The South Carolina men’s basketball season is officially underway.
Practice started this past Tuesday, 43 days before the first game. The mere thought of the session was enough to get Frank Martin’s juices flowing.
“Here. We. Go,” the USC coach tweeted at 11:13 a.m. on Monday. Martin went on to list reasons for optimism surrounding the 2018-19 Gamecocks, among them the shot at a fifth consecutive winning season and the return of SEC defensive player of the year Chris Silva.
“I know I’m excited,” Martin concluded. “I hope gamecock nation is 2.”
The post was consistent with Martin’s outlook on this team since May when he announced at a news conference, “I’m at a good place with our roster.”
The group is 15-players deep. There’s a proven commodity in Silva, a breakout candidate in Justin Minaya and a handful of promising new faces, ranging from grad transfer Tre Campbell to freshman A.J. Lawson.
The Gamecocks host Augusta on Oct. 26 in an exhibition before opening the season Nov. 6 against USC Upstate.
What’s standing in the way of these Gamecocks getting back to the NCAA Tournament? Here are four pressing questions for this upcoming month and beyond:
1. Can Campbell solidify the point guard position?
Plug in Rakym Felder for Wes Myers or P.J. Dozier for Hassani Gravett and the Gamecocks make some form of the postseason last year.
South Carolina finished a game above .500 in 2017-18 despite a glaring weakness at point guard. It was a credit to Martin’s coaching chops, but it also made clear the No. 1 goal of the offseason. With Felder fully dismissed and Dozier well into his professional career, the Gamecocks had to find a PG.
On April 15, T.J. Moss committed to Carolina. A month later, Campbell did the same. Throw Gravett – and his 22 starts last season – into the mix and that gives Martin three legitimate options at point.
Moss, though, is a freshman. Gravett, as he’s shown in the past, can be more effective off the ball. This moves the spotlight to Campbell. The former Georgetown Hoya came to South Carolina for his last year of college ball. The 6-foot, 170-pounder best fits the profile for what Martin wants. Can he capitalize on the opportunity?
“That’s why I chose South Carolina, so I can run a team,” Campbell said in August, “as a point guard in the SEC, which is one of the best conferences in the country. I wanted to do that.”
2. Who emerges as team’s most trusted shooter?
Martin made headlines last preseason for one particular bold observation: The 2017-18 Gamecocks looked like the best shooting team he’s had in his 10 years as a head coach.
Thirty-three games later, USC finished last in the SEC in field goal percentage. Martin later defended his October remark by noting that 10 different Gamecocks made at least four 3-pointers. Six of those shooters return, but Frank Booker doesn’t. Booker’s 85 3s last year were the third-most in school history – and 46 more than his closest teammate (Minaya).
Minaya, whose improved touch impressed neutral observers over the summer, is Carolina’s most established perimeter threat on paper. Sophomore Felipe Haase, who shot 38 percent from the floor last year, is another option. Moss made 8 of 11 3s in an SC Pro-Am game in July.
“Once Coach Frank get his hands on them and molds them,” Booker said at the Pro-Am, “he’s going to figure out, ‘OK, he’s the shooter.’
“It could be either one of those guys. Felipe, he shot the ball really well last year. ... Justin, he’s going to be solid. He’s more of a dribble guy, though. He can shoot the 3, but he’s more of a dribble driver and rebounder.”
3. How much will the freshmen be needed? Which of the rookies can make the biggest impact?
Martin told The State in July that the ‘18 class was the best he’s signed since coming to USC. He said it again in August. In other words, he’s expecting some immediate impact from this bunch.
In Martin’s six years at USC, he’s had at least one freshman start the opening game five times. The Gamecocks begin Nov. 6 against USC Upstate. You can safely pencil in Silva, Minaya and Maik Kotsar among the first five. Campbell is the early PG favorite, which leaves room for a potential appearance by Lawson or Couisnard.
Sindarius Thornwell remains the most-used freshman under Martin. He averaged 29.6 minutes per game in 2013-14. Minaya went for 26.9 minutes a night last year.
4. Can Kotsar bounce back?
USC didn’t return a whole lot from its Final Four team, but the Gamecocks did have a couple starters back to begin 2017-18. Silva used that experience to earn All-SEC recognition and test the NBA waters. Kotsar’s campaign, however, wasn’t nearly as prolific.
The 6-11 forward, while still showing a versatile defensive presence, struggled on the other end. He averaged just over 6 points and shot under 32 percent in SEC games.
“Oh, it was really frustrating.,” Kotsar said at the Pro-Am. “I was frustrated at myself. There was no one else to be frustrated about it. During the summer, I’ve tried to work and get better and make some shots, both inside and out.”
An improvement in Kotsar’s offensive game could do wonders for freeing up Silva around the rim.