David Cloninger

Improved Gamecock team is here but not easy to spot

FRANK MARTIN IS happy with his team. There are times where it may be hard to discern, but Martin has consistently said that this team’s energy and its desire to get better is smoothing the rough spots.

“I’ve got no doubt that we’re a much better basketball team than we were a month ago, let alone in November,” Martin said recently. “And when you consider the fact that we lost our two point guards, there’s absolutely no doubt that we’re better, and you don’t get better unless kids buy into sharing the same theme, the same heartbeat, the same vision that the coaches are trying to put into place.”

Facing his second season with almost an entire new team, Martin wanted to see improvement. Only the most optimistic could expect a postseason berth from a team with seven freshmen and eight newcomers, the realistic knowing that the best-case scenario was a team that would win late in the season and take a big step next year.

Wednesday’s loss at Arkansas clinched the program’s fourth straight losing regular season. Barring a run through the SEC tournament, the Gamecocks will be watching the postseason from home for the fifth straight year.

But has there been improvement?

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At 10-16, 3-10 in the SEC, the Gamecocks need to win four games to match last season’s win total, and one win to match their SEC mark. The Gamecocks haven’t won an SEC tournament game in five seasons. Win one this year, and that has to be an improvement.

USC’s schedule has toughened. Partly due to a decree from the SEC and partly due to Martin wanting to challenge his team early so it would know how to finish games late, Martin lined up games at Baylor and Oklahoma State, plus a tournament in Hawaii.

The Gamecocks went 7-6 in non-conference after going 10-3 the year before. But USC’s strength-of-schedule was No. 167 last year and its RPI was No. 228; this year, USC has the No. 55 SOS and No. 162 RPI.

The Gamecocks have won three league games with five to go. Two of the three home games are against Kentucky and Florida. The road games (Auburn and Mississippi State) are winnable, but USC has yet to win on the road in the SEC this season and is 5-35 in league road games since 2008-09. USC was 1-8 in SEC road games last year.

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The Gamecocks, like last year, have lost their share of close games, particularly in league play. The difference is how the team responded.

Last season, USC lost four SEC games by a combined 18 points before winning its second SEC game. Then came Florida, where the Gamecocks were smashed 75-36. After that, the Gamecocks dropped their next five, one by single digits. USC beat Ole Miss, then lost three, one by single digits. A win over Mississippi State was followed by a 10-point loss to Vanderbilt, then an SEC tournament loss.

The Gamecocks lost by two this year to Baylor, then dropped their SEC opener by 16 at Florida. The next three games were lost by a combined 12 points before a 21-point drubbing at Georgia — where Martin was disappointed in his team’s effort — an eight-point loss to Missouri and a win against Texas A&M.

USC lost by four at Ole Miss (after squandering a 15-point lead halfway through the second half), then lost by five and 19. After that came a two-game winning streak, then a seven-point loss at Arkansas.

The Gamecocks continue to fight this year.

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USC’s roster has five players who played significant minutes last season. Brenton Williams raised his scoring average from 11.0 to 14.2, and Mindaugas Kacinas went from 4.9 to 5.1. Laimonas Chatkevicius remains at 4.4, but he has raised his rebounding from 3.2 to 3.6. Brian Steele, who averaged 2.3 points in seven games last year, is scoring 1.6 points but has played in twice as many games.

The other returnee is Michael Carrera, an All-SEC freshman who averaged 9.9 points and 7.2 rebounds. Carrera’s season has been a rollercoaster. Martin said Carrera has played well recently but still has a ways to go. He’s averaging 6.7 points and 5.2 rebounds.

For the new players, Sindarius Thornwell and Duane Notice have improved. Jaylen Shaw has proven to be a dependable player despite long breaks between minutes.

Demetrius Henry started well but has slammed into the “freshman wall.” Much of it has to do with playing bigger and stronger competition, but he also has to stay on the court. Henry the starter often finds himself on the bench early with two fouls, and Henry the reserve often is slow to make an impact. He has slipped to averaging 4.8 points and 3.7 rebounds. Before SEC play, he was at 7.1 and 5.2, respectively.

There’s also the X-factor. Ty Johnson was going to play point, with Bruce Ellington and Notice behind him. Ellington was gone after three games.

Johnson was lost on Jan. 15 to a fractured foot at Texas A&M. That forced Notice into an uncomfortable role, took away 11.2 points per game and deprived the Gamecocks of one of their upperclassmen. Who’s to say Johnson couldn’t have made that winning bucket against Ole Miss at home, or drove for a basket to stop the Ole Miss surge at Oxford?

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USC has increased its scoring from 66.1 points to 70.0, but its rebounding has dropped from 35.6 to 34.9. The rebounding splits are slightly down as well — from 13.6 offensively to 13.3, from 21.9 defensively to 21.5.

The Gamecocks are better with assists (12.6, after 12.25 last year), taking care of the ball (14.5 turnovers, with 15.3 last year) and steals (6.3 from 5.1). They are not better at blocking shots (3.9 to 5.1) or fouls (22.8 from 20.0). There are new rules that make many games more foul-friendly, though, which has affected the Gamecocks’ big men (leading to the absence of shot-blockers on the court).

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Many focus on the wins, and with five games to go, the Gamecocks are about at the make-or-break point. But overall, the team has gotten better.

“For a team as young as we were, our leadership had not been good,” Martin said. “Here, we’ve grown as a team because of Sindarius and Duane Notice. Those two guys have really taken ownership and tried to set a table for how we want to play.

“I’m excited about our kids. Our will, our fight, our willingness to compete and grow has never been an issue.”

Looks like Martin is on to something.