USC Men's Basketball

‘At peace.’ Why Frank Martin feels Maik Kotsar is gearing up for rebound senior season

Maik Kotsar ended his junior season at South Carolina by scoring more than five points once over the Gamecocks’ final 11 games. A staple of Frank Martin’s rotation for much of 2016-19, Kotsar logged a career-low seven minutes in an SEC tournament loss to Auburn on March 15. He missed 26 of his final 32 free throw attempts.

So when Kotsar did something in the build-up to his senior year that hints at a changed player, his coach made sure to recognize and celebrate it.

Martin on Tuesday described the scene during an appearance on 107.5 The Game.

“I’m not superstitious all the time,” Martin told co-hosts Heath Cline and Carey Rich. “But different things I am. I stopped yesterday’s workout because Maik Kotsar made the most physical, aggressive move he’s made in his time here offensively. He’s always played physically and competitive defensively. Offensively, he tends to get passive.

“And when he did what he did yesterday, at the end, I said, ‘We’re done Bring it in.’ … I’m really happy. He’s been great in the preseason. We’re all talking about the young guys. But Maik’s been great in the preseason.”

South Carolina will hold its first official practice Monday. Martin’s first news conference is Wednesday. Between then and the Nov. 6 opener against North Alabama, expect to hear a lot about A.J. Lawson (reigning All-SEC freshman team member and budding NBA prospect), Keyshawn Bryant (USC’s other promising sophomore), Jermaine Couisnard (SC Pro-Am star) and Jair Bolden (George Washington transfer and starting point guard candidate), among others.

But there’s only one Gamecock on this roster who’s appeared in the Final Four. Kotsar then was the intriguing 6-foot-11 prospect who scored 12 points in the Elite Eight win over Florida. Three seasons later, he’s trying to get over the roughest stretch of his career.

“It was tough mentally,” Kotsar said in July, “a few injuries here and there that I had to overcome and stuff. I feel like my mental side of things wasn’t strong enough. So that’s something I worked on in the summer and tried to get better.”

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. He stayed in that role for the last four games, averaging four points and four rebounds.

Kotsar’s junior year saw a dip in points, rebounds and free throw percentage from his sophomore campaign.

“I told Maik at the end of last year,” Martin said, “I said, ‘Maik one of the things I take the most pride in as a coach is watching the guys that I’m fortunate to coach get better. And you took a step back from your sophomore to your junior year and it caught me off guard because I expected you to do better. And it’s not that you can’t do it because you’ve got to believe in yourself.’”

Martin sensed Kotsar’s lack of confidence most when he noticed tweaks in the Estonian’s offensive approach after the missed free throws starting piling up.

“Basketball players, just like baseball players, certain things, (they’re) just crazy,” Martin said. “They’re not comfortable shooting free throws, they don’t want to be there. So they won’t go score at the rim because they know that they might get fouled and they don’t want to be able to shoot the ball, they don’t want to go to the foul line.

“And Maik got to that place last year. So you start quick-shooting the ball to avoid contact.”

Kotsar’s summer was about improving and communicating. He said he spoke to a variety of people to “try to analyze what I did wrong, what went wrong and and just not let it happen again.”

With more frontline depth this season, Martin feels he can better pace Kotsar and prevent any snow-balling of his game. The early signs have been encouraging.

“He has a peace of mind that he’s not going to have the burden of having to be great for our team to be able to win,” Martin said. “He’s at peace with, ‘Let me go out here and just go after it. And If I can’t get it done, there’s someone else that can.’ ... He’s been real good in the preseason.”

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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