There were no hanging heads, streaming eyes or angry declarations. The mood seemed loose. Frank Martin gobbled a cookie as he headed to his postgame news conference while his players talked among themselves.
The season-ending record was 14-20, but the players felt those numbers didn’t define their season. Fielding the country’s ninth-youngest team, having to change the offense midseason and being out-sized by nearly every opponent, South Carolina improved and played its best basketball at the end of the year.
“It shows what this team is capable of doing,” senior Brenton Williams said. “During the year, we had our ups and downs, but I think toward the end of the year, we started to make strides going in the right direction. That’s what the coaches were trying to illustrate to us, showing what we’re capable of doing if we do what we need to do.”
The Gamecocks won four of their final six games. That was miles better than USC had been finishing seasons. In the previous four years, the Gamecocks had gone 3-8, 2-9, 1-10 and 2-9 in their final 11 games. This year, they went 6-5.
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“Like I’m telling you, just check a month ago,” Martin said. “A month ago, we stepped on the same floor against the same Tennessee team, and there was a mismatch. Today, we fought. Today, we got shots. Today, we grabbed rebounds. Today, we fought them on defense.”
Martin has declared that records are irrelevant to him, that he’s only interested in improving his team. The Gamecocks did that this year, and they are eager to get in the gym.
“It starts right now,” said rising junior Mindaugas Kacinas, one of the team’s most improved players. “We’ll start working and conditioning and practicing as soon as we get back home.”
Ty Johnson will be the Gamecocks’ only senior next year and should be healed from the broken foot he suffered in January. After his injury, USC had to revamp its offense, playing Sindarius Thornwell and Duane Notice out of position at the point.
That duo needs to be on the wing, but each had to limit their scoring in order to run the team. With Johnson back next year, each will be allowed to do what comes naturally.
“Sindarius and Duane Notice will be so much better next year, because they were forced to learn how to play a new place on the floor,” Martin said. “Those guys being able to play through success here at the end of the year, if we had played our last four games and lost by 35 each night, those kids are going home and dragging.”
Kacinas and Laimonas Chatkevicius each played well this year. Chatkevicius saved his best for the stretch run, and Michael Carrera shook off a down season to finish strong. With three freshmen coming in, USC will again field a young team, but all of the sophomores have a year’s worth of experience.
USC’s season ended on a loss, but there were some wins before that final loss.
“I know this – if our young kids accept work and accept responsibility, they’re going to become better men, they’re going to become better students, they’re going to become better players. If they do that, all of that other stuff will take care of itself,” Martin said.
“I’m extremely proud of where we’re at right now.”