David Cloninger

Freshman Kotsar rewards Frank Martin’s trust

They had their own ideas of what to expect when they saw the strapping 6-foot-10 19-year-old starting South Carolina’s first game. They’d just watched four years of Laimonas Chatkevicius and Mindaugas Kacinas, and Maik Kotsar seemed to be the next progression in the line.

They were wrong.

The Gamecocks’ freshman power forward continues to impact the country’s No. 16 team, becoming a bull on the block and removing some of the pressure from a senior-led backcourt and center Chris Silva. Expected to start the 10th game of the season, like he has the previous nine, Kotsar has immediately become a dependable player instead of the fifth option most assumed he’d be.

“It’s a privilege, playing for such a good program and being a starter,” rumbled the towering rookie this week, the first time he and USC’s other newcomers were cleared to speak to the media. “I’d say I have to get a lot stronger. I’m on my way there, but not nearly at where I need to be. Got a long ways to go, but I’m working on it.”

It’s not that Chatkevicius and Kacinas weren’t productive. Quite the contrary. They were integral parts of USC’s rise to respectability after committing to Frank Martin when he first arrived.

Their games, honed in their native Lithuania, had to be tuned for American basketball. Raised to play on the perimeter and shoot jumpers, they had to be taught to use their natural height and length to stay in the lane and rebound.

Understandably, some read up on Kotsar when he committed and saw “6-10, Estonia” and figured he would struggle some before really finding himself, like the previous two. But he’s from Estonia, north of Lithuania with Latvia between, and after overcoming foul trouble in his first few games, Kotsar scored 16 points in the Gamecocks’ upset of Syracuse. Playing against a defense designed to limit looks from the big man, Kotsar shot 7-of-9 from the field and relentlessly attacked the glass, throwing his frame all over Brooklyn.

“I didn’t just throw all the freshmen into a hat and shake it up, ‘Let’s make him the starter,’” Martin said after that game. “I got around Maik a lot (during our summer trip to Costa Rica) and I kind of got a feel for him as a player, what he can and can’t do. Maik continues to grow. Maik’s been great.”

A true inside player, Kotsar has been a wonderful surprise to folks who thought he’d camp on the 3-point line and let the other four handle the scoring. He can knock down that 17-footer, see, but if he’s able to maneuver to within two feet of the hole, why wouldn’t he do that?

“Frank gives everyone the green light as long as you’re confident with the ball and don’t make stupid decisions,” Kotsar said. “It’s hard to play the defense but we take pride in it, and everyone just keeps playing the Frank Martin defense.”

Kotsar is one of only two Estonians in Division I basketball, the other Rauno Nurger at Wichita State. Kotsar was also found in Wichita, Martin’s years of connecting with folks throughout basketball coming in handy.

Martin, Sindarius Thornwell and Ty Johnson were part of a select U.S. team that played in Estonia in the summer of 2014. While there, Martin met someone who knew a friend of Martin’s stateside.

Martin got a call two years later from the same guy that there was a big man in Wichita he needed to see. It didn’t take long to offer Kotsar a scholarship, and a shorter time for Kotsar to accept.

“I heard the school name, didn’t know much about the program,” Kotsar said. “Once they showed interest in me, I started to show interest in them and see what coach Martin was about. Overall, I liked the program and liked Frank Martin’s way of coaching and decided to come here.”

Kotsar met the two Lithuanian seniors while visiting and they shared their experiences with him. USC was the place to be, they said – it was on the verge of something big.

Kotsar agreed and is a starter for a Top 25 team.

“I hadn’t heard about them, but once I visited here, I got along with them really nicely,” he said. “I talked with them and they shared their experiences here. That was another thing that made me decide to come here.”

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NO. 16 USC (8-1) at USF (5-3)

When: 1 p.m. Saturday

Where: USF Sun Dome, Tampa, Fla.

TV: CBS Sports Network

Radio: 107.5 FM

South Carolina’s probable starters: G P.J. Dozier 6-6 So. (13.6 ppg, 4.6 rpg); G Justin McKie 6-4 Sr. (5.1 ppg, 2.9 rpg); G Duane Notice 6-2 Sr. (10.7 ppg, 2.1 rpg); F Maik Kotsar 6-10 Fr. (8.6 ppg, 4.4 rpg); F Chris Silva 6-9 So. (9.4 ppg, 6.4 rpg)

USF’s probable starters: G Michael Bibby 6-3 Fr. (6.1 ppg, 1.3 rpg); G Geno Thorpe 6-4 Jr. (13.9 ppg, 4.3 rpg); F Tulio Da Silva 6-7 Fr. (11.5 ppg, 8.5 rpg); F Malik Fitts 6-8 Fr. (6.4 ppg, 3.0 rpg); C Ruben Guerrero 7-0 Jr. (6.5 ppg, 7.0 rpg)

Next game: South Carolina hosts Clemson at 9 p.m. on Wednesday.