Tendency to rally for SEC wins reflective of USC’s season, says Frank Martin
For the second time in four years, the team that finished fourth in the SEC failed to participate in the NCAA Tournament or NIT.
That became official Sunday night when South Carolina was left out of the NIT’s 32-team field. LSU was dealt the same fate in 2016 — but it came under different circumstances as the Tigers, after a 33-point loss in the SEC Tournament, announced they wouldn’t accept a postseason bid.
That LSU team was 19-14 and likely would have made the field. These Gamecocks were 16-16.
At the end of the day, USC’s overall record was the deciding factor in Frank Martin’s bunch not playing again until November. The Gamecocks were 15-16 against Division I competition, the record that matters to the selection committee. It remains true that no team below .500 has ever made the NIT.
But, unlike LSU of four years ago, Carolina wanted to keep playing.
“I’d love the opportunity to run another ball practice,” Martin said after USC lost to Auburn in the SEC Tournament.
Martin’s praise of the 2108-19 Gamecocks was consistent throughout the year. Even after a loss to Clemson on Dec. 22 — dropping USC to 4-7 — he told reporters, “I really, really like this team. I like the people on this team, I like the makeup of this team.” After the Gamecocks rolled Georgia on March 9 to clinch fourth place in the SEC, Martin said, “Whenever I separate from the season, I’m gonna look back ... this is my one of my favorite seasons I’ve ever had in coaching.”
Here’s what we learned from an eventful Season No. 7 under Martin:
The slow start was too much to overcome
Yes, South Carolina didn’t make the NIT while Arkansas — No. 9 in the SEC — and Alabama — No. 10 — did. It doesn’t seem right until you consider the the value of a full season’s body of work.
The Gamecocks went 5-8 against their non-conference competition. Losses to Virginia, Michigan and Wofford didn’t impact their postseason candidacy. Losses to Stony Brook, Wyoming and Oklahoma State did. Beat one of those opponents — and their combined 44-52 record — and USC is likely preparing for a game right now.
Related: This year’s schedule, according to KenPom, ranks as the nation’s 24th-toughest in the country. It ties with the 2016-17 slate for USC’s toughest schedule since 2005-06.
The last of the injuries proved most damaging
From a Jan. 13 game against Missouri to 31 minutes, 36 seconds into the Alabama game Feb. 26, South Carolina had available eight scholarship players — and manged quite well. It was when A.J. Lawson sprained his ankle late against the Crimson Tide when the lack of bodies caught up to the Gamecocks.
Lawson was seeking to break Sindarius Thornwell’s record for most points by a USC freshman under Martin. He missed parts of four games and came up 66 points short. The Gamecocks, in a game they needed to stay in NCAA Tournament discussion, lost to Alabama and next fell at Missouri. When Lawson returned against Auburn in Nashville, he clearly wasn’t 100 percent. The 6-foot-6 guard was held scoreless (in 13 minutes) for only the second time all season while his backcourt mates — Hassani Gravett and Tre Campbell — went 5 of 22 from the field in a 9-point loss.
Related: Eight USC players — including four starters — missed a combined 130 games because of injury, football responsibility or an eligibility issue.
Chris Silva turned into an NBA player
Martin revealed in post-game Friday that Chris Silva suffered a right wrist injury in the Ole Miss game on Feb. 19 and “didn’t miss a second” the rest of the season. That’s just another example of the special toughness Silva’s shown throughout his South Carolina career.
But the two-time All-SEC forward didn’t come back to USC for his senior season to show better durability for pro scouts. That much was already well-known. He came back to improve specific parts of his game.
Guys his size — 6-9, 230-plus pounds — aren’t posting up all the time at the next level. They need to be a perimeter threat. Silva proved he can be that by shooting 50 percent from 3-point range (23 of 46). Over Carolina’s last seven games — including the Ole Miss win when the injury apparently occurred — Silva went 12 of 20 from beyond the arc, including a 4-for-4 performance in the finale against Auburn.
Related: Silva went 5 of 13 on 3s his first three seasons.
This team flew
The additions of Lawson, Keyshawn Bryant and Tre Campbell — combined with Hassani Gravett moving back to his natural two-guard position — made this the most unique South Carolina team of the Martin era.
Martin had solid speed and athleticism at nearly every position on the floor and it showed in numbers. The Gamecocks finished 60th nationally in KenPom’s adjusted tempo rating. That crushes the 2015-16 Carolina team — No. 84 in tempo — as the quickest-paced bunch of Martin’s seven teams. These Gamecocks averaged 15.8 seconds a possession, nearly a full four seconds quicker than Martin’s first USC team in 2012-13.
South Carolina scored 80 or more points 10 times, trailing only the 2015-16 team for the most under Martin.
Somewhat related: USC finished 76th nationally in KenPom’s defensive efficiency rating. That’s the worst under Martin since 2013-14.
Maik Kotsar lost his starting spot
Maik Kotsar, dating back to the 2017 NCAA Tournament, started 62 of 64 games until he became a reserve player March 2 when USC traveled to Missouri. The junior stayed in that role for the last four games, averaging four points and four rebounds.
Martin said the lineup move — which happened after Lawson got hurt — was to spark a better offensive start for the Gamecocks. He replaced Lawson with Gravett and Kotsar with Felipe Haase.
While the 6-11 Kotsar remains a valuable defensive player — his ability to guard multiple positions often goes unnoticed — his struggles on the other end are becoming more obvious. Take away his 25-point outburst that spurred the Mississippi State win, Kotsar averaged 6.1 points per game this season. During SEC play, he made just 33 percent of his free throws and at one point missed 23 of 26.
Silva’s departure creates a huge void in the middle for South Carolina. Can Kotsar snap out of his funk to fill it?
Related: Silva accounted for 22.5 percent of USC’s rebounds during SEC play.