Chris Silva paused to protest before quietly jogging to the other end of the floor. South Carolina’s best player, as he tried to squeeze past LSU’s late-arriving double-team, took an extra step and was whistled for a traveling violation.
This was game No. 30 in the 2017-18 season, and game No. 99 in Silva’s college career. Frank Martin, well aware of the junior’s experience, voiced his frustration from the USC sideline.
“Really?!?” Martin yelled out to Silva. “REALLY?!?”
Two minutes later, Silva let a simple in-bounds pass from Frank Booker slip through his fingers and into the LSU bench.
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“That’s three!” Martin barked, indicating an update to the turnover column on Silva’s stat line. “Three!”
The Gamecocks beat the Tigers in overtime last Wednesday. Silva finished with eight points, five rebounds, three assists and two blocks. Last season, such numbers would have filled his required duties. A secondary option to star guards Sindarius Thornwell and P.J. Doizer, Silva was a Martin-labeled “junkyard dog,” the dirty work guy who would make highlights out of scraps.
Silva on Tuesday was named to the All-SEC first team and the all-defensive team. He shared the league’s co-defensive player of the year honor with Texas A&M’s Robert Williams. He’s averaging 14.1 points, 7.8 rebounds and 1.3 blocks per game.
It all confirmed a season of accomplishment for the 6-foot-9, 223-pound junior. But don’t expect the Martin prodding to stop Wednesday in St. Louis when 11-seed USC (16-15) faces 14-seed Ole Miss (12-19) in the first round of the SEC tournament. Tip-off is scheduled for 9:30 p.m.
“That’s what (Silva) wants,” Martin said. “He wants me to coach him. And you ask him, he’ll tell you, ‘I came here because Frank was going to coach me.’ He wasn’t going to run away from it. If I don’t, he’s going to be mad at me.”
Departures of Thornwell, Dozier and Duane Notice paved the way for Silva to be Carolina’s go-to-player a year after the Final Four run.
But just over a month into the season, Silva was struggling to accept that reality. He spoke with USC assistant coach Perry Clark in December.
“When I had a conversation with him early, when I talked about the roles changing, he said he really enjoyed his role last year, helping P.J., Sin and Duane,” Clark said. “And he just wanted to really work to help them. Well, I told him, with those three guys gone, how about working to help Frank Martin and make his life easier?”
Silva, a native of Gabon who spent his high school years in New Jersey, is still relatively new to the game. Freak athleticism brought him to South Carolina. The three years since have included the molding of a basketball player.
Emphasis this past off-season was put on Silva developing a face-up game. With the familiar marked men gone, double-teams were bound to come his way. He had to enhance his court vision and generate a feel for his options.
Last year, Silva said, “all I did was post up, get the ball, turn around and shoot at the basket.”
This year, he’s more than doubled his assist numbers. He also leads the team in turnovers with 82.
“One of the things that creates up and downs in a player’s performance is their mental maturity,” Clark said. “And I think what you’re talking about, especially when you talk about his newness to the game or his youth, is his mental maturity to prepare himself for different things. Because all of a sudden, he becomes a focal point, so now he’s getting doubled. OK, now they’re really working hard to not let him get the ball where he wants or they’re taking him away.
“Now the ability to make adjustments through our sets and through our offense, he has to be able to recognize and pick up. And that’s where I think at times he’s had problems, which has created the turnovers.”
Silva leads the country is fouls drawn per 40 minutes (9.0). His SEC-high 255 free throw attempts are the eighth-most in South Carolina history.
Such aggression is often countered, however, by his own whistle-causing. Silva on Saturday at Auburn fouled out for the fifth time this season and 18th time in his career.
He left the floor against the Tigers with 3:38 left and Carolina down 11 points.
“It’s really tough because, personally, the way I play, I like to go 100 percent. I like to give everything I have during every play, every moment,” Silva said. “I just got to start being smart. I can’t be out of control and make a stupid foul because it could cost us the game, especially in a moment like that.
“I’ve been trying to find a balance between both of them.”
On those occasions when he strikes that balance, the USC benefits are limitless. Silva scored 27 points – including two on a first half dunk that topped SportsCenter’s nightly top play rankings – and grabbed eight rebounds to lead the Gamecocks over Kentucky on Jan. 16. He had 18 and 12 in win at Florida eight days later.
“I’m still learning,” Silva said.
Silva on Monday was casually asked if he was considering early entry to the NBA draft. The future pro smiled, grabbed his backpack and said, “I like my senior year.”
USC coaches can start planning accordingly.
“I think he’s going to have an outstanding senior year,” Clark said. “I really do. I just think when you see the growth and now, all of a sudden, he’s worn the crown of being ‘The Guy.’ That takes some guys a little longer to be comfortable with and adjust to than others.
“Having gone through that, I just think that will make his senior year a lot easier.”
Who: No. 11 seed USC (16-15, 7-11 SEC) vs. No. 14 Ole Miss (12-19, 5-13)
What: SEC tournament first round game
When: 9:30 p.m.
Where: Scottrade Center in St. Louis
TV: SEC Network
Radio: 107.5 The Game