Maik Kotsar was about off the hot seat when another reporter stuck a camera in his face.
“Maik,” said the 6-foot-9, 223-pound figure who managed to sneak into SEC Tip-Off without a credential, “what do you think of Coach?”
South Carolina on Wednesday was represented among its league foes by its frontcourt starters and veteran coach Frank Martin. Before they entered the Grand Bohemian Hotel, they were officially picked to finish 11th in the media-voted preseason poll. But there was little talk of feeling disrespected or they are to out prove people wrong in 2018-19. It, instead, was mostly grins and good vibes.
That’s the way Chris Silva wanted it.
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Whether Silva was posing as a cameraman to his teammate or joking around with media members, the senior forward from Gabon felt at home in Alabama.
“It’s a special day,” Silva said. “It’s always fun to be here. My freshman year, I used to watch Duane (Notice) and Sin (Thornwell) here and having fun. So coming here is always fun.”
Silva, as one of two returning starters from USC’s Final Four team, was at this event last year in Nashville. But there was a stiffness then, an odd feeling about handling the spotlight after departures of guys like Thornwell and Notice.
Handling that sudden leadership role lingered into the season as the Gamecocks failed to get back to the NCAA Tournament, despite Silva being named SEC co-defensive player of the year and landing on the league’s first team.
“We come off a Final Four and the guys that were the actual leaders in that locker room – day in and day out – were gone and not on campus,” Martin said. “And now those guys that are back, they’re getting all the attention and all the praise for how great they are. And then they’re trying to figure out how to stay humble at the age of 19 and 20 and stay grounded with the understanding that now they have to get better and they have to help others while everyone’s telling them how great they are.
“And it’s part of learning. It’s a stage of life that they have to go through and I think they’re better for it.”
Martin learned of Silva making the preseason media-voted All-SEC team on Tuesday evening. When he delivered the news to Silva on Wednesday morning, he told him, “Congratulations, you were voted the ugliest guy in the SEC.”
“Kotsar thought it was awesome,” Martin said with a grin.
But after the joke wore off and the news kicked in, Silva took a moment to let it set.
“Coach surprised me on the place and told me that,” Silva said. “That was emotional, but at the same time, it doesn’t mean anything if you come into the season and you’re not ready to go. So I don’t really pay enormous attention to that. I just try to control what I can control.”
On Wednesday, that meant keeping things light. When he was called “the old man on the team” by a reporter asking a question about USC’s progress with blending in eight new players, Silva stopped the reporter.
“Oh, man,” he said. “I didn’t know I was old.”
He then answered the question like a proven leader.
“I’m the oldest,” Silva said, “but I’m not the only returner. We got Maik here with me. He tries to keep his hands on the freshmen, try to talk to them and guide them and lead them. We got Justin (Minaya), who’s back, Hassani (Gravett), who’s been here for a couple years. We got a couple guys that have been on the team for at least two years. ... It’s just up to the young guys to listen and learn the same way I’m still learning from Coach.
“Everybody tries to help everybody in practice.”
When Silva first arrived at South Carolina, he barely spoke English. As a sophomore, he went to the Final Four. As a junior, he was the best player on a 17-16 team. As a senior on Wednesday, he further announced his presence to the rest of the SEC.
“At this time last year, he had never been the focal person,” Martin said. “He was always a guy no one paid attention to, that whether he played good or not, we won or lost, he had to go answers the questions.
“And he’s better at that right now. He’s more comfortable, which is then allowing him to be more comfortable in practice and the locker room, leading and taking responsible and holding people accountable. He’s in a much better place, and that’s why you saw that growth that you’ve seen.”