Andy Katz was one of several national reporters on hand last month at SEC media day in Birmingham, Alabama. The former ESPN scribe-turned-NCAA.com contributor got some 1-on-1 time with South Carolina coach Frank Martin that resulted in Katz having a slight change in opinion.
Those Gamecocks he pegged in August to finish ninth in the SEC have been bumped up a spot. That’s three spots higher than where USC landed in a media-voted preseason poll.
“I’m not always easily swayed,” Katz posted Oct. 17, “but when you spend time with Frank Martin and look at the roster, you’ll see that the Gamecocks should not have been predicted to finish 11th. I could see South Carolina finishing higher. Four starters are back. And Chris Silva is a conference player of the year possibility. There is no way Martin is finishing out of the postseason. Don’t see it at all.”
Katz’s postseason outlook for Carolina in 2018-19? “NCAA bubble.”
The optimism comes from facts and, well, some reiterating of those facts from Martin. Throw in Evan Hinson (a low-minute starter for 17 games) and USC is actually returning five Gamecocks who started at least 50 percent of last season’s games. The best of those players is Silva, a senior forward and preseason All-SEC selection who’s on track to finish one of the more prolific careers in Gamecock history.
And then there’s six newcomers, featuring a ready-made transfer point guard and an intriguing freshman class. And then there’s a non-conference schedule that allows opportunity for statement wins early in the season.
So, yeah, maybe Katz isn’t just sipping the Martin-poured Kool-aide. Perhaps there’s a Big Dance for the Gamecocks to attend in March after all.
Here are four ways USC, a 2017 Final Four participant, can return to the NCAA Tournament:
1. Get hot out of the gate
Last season’s 6-2 start marked the first time since 2014-15 that South Carolina wasn’t undefeated after eight games. The 2015-16 Gamecocks rode a 15-0 start to a 24-8 final regular season record — and barely missed the NCAA Tournament. The 2016-17 Gamecocks rode a 15-3 start to a 22-10 final regular season record — and a No. 7 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
USC doesn’t necessarily need to begin on some crazy undefeated streak this year, but early success could make national waves. The Gamecocks face Providence (five straight Big Dance appearances), Michigan (No. 19 in the preseason AP Poll), Virginia (No. 5) and Clemson (No. 22) before January hits. Quality wins are there for the taking.
2. Shoot 45 percent from the floor
Martin’s teams have always been built on toughness and defense, but history proves his squads that shoot the best win the most.
Your number to remember for USC this season? 45. Over the last three-plus seasons, South Carolina is 37-0 when it shoots 45 percent or better from the field. The streak dates back to March 7, 2015, when the 51.2-percent shooting Gamecocks beat Tennessee in Knoxville.
The Gamecocks went 9-0 when they hit that benchmark last year, including an 85-84 win over Ole Miss in the first round of the SEC Tournament.
Gone from this USC team is Frank Booker, who made his way into the program record books with 85 three-pointers last year. Who steps up? Hassani Gravett went 4-of-7 from 3 in Carolina’s exhibition loss to Augusta last week.
Another note: Of last season’s top 25 teams in field goal percentage defense, Carolina faces six of them in 2018-19.
3. Keep Chris Silva on the floor
When Silva checked out of the Augusta game with four fouls with 10:19 to go, the Gamecocks were leading the Jaguars 58-50. Silva never returned, and Augusta outscored USC 27-14 the rest of the way.
Sure, had the game counted, Martin would have returned his best player to the floor at some point. But, as he noted afterward, “If he’s going to start doing this nonsense of fouling every, like, non-aggressive play he can possibly figure out to foul, then we need to learn how to play without him in a close game.”
Silva, who led the Gamecocks in points, rebounds and blocks last season, has committed at least four fouls in 58 percent of his games in a Carolina uniform (59 of 102). He did it 18 times last season. USC went 7-11 in those games. When Silva was whistled for three or fewer fouls, the Gamecocks went 10-5, including a win over Kentucky.
4. Find a closer
What would have been South Carolina’s 2017-18 postseason fate had the Gamecocks swept Tennessee, knocked off Texas Tech and taken down Mississippi State on the road?
The above seems like a lot to ask, but it was doable last season. The first time USC lost to the Volunteers, the Gamecocks were within three points before going scoreless over the final 1:45. The second time USC lost to the Vols, Justin Minaya missed a potential game-tying 3-pointer at the buzzer. The Gamecocks fell to the Red Raiders by seven despite holding a lead with under 2:30 left. The downer in Starkville came in overtime.
Flip those results and USC has 21 wins and is likely Big Dance-bound.
Why didn’t any of those come to fruition? Because Sindarius Thornwell was playing for the Los Angeles Clippers.
A year after its clutch All-American guard departed, South Carolina lacked a closer. It went 4-8 in games decided by seven points or fewer, including a 3-6 mark in SEC play.
Martin is looking at the 6-9, 223-pound Silva to help the Gamecocks improve in this area.
“Chris just has to better at those moment,” Martin said during SEC media day. “Whether you play the one (position), the two, the three, the four, the five — you can be the closer. You just have to better at the appointed time. Chris was in a place last year where he was getting used to being the featured player.
“Dealing with the attention, double teams, over help — he got better as the year went on.”