The last time South Carolina entered conference play with a 9-3 record, it finished 17-16 overall and 13th in the SEC standings.
That was 2013-14, season No. 2 in Frank Martin’s rebuilding effort in Columbia. The current Gamecocks (9-3) travel to Ole Miss on Sunday to begin Martin’s sixth run through the league. USC is no longer a laughingstock in the SEC. That was well-confirmed last March when the Gamecocks advanced to the Final Four.
But when Carolina began its encore performance in November, it was having to replace 73 percent of its scoring from last season. Sindarius Thornwell wasn’t there when the Gamecocks opened at Wofford. Neither was P.J. Dozier or Duane Notice.
New faces have led to new challenges. The non-conference slate isn’t completely over – USC hosts Texas Tech on Jan. 27 as part of the Big 12/SEC Challenge – but here’s a review of the Gamecocks through 2017-18’s first two months:
Best performance – Win at Wofford, Nov. 10
South Carolina was an honored guest in Spartanburg. Not only were the Gamecocks the opponent chosen to help open sparkling new Jerry Richardson Indoor Stadium, they were greeted with their own introduction video, a rarity for a road team.
But after the pre-game fireworks fizzled out, there was still a stiff challenge ahead. The Terriers were a dangerous team featuring Fletcher Magee, one of the country’s most fearless shooters. A sold-out crowd only enhanced the stakes.
But the Gamecocks hardly blinked. A 12-0 run to start the second half put Carolina up 21 and all but erased the upset bid. Martin’s bunch rolled to a 73-52 rout as seven players scored at least six points. USC shot 47.8 percent from 3 that night, connecting on 11 attempts. Both still stand as season bests.
Wofford is 8-4 now with wins over Georgia Tech and defending national champion North Carolina. Magee, who was held to 17 points (only two after halftime) by the Gamecocks, is up to fifth nationally in scoring, averaging over 24 a game.
Worst performance – Loss vs. Illinois State, Nov. 16
There’s a common theme to USC’s three losses – poor shooting. That was on full display against the Redbirds in Conway.
South Carolina, facing ISU’s active 2-3 zone, didn’t make its field goal until the 14:23 mark of the first half. It finished 18 of 61 from the field (29.5 percent) and 9 of 32 from 3 (28.1 percent).
The end result was a frustrating 69-65 loss that eliminated the Gamecocks from championship contention in the relocated Puerto Rico Tip-Off tournament.
Carolina committed a season-high 32 fouls. Both Chris Silva and Maik Kotsar, a duo making up USC’s starting frontcourt, fouled out.
“All we did was foul,” Martin said afterward.
ISU is now 7-6. The Redbirds are 2-0 against the SEC after beating Ole Miss in Oxford on Dec. 16.
MVP – Chris Silva
Based on pure value, Silva runs away with this. When he’s on the floor, the Gamecocks have a post presence on offense and a rim protector on defense. Silva leads USC in scoring, rebounding and blocked shots. He’s second nationally in fouls drawn per 40 minutes. He’s made 32 more free throws than the next Gamecock has attempted.
But the junior is also tops on the team in fouls for a third straight season.
Silva’s managed to get through just one game this season in which he hasn’t been whistled for at least three fouls. He’s only fifth on Carolina in minutes played.
Best freshman – Justin Minaya
Following a 76-70 win over UMass on Dec. 2, Martin expressed his disappointment in many elements of the program – from the fan support to the player execution to his own coaching.
Squeezing an ounce of positivity out of Martin that afternoon was going to be difficult, but he did manage to highlight his top scorer. “It’s sad when our best player has been on campus for four months,” he said of Justin Minaya.
Minaya had 17 points against the Minutemen, putting him in double figures for the fourth time in five games. The rookie’s now done that on six occasions this season.
The 6-foot-5, 210-pound wing has a complete game and loads of potential. Recent struggles – a combined four points against Clemson and Limestone – suggest slip-up, but the future is bright.
Biggest surprise – Frank Booker
Kory Holden and Wes Myers were big-time scorers at their previous schools while Booker transferred into USC with a career average of five points per game.
Outside expectations were never sky-high for Booker, but he’s certainly exceeded them. The senior, whose previous stops included Oklahoma (2013-15) and Florida Atlantic (2016-17), is sixth in the SEC in 3-pointers made (30). Only Silva has had more double-digit scoring games (nine) than Booker’s eight. He’s averaging over 11 points a contest.
Most important player going forward – Wes Myers
With Hassani Gravett still fighting for consistency, Holden out with a hamstring injury and Rakym Felder not returning to the team this season, Myers just might take over main point guard duties.
Martin said Wednesday the senior will now only get PG reps in practice, allowing Myers to focus solely on improving a glaring weakness for Carolina.
Should the 6-1, 193-pounder steady USC’s offense, the Gamecocks have a better chance in a stacked SEC.