After a year’s absence, all 2016 Final Four participants are back in the NCAA tournament.
Syracuse, a No. 11 seed, faces Arizona State in a Wednesday play-in game. No. 10 Oklahoma plays Thursday afternoon against Rhode Island. Top-seeded Villanova is in action Thursday evening. No. 2 North Carolina gets 15th-seeded Lipscomb on Friday.
While the Wildcats and Tar Heels never left, both the Orange and Sooners missed last season’s Big Dance. Their 2018 recovery is what South Carolina will be seeking in 2019.
The Gamecocks, national semifinalists last spring, were officially left out of the NCAA tournament and NIT on Sunday, ending their year with a 17-16 record. Preseason picked to finish 11th in the SEC after losing all three starting guards, USC was a No. 11 seed in last week’s league tournament. It fell to Arkansas in the second round.
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Expectations should be higher for South Carolina next season. Here are five questions facing the Gamecocks entering 2018-19:
Will Brian Bowen become eligible?
The offseason’s No. 1 storyline centers around the Louisville transfer. Bowen, a key figure in the FBI probe into college basketball, has been practicing with Carolina since mid-January, but still must be reinstated by the NCAA to participate in games.
Both coach Frank Martin and athletics director Ray Tanner have publicly expressed their trust in USC compliance director Chance Miller. All parties feel confident Bowen, a former McDonald’s All-American, will wear a Gamecock uniform one day. Per NCAA transfer rules, Bowen isn’t eligible until after the fall semester ends, but that can be appealed. The 2017 high school graduate never played for Louisville.
Sports attorney Don Jackson, who spoke to The State last month after a Yahoo Sports report included allegations of Bowen’s family receiving “$7,000 in benefits” from the ASM Sports agency, floated the idea of Bowen being granted limited immunity by the NCAA.
“One of the issues that could lead towards him getting immediately eligible at South Carolina would be providing adverse information against the University of Louisville,” Jackson said. “Essentially, being a cooperating witness.”
Bowen, a 6-foot-7 wing, could also declare for this year’s NBA draft. That deadline is April 22. Martin, though, has said Bowen has intentions to play for South Carolina.
How will Rakym Felder’s return impact the Gamecocks?
Plug Felder into the 2017-18 USC team and how many wins do the Gamecocks have? 20? Are they preparing for the NCAA tournament right now?
Martin longed for better point guard play all season. It was clearly the issue that frustrated the coach most. Felder, the natural replacement for the departed P.J. Dozier, wasn’t re-enrolled at USC until January. Legal troubles took away his true sophomore season – and perhaps took two or three victories away from the Gamecocks.
Barring any mishaps, Felder should be back in games next season. The 5-10, 210-pound New Yorker averaged 5.6 points, 1.5 rebounds and 1.3 assists in 14.6 minutes per contest as a freshman. He scored in double figures nine times, including a 15-point effort against Duke in the NCAA tournament’s second round.
How can Carolina improve its shooting?
Martin said in October the 2017-18 USC bunch was the best shooting team he’s had in his 11 years as head coach. He’s stood by that statement – despite the Gamecocks finishing with an SEC-worst 39.8 field goal percentage – because 10 different players made multiple 3-pointers.
The shooting talent is there. It’s the consistency that needs improvement. Martin said a big reason for the FG woes was due to USC’s poor passing traits. A natural point guard in Felder should help that issue. Another year for Hassani Gravett in that position could help, too.
But Carolina is losing Frank Booker, who finished with 85 3s, the third-most ever by a Gamecock in a single season. He was easily the USC player opposing defenses had to account for on the perimeter. Who fills that void? Rising sophomore Justin Minaya is a candidate. The 6-5 wing shot 36 percent from 3 as a rookie. He was 6 of 8 from beyond the arc in the SEC tournament.
What’s next for Chris Silva?
Silva will one day get his NBA shot, but there’s no indication that it’s going to come this year. The first-team All-SEC player is likely to be back for his senior season with the Gamecocks.
The 6-9 forward got his trial run as USC’s leader as a junior. He’ll be fully in that spotlight in 2018-19.
Player leadership is big for Martin. He noted Carolina’s weakness in that area this past winter. Silva will be held accountable to get better in that role next season.
Being a good captain also means being on the floor with your teammates. Though Silva led the Gamecocks in points, rebounds and blocks this past season, he was only fifth on the team in minutes. He committed at least four fouls in 18 of USC’s 33 games.
Who will be USC’s starters? Rotation?
If Bowen and Felder are on the active roster, Martin likely rolls with the following five:
F Maik Kotsar
This brings Gravett, Felipe Haase, Evan Hinson and David Beatty off the bench. Incoming freshman guard Jermaine Couisnard will also compete for minutes.
The SEC will still be strong next season, but won’t be as deep. Four of the eight first-team All-SEC selections are seniors. Another is Kevin Knox, the likely NBA-bound Kentucky freshman.
South Carolina should be back in the postseason.