Frank Martin calls it “his friend,” a box filled with 16.9 ounces of Vita Coconut Water that’s accompanied him at a few South Carolina basketball press conferences this season.
On Monday, over 48 hours before the Gamecocks’ opener against North Alabama, the USC coach was noticeably solo on his walk up to the dais at Colonial Life Arena. He had to settle for a bottle of Dasani as he greeted reporters. “I was in a meeting,” Martin said. “I didn’t have time to go get my best friend. Don’t tell him what I’m drinking. I don’t want him to get jealous.”
The Gamecocks beat North Alabama, 77-55, on Wednesday behind Justin Minaya’s first career double-double, Jair Bolden’s timely shooting and a big second-half run.
The performance, though, was far from perfect — see 20 turnovers, 17 missed free throws — and Martin was quick to point out why.
“I got what I deserved for not bringing my best friend to the press conference the other day,” Martin said, “so we played sloppy.”
Vita Voodoo? Coconut Curse? Jinxed by a Drink? Or just some typical first-game messiness after an unusual week of preparation?
Keyshawn Bryant’s injury was followed by a sick bug that went through the roster, taking at least Maik Kotsar and Jermaine Couisnard out for a couple days. It all impacted the rhythm of a team that Martin said pleased him more than any of his previous 12 as a head coach through the first month of practice. But the last week was a different story and it led to a showing Wednesday that Martin saw coming.
But, flaws and all, it was still a relatively easy win that perhaps foreshadows an exciting season. Here’s what we learned:
Minaya’s return felt most on the glass
In a post-Chris Silva era, South Carolina is open to questions about who emerges as a trusted rebounder. That narrative started in the middle of last season when Silva wasn’t getting much glass help as a senior.
Perhaps it should have been noted then to not forget about Justin Minaya. The 6-foot-6, 215-pound wing played five games in 2018-19 before being lost to a knee injury. At the time, he was second behind Silva with 5.6 boards a game.
Minaya on Wednesday posted a career-high 11 rebounds. All four of his offensive rebounds led to Gamecock points.
“I don’t put pressure on myself, but that’s just one of the things I’m good at,” said Minaya, who matched a career-high with 17 points. “I feel I’m able to be a good offensive rebounder for this team, and just a rebounder in general. I think that’s one of my focuses that I can help the team the most, my rebounding.”
The 11 boards are the most by a Gamecock not named Silva since Hassani Gravett had 12 in last year’s season opener against USC Upstate.
Martin nitpicked, but defensive effort was solid
Twenty-seven fouls and allowing 15 offensive rebounds will never satisfy a defensive-minded coach like Martin, but other numbers prove South Carolina’s effort on that end of the floor was sound.
North Alabama, at 24.6, is the first Gamecock opponent to shoot under 25 percent from the field since Michigan (19.2) on Nov. 23, 2016, a span of 97 games. The Lions, who finished last season No. 322 out of 353 nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency, were held without a field goal over the last 4:51 of the game.
Details, though, were off, said Martin.
“Other than Trae Hannibal, nobody put up a fight defending the ball,” Martin said. “And that was our most important part of our game plan going in. They spread you out and they drive you. And we have to be good on the ball. We put up no fight, so we got put on constant rotations. And then they got offensive rebounds, so when we had an opportunity to get a rebound, we wouldn’t get it, so we couldn’t run.”
Guard depth expands
The aforementioned Hannibal didn’t factor in much to last week’s exhibition win over Columbia International. The freshman from Hartsville was limited by cramps and logged all of six minutes.
Hannibal on Wednesday was the 10th USC player to enter the game — at the 3:45 mark of the first half — but he did enough with his opportunity to possibly earn a bigger role moving forward. He finished with five points, two steals and an assist in 13 minutes.
Not bad for a team’s assumed fourth point guard option.
“I like (Martin’s) team,” said North Alabama coach Tony Pujol. “His depth is going to be hard to deal with.”
Who: Wyoming at South Carolina
When: Noon Sunday
Where: Colonial Life Arena
Watch: SEC Network
SOUTH CAROLINA 77, NORTH ALABAMA 55
NORTH ALABAMA (0-1)
Youngblood 0-5 6-7 6, James 1-6 0-0 2, Littles 2-4 4-5 8, Brim 2-7 7-9 12, Blackmon 2-12 1-2 6, J.Anderson 2-7 0-0 4, Diggs 3-6 0-0 6, Windeler 0-2 2-2 2, King 0-2 0-0 0, Agnew 3-10 3-8 9. Totals 15-61 23-33 55.
SOUTH CAROLINA (1-0)
Kotsar 2-7 2-4 6, Frink 3-3 0-3 6, Minaya 7-10 3-4 17, Bolden 5-9 3-4 14, Lawson 1-4 6-7 8, Nelson 0-2 0-0 0, T.Anderson 0-0 0-0 0, McCreary 4-5 1-7 9, Henry 0-1 0-1 0, Couisnard 3-6 2-2 9, Hannibal 2-5 1-2 5, Moss 1-5 1-2 3. Totals 28-57 19-36 77
.Halftime_South Carolina 37-27. 3-Point Goals_North Alabama 2-21 (Brim 1-5, Blackmon 1-9, J.Anderson 0-1, Windeler 0-1, Agnew 0-2, Youngblood 0-3), South Carolina 2-9 (Couisnard 1-2, Bolden 1-3, Hannibal 0-1, Moss 0-1, Minaya 0-1, Lawson 0-1). Fouled Out_Frink, McCreary, James, J.Anderson. Rebounds_North Alabama 35 (Diggs, Littles 7), South Carolina 36 (Minaya 11). Assists_North Alabama 7 (Brim, Blackmon 2), South Carolina 13 (Lawson 4). Total Fouls_North Alabama 30, South Carolina 27. A_11,927 (18,000).