-movement rules to get to the free-throw line. But it nearly disappeared when the Pacers made a comeback and USC began panicking, throwing the ball to far more blue jerseys than white ones.
“We’re so young that I can’t just get game-ready with the team,” Martin said. “We have to continue to evolve and focus on us, and also start to teach guys how to mentally prepare themselves for their matchups.”
Martin started big against USC Aiken, with forwards Laimonas Chatkevicius, Demetrius Henry and Michael Carrera complementing point guard Duane Notice and guard Sindarius Thornwell. Martin prefers size to start and then weaving in the right mixes of size plus speed and athleticism. Plus, the new rules favor teams that play to the rim.
The freshmen will all play. Martin said that, while he hasn’t made a final decision, he wasn’t leaning toward redshirting anybody, and he likely will substitute liberally. While a ranked Baylor team waits on Tuesday, Martin knows the first few games with his squad will be about finding the right combinations.
“I’m happy with some of the things we’re doing offensively,” he said. “I think our young guys, for the most part, are trying to do what we’re asking them to do. I was actually more pleased with the freshmen than I was with the upperclassmen, as far as their attention to detail, as far as us running the offense.”
But he will need the upperclassmen as well. And they want no part of another losing season.
“I really don’t care what people say about our team,” Carrera said. “We want to just work hard, be together as a family, just win as many games as we can win to make it to the NCAA tournament. That’s our goal this year.”
LONGWOOD (0-0) at SOUTH CAROLINA (0-0)
When: 1 p.m. Saturday
Where: Colonial Life Arena, Columbia
Tickets: Available at the box office
Longwood’s probable starters: G Tristan Carey 6-4 Sr. (15.6 ppg, 5.1 rpg); G David Robinson 6-3 Sr. (8.8 ppg, 1.7 rpg); G Lucas Woodhouse 6-1 So. (5.2 ppg, 2.2 rpg); F Jeylani Dublin 6-6 RJr. (10.0 ppg, 5.7 rpg); F Karl Ziegler 6-5 So. (7.1 ppg, 2.9 rpg)
South Carolina’s probable starters: G Duane Notice 6-2 Fr.; G Sindarius Thornwell 6-5 Fr.; F Demetrius Henry 6-9 Fr.; F Michael Carrera 6-5 So. (9.9 ppg, 7.2 rpg); F Laimonas Chatkevicius 6-11 So. (4.4 ppg, 3.2 rpg)
Next game: USC tips off at No. 25 Baylor at 3 p.m. on Tuesday.