USC Men's Basketball

With AJ Lawson back, here are 3 top starting lineup options for USC in 2019-20

On this day last year, the South Carolina basketball program still had an incomplete roster. Keyshawn Bryant and A.J. Lawson, near-future impact freshmen, had not yet committed to USC, leaving Frank Martin some work to do as summer began.

The Gamecocks are a tad more stable heading into June 2019.

Lawson’s Tuesday announcement that he’s returning to Carolina answers the final question concerning this upcoming team. All scholarships are filled, including one by their best player.

Using last year’s numbers alone, Lawson is the sixth-leading scorer among those SEC players returning for 2019-20. A slight increase in production as a sophomore could leave Lawson with 800 points, 200 assists, 260 rebounds and 80 steals after two seasons in garnet and black. Comparing that to recent notable Carolina guards at such a stage in their careers, Sindarius Thornwell had 821 points, 174 assists, 300 rebounds and 83 steals, P.J. Dozier had 730 points, 171 assists, 274 rebounds and 94 steals and Duane Notice had 666 points, 188 assists, 186 rebounds and 49 steals.

Lawson is the natural centerpiece to USC’s shot at returning to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2017. So who surrounds him?

Our first stab at lineup projections came before Jason Cudd and Felipe Haase transferred out and Jalyn McCreary and Micaiah Henry came in. An updated version:

Safe bet for now

PG Jair Bolden

SG A.J. Lawson

SF Justin Minaya

PF Keyshawn Bryant

C Maik Kotsar

This five has combined to play 198 games in a South Carolina uniform. Bolden will be in his first playing year with the Gamecocks, but he’s still a junior who started 40 games in two seasons with George Washington and was with USC last season, sitting out as a transfer.

There’s a familiarity with this group that Martin might lean on when the season begins. There’s versatility, too, as Minaya and Bryant are interchangeable at the forward spots and Bolden and Lawson can switch backcourt positions.

Welcome, Henry

PG Jair Bolden

SG AJ Lawson

SF Justin Minaya

PF Micaiah Henry

C Maik Kotsar

Henry is the fourth graduate transfer brought in by Martin. The previous three — Frank Booker, Wes Myers, Tre Campbell — started 59 of a possible 98 games (60.2 percent) as Gamecocks.

One of USC’s biggest needs this offseason — before the 6-foot-9 Haase left — was an experienced big man. It landed that in Henry, a 6-9, 235-pounder who started 36 games in three seasons at Tennessee Tech. He’s likely the best rim protector on the roster, a skill that holds high value after Chris Silva’s departure.

Bryant, with his elite athleticism and energy, is a fun sixth man option.

Go young

PG Trae Hannibal or TJ Moss

SG AJ Lawson

SF Keyshawn Bryant

PF Jalyn McCreary

C Maik Kotsar or Wildens Leveque

At 6-2, 215 pounds, Hannibal comes ready-made as Martin’s kind of point guard. If the freshman from Hartsville doesn’t start, he’s going to get minutes. Moss, a redshirt freshman, was starting last season until he became injured.

McCreary, a 6-8, 220-pounder, is the highest-ranked member of Carolina’s incoming class — No. 133 nationally by Rivals. He has some Bryant-like qualities in terms of athleticism and explosion.

Starting might be too soon for the 6-10 Leveque, but the rookie from Massachusetts has a reputation for rebounding and blocking shots — two things USC lost in Silva’s exit.

Related stories from The State in Columbia SC

Andrew Ramspacher has been covering college athletics since 2010, serving as The State’s USC men’s basketball beat writer since October 2017. His work has been recognized by the Associated Press Sports Editors, Virginia Press Association and West Virginia Press Association. At a program-listed 5-foot-10, he’s always been destined to write about the game. Not play it.
Support my work with a digital subscription