USC Men's Basketball

The most pressing questions about USC’s starting lineup as basketball practice begins

South Carolina on Monday began its first official basketball practice for the 2019-20 season. It came with a USC-produced hype video that included shots of A.J. Lawson’s put-back dunk against Ole Miss, a few Keyshawn Bryant slams and fans wildly waving white rally towels inside Colonial Life Arena.

“There’s a bigger buzz in town right now than we had after the Final Four,” USC coach Frank Martin told 107.5 The Game last week.

Lawson is a reigning All-SEC freshman team member and potential first round NBA draft pick. Bryant scored more points as a Gamecock rookie than Chris Silva and P.J. Dozier did as freshmen. Jermaine Couisnard introduced himself over the summer with 40-point outings in the SC Pro-Am. Justin Minaya is back healthy after injury. Jair Bolden is back after a year off for transferring.

There’s a ton of pieces in place for South Carolina to improve off last year’s hot second half and fourth place finish in the SEC.

How Martin sorts and manages these pieces is something to monitor over the next month. The season opener is Nov. 6 against North Alabama.

“I don’t know what I would do if I was a football coach and I had to release a depth chart and all that stuff,” Martin said. “I’ve got 16 guys on my team, one of which can’t play because of a redshirt (Seventh Woods). The other 15 are available. My job is to prepare all 15 I’ve got.

“I’ve got to figure out what guys play well together, what guys don’t.”

The opening night starting lineup has been the same five that started the last USC game of the season only once in Martin’s seven-year tenure — Dozier, Silva, Duane Notice, Sindarius Thornwell and Maik Kotsar in 2016-17 (Final Four). But game-to-game lineup changes have slowed significantly since Martin arrived from Kansas State.

The Gamecocks used 16 different starting lineups in 2012-13 and eight a season later. The high since has been six (in 2017-18 and an injury-plagued 2018-19).

“We’ve got guys that played together last year,” Martin said. “But they also played with a guy named Chris Silva, and Hassani (Gravett) and Tre (Campbell), two guys who were fifth-year college seniors. And now those guys aren’t there anymore.

“So how do these guys take on more responsibility? Who’s willing to do it? Who doesn’t? Who’s taken another step as a player greater than the other? I mean, there’s a lot of things that go into it. ... Moving forward, that’s when I start trying to figure out rotations and guys who play well. Once I decide these are the starters, if you follow my history, I pretty much stick with them.”

At least four opening night starters have been in USC’s final lineup four of the past five seasons. That stretch has also included two SEC Sixth Man of the Year winners in Gravett (2018-19) and Notice (2015-16).

Martin’s proven he can identity a rotation in October and mostly stick it with through March. What’s different about this season is, aside from Lawson in a guard spot, there’s no obvious answers.

-Bolden, who last averaged 11 points and three assists a game for George Washington, at point guard seems safe until you realize it could keep Couisnard on the bench.

-Bryant filled in nicely after Minaya went down last year, but which of the sophomores gets the nod at small forward? And can either drop to power forward?

-Kotsar has more starting experience than anybody on the roster, but he finished last year on the bench. Which newcomers challenge the senior most for center minutes? Graduate transfer Micaiah Henry? Freshman Wildens Leveque?

-Martin has had one true freshman average at least 19 minutes per game in each of his seven seasons at USC. Is there enough opportunity out there for one of Leveque, Trae Hannibal, Trey Anderson or Jalyn McCreary to keep that tradition alive?

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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