South Carolina Gamecocks

Tough questions ahead for USC men’s basketball program

South Carolina finished a 17-16 season proud but unsatisfied. While the Gamecocks finished strong for the second straight season, they needed two or three more wins to make the postseason. Here are five questions facing the Gamecocks as they prepare for Frank Martin’s fourth season:

Who’s here?

Senior Ty Johnson is gone, as is walk-on Austin Constable (who didn’t dress for a game after a knee injury). Also, Demetrius Henry announced on Tuesday that he is transferring.

Henry and Shamiek Sheppard were suspended on Feb. 17 for conduct detrimental to the team and didn’t play again. Martin has not decided on Sheppard’s status.

USC has four commitments, beginning with McDonald’s All-American P.J. Dozier. Chris Silva, Travon Bunch and Jamall Gregory round out the class, although Martin remains in on prospects such as junior-college center Conor Clifford, New Jersey guard Malik Ellison, West Virginia forward Dikembe Dixson and perhaps Columbia native Tevin Mack.

If Sheppard remains, the four new players equal 14 scholarships, or one over the limit. If Martin were to add more recruits, then more of the current team would have to leave or drop to walk-on status.

Redshirt freshman TeMarcus Blanton, who is battling a hip injury, remains on scholarship, but there’s no way of knowing if he'll ever play. A medical redshirt would allow him to stay on scholarship but not count against the 13-player limit, but a decision on his playing future might not be known for some time. He is scheduled to have a six-month checkup on April 29 and might be able to begin cutting while running.

The rest of the team is intact. After some preseason talk of the NBA, rising junior Sindarius Thornwell is back and healthy after having a procedure to alleviate tendinitis in each knee. Martin will have his first class of seniors in Laimonas Chatkevicius, Mindaugas Kacinas, Michael Carrera and walk-on Brian Steele, who also had knee surgery during the offseason. The Gamecocks return five of their top six scorers.

Who will they play?

The only known games are Clemson (at Greenville’s Bon Secours Wellness Arena, because the Tigers’ Littlejohn Coliseum is undergoing renovation) and the Paradise Jam, Nov. 20-23. USC will compete in the Virgin Islands with Florida State, DePaul, Indiana State, Hofstra, Ohio, Tulsa and Norfolk State.

The field for the Big 12/SEC Challenge hasn’t been announced, but the games will be on Jan. 30, in the middle of the SEC season. It’s not guaranteed that USC will be in it – with 10 teams in the Big 12, four SEC teams do not play in the Challenge – but the Gamecocks have played in it the past two years (1-1 against Oklahoma State). It’s an invitation-only event, and USC might find out if it made the cut during the SEC spring meetings.

The SEC schedule has not been released, but USC will have 18 games against a much-improved league, with two guaranteed games against Georgia, which made the NCAA Tournament. The SEC Tournament is March 9-13 in Nashville, Tenn.

Can they keep improving?

Progress has been incremental, with USC winning the most games since 2008-09 and the most SEC games (six) since 2009-10. The Gamecocks’ RPI and strength of schedule were considered for an NIT bid, but an 11th-place finish in the SEC was probably the biggest factor keeping them out, and they turned down an invitation to the pay-for-play CBI.

USC under Martin has also done something that it couldn’t do under Darrin Horn or the final two years of Dave Odom – win at the end. His two SEC tournament victories this year give him four for his career, equaling the amount Odom and Horn had from 2006-12 (all by Odom).

The biggest issue has been sustaining success. The Gamecocks won seven straight this season, capped with an upset of No. 9 Iowa State, then began 1-6 in the SEC. Half of their 16 losses were by six points or fewer.

The hope is that the returning team has now been around enough wins and knows how to handle them. “We didn’t have a single player in our locker room that has been in a winning college locker room,” Martin said at his wrapup. “We didn’t have a single guy in the locker room who understand how to manage that – we had to learn.”

Do they have the talent to win?

Yes. A healthy Thornwell and Duane Notice playing to his capability throughout the season gives the Gamecocks a pair of solid scorers, and Dozier’s ability to take over a game will blend with that. Chatkevicius and Kacinas have become dependable in the post, and Carrera’s talent for rebounding is instrumental in USC’s offense.

The Gamecocks know Martin’s system, have Notice and Marcus Stroman to replace Johnson and are adding athletic pieces in Silva and Bunch. And there could be more additions.

Can they ever be what they were?

The Frank McGuire Era was the greatest stretch in USC’s history, the Gamecocks becoming a national power and challenging for championships. It was so good that it continues to shape fans’ opinions of what USC basketball should be today.

USC is not a historically great program. It has eight NCAA tournament appearances, the last in 2004, and has not won an NCAA tourney game since 1973. The Gamecocks had one amazing stretch and some outstanding seasons here and there, but they mostly have been a break-even program (1,342 wins, 1,203 losses).

Those reasons – and other recent ones, such as USC having three winning seasons in 24 years in the SEC – make it curious why many insist that any coach could come in and immediately succeed.

Martin knew the program had fallen on hard times before he took the job but was still amazed at how far down it was when he arrived. His teams haven’t won a lot, but they have matched or won more than the previous season in each successive season. He has repaired the break between the program and the community, and he has begun to lure top recruits to USC (Thornwell, Dozier). Throughout it all, he has preached patience.

Small steps have been taken. He’s looking for a bigger step this year – making the postseason.

While McGuire’s run would be tough for anyone to match, a coach improving a team little by little before experiencing a massive payout is the same plan he followed.

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Players to Watch

Players to watch as the Gamecocks prepare for 2015-16, coach Frank Martin’s fourth year at USC:

▪ P.J. DOZIER: The McDonald’s All-American from Spring Valley High could be the difference- maker Martin has been seeking.

▪ SINDARIUS THORNWELL: The rising junior should be back and healthy after having a procedure to alleviate tendinitis in each knee.

▪ DUANE NOTICE: A healthy Thornwell and Notice throughout the season gives the Gamecocks a pair of solid scorers.

▪ THREE SENIORS: Martin will have his first class of seniors in Laimonas Chatkevicius, Mindaugas Kacinas and Michael Carrera.

▪ CHRIS SILVA: The Gamecocks are adding an athletic piece in the 6-foot-8 freshman, who picked USC over Georgetown and Syracuse.