Preseason event helps connect fans with USC players
A.J. Lawson had a powerful one-hander. Hassani Gravett rocked the rim after a glass-kissing dish from Tre Campbell. And Chris Silva stayed true to form with a strong finish to an alley-oop.
The above describes some notable dunks from South Carolina’s “Gamecock Tip-Off” event held last Friday at Colonial Life Arena. The below describes the night’s best layup.
Frank Martin, playing a Family Feud-style game against Dawn Staley, correctly answered a question at midcourt, grabbed the basketball and dribbled cautiously – “That’s the most running I’ve done in a long time,” he said – to one end of the floor. Before his shot attempt, he glanced over to the USC bench and noticed a line of smiles.
“I figured Chris was over there saying something,” Martin said. “And I saw Hassani’s face and I said, ‘Let me imitate him.’”
In a move Martin reports is something he’s seen every day throughout Gravett’s career, the seventh-year Carolina coach put his left hand on the back of his head while banking home the layup with his right. Laughter ensued.
“I’m just happy it went in,” Martin said, “or I never would have heard the end of it.”
By a certain measure, this 2018-19 team is one of the most experienced Martin’s had since coming to Columbia from Kansas State in March 2012. Gravett is one of five returning Carolina players – joining Silva, Maik Kotsar, Justin Minaya and Evan Hinson – to start at least 50 percent of last season’s games. The Gamecocks last had those numbers entering 2014-15 when Sindarius Thornwell, Demetrius Henry, Mindaugas Kacinas, Duane Notice and Michael Carrera were all back after a combined 132 starts the previous year.
Such familiarity not only allows Martin to perform perfect imitations of players like Gravett, it has him pleased with something he felt the Gamecocks struggled with all last winter.
“I was never really happy with our leadership last year,” Martin said. “It doesn’t mean that they were bad, I just wasn’t happy with how it was being handled.
“And these two guys (Gravett and Silva) here, Maik, Justin, Felipe (Haase), that nucleus of guys that played a lot of minutes for us last year, they’re in a much better place right now. As players, as people. I’m more comfortable with who they are. For people to lead, they got to be comfortable with who they are first. And so they’re doing a better job.”
Silva, as both he and Martin admitted on several occasions, tried to take on a captain’s role last season, but it didn’t produce the results either wanted. The Gamecocks, a year after making the Final Four, finished 17-16 and missed on the postseason all together.
Off their 12 losses in SEC play, seven came by seven points or fewer.
“Last year, I was accepting a new role,” said Silva, a senior and reigning SEC co-defensive player of the year. “So my leadership role, my experience was a little bit low. I didn’t really know what to do. I was feeling confused or overwhelmed. I was just trying to go to (Martin) and trying to learn as much as possible. … I was teaching guys while trying to be on top myself.
“Everybody, the returners are in a much better place. So I know I’m not the only one trying to lead the team. We’re having fun at practice, practicing hard, trying to help the young guys. We’re just following the leadership of Coach.”
This year’s vets are being blended with seven new faces, including five freshmen and Campbell, a graduate transfer. Less than a month before the season opener, Martin is satisfied with the progress.
“We’re way ahead of where I thought we’d be,” Martin said. “We’re way ahead, not even close. The returning guys have been great.”