USC Men's Basketball

NCAA Tournament team? SEC bottom feeder? Expectations range for USC. What to make of them

Frank Martin breaks down what he likes about newcomers, returnees

South Carolina men's basketball coach Frank Martin breaks down what he likes about his 2019-20 Gamecocks.
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South Carolina men's basketball coach Frank Martin breaks down what he likes about his 2019-20 Gamecocks.

Two days after Jermaine Couisnard, Trae Hannibal and the Gamecocks participating in the South Carolina Pro-Am produced a ton of local excitement about the upcoming season, a national college basketball reporter tried toning it down.

Jon Rothstein of CBS Sports and Sports Illustrated tweeted Monday his “SEC Offseason Power Rankings.” Kentucky was No. 1, Florida was No. 2, LSU was No. 3 and USC was ... 12th.

While a handful of USC fans pounced with spirited responses, all they had to do was wait 24 hours for a rosier view of the Gamecocks in 2019-20.’s Andy Katz on Tuesday pinned USC as one of five teams “who’ll be on the brink of a NCAA (Tournament) bid” and added “AJ Lawson’s return means Frank Martin has his lead guard to take the Gamecocks possibly into the tournament.”

Couple things to note about both projections:

1. Without digging too deep — see learning more about Couisnard, weighing the impact of Jair Bolden’s arrival — South Carolina can be seen from far away as a team with a couple promising sophomores (Lawson and Keyshawn Bryant) and a lot of unknowns in the immediate post-Chris Silva era. Expect this narrative to show up again when media members and coaches pick the SEC order in October.

2. The Gamecocks have finished in the top four of the SEC three of the past four seasons, including last year after Rothstein pegged them for a 10th place finish. Katz, meanwhile, had USC as a Big Dance bubble team entering 2018-19. Perhaps he remains high on Carolina after Martin came on Katz’s podcast in early July and said his next Gamecocks bunch is “the most talented team we’ve had since I’ve been here.”

Sindarius Thornwell doesn’t work for a national outlet nor is he expected to tweet out a 2020 bracket projection anytime soon, but the former Gamecock great has been around his old team a lot lately. Aside from playing alongside them in last week’s Pro-Am, he’s played against them in pickup games at the Carolina Coliseum.

What he sees is potential. What he fears is worth noting.

“I think next year’s team can be pretty good,” Thornwell said. “I think they’re special, I think they got a lot of special pieces. They just got to figure out how to win at a young age. I don’t think talent’s an issue. Learning how to win games is the issue.

“I think not having a lot of leadership and older guys around will be the issue. Can those young guys play? Yes, they can play. Can they compete? Yeah, they compete. But when it comes down to winning games, it comes down to, ‘Do you know how to win?’ The IQ of the game, the knowledge of the game. And I think that only comes with experience.

“They don’t really have a lot of experience. I think once they learn how to win games, then I think they’ll be special.”

Thornwell, aided by senior classmates Duane Notice and Justin McKie, led the 2017 Gamecocks to 26 wins and a Final Four berth. Maik Kotsar is the only link to that team still playing for South Carolina. He’s also one of three non-freshmen or sophomores on the active roster

The 6-foot-11 center has made more starts (90) than Lawson, Bryant and Justin Minaya combined (89), but he’s coming off a struggle of a junior season that he admitted took its mental toll.

“Maik is supposed to be that guy that’s getting on those young guys,” Thornwell said. “That’s Maik, that’s what he’s supposed to be. And I tell Maik, ‘You the me now. You’re the senior, you’re the guy everybody is looking at for direction and for instructions. So you can’t be the baby no more. Frank can’t spend practice yelling at you no more. You’re supposed to do that to the younger guys. You’re supposed to be cussing out the younger guys now.’

“And once he gets that part of it, then he’ll be all right. Until then we’re going to get inconsistent Maik.”

After Kotsar, candidates for leadership include Lawson, Minaya and Bolden. Will a Thornwell-like figure emerge?

That’s just one question for South Carolina as it enters a season with expectations ranging from high to low.

“We haven’t even reached our potential,” Bolden said, “and we’re still working every day to reach that.

“And we’ll find it, hopefully we’ll find it.”

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.
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