Basketball Preview: The Frontcourt

Michael Carrera is a force in the paint for the Gamecocks. - Anthony Gruppuso-US PRESSWIRE

The Gamecocks have only freshmen and sophomores in the post this season, led by last year's breakout star, Michael Carrera.

Confused? See an explanation for what these numbers are and what they mean here:http://chickenhoops.com/explanation/

Returning Players

#24 Michael Carrera

The clear star of last season's team, Carrera has spent the offseason receiving accolades in the adoring advanced statistics press, which included partial profiles from Luke Winn and the great work of the guys over at Rush the Court.

Winn gets it right - if Carrera can take a step between his freshman and sophomore seasons, the sky is the limit for the 6'5" Venezuelan. Hampered last season by injuries - a concussion early in the year, followed by a recurring hip problem - Carrera still turned in the best performance by a Gamecock, and it wasn't close: he used the most possessions (which remember, is valuable in and of itself if you can do so efficiently, as it means everyone else takes fewer difficult shots) by shooting 74% from the line, 45% from 2, and 35% from 3 (though he only took 20 3PAs). While his turnover rate (20%) was a bit high, his biggest contributions came on the glass, grabbing 16% of offensive rebounds available to him (9th in the nation - 9th!) and 25% of defensive ones (22nd in the nation, and the highest ranking freshman).

Those numbers may actually drop off a bit this season for two reasons - he'll potentially play more at the 3 spot, and with the addition of Demetrius Henry to go along with Laimonas Chatkevicius, there will be fewer rebounds to go around to each of our players individually (though we would ultimately improve our rebounding on both sides of the floor).

Having someone as long, aggressive, and active as Carrera playing the 3 on defense should markedly increase our ability to not get beat in the paint - last year the Gamecocks let opponents shoot 50.4% from 2PA, gave up a 32.9% offensive rebounding rate to opponents (220th in the nation), and happily conceded a horrific number of foul shots (FTR - which is FTA/FGA, was 45.8%, or 328th out of 347). The addition of Henry and Ringer allows Carrera to move from an undersized but tough 4 to an oversized and hellish 3. If those guys can hold their own in the post even a little bit, it'll substantially improve the Gamecocks defense, an area where they were woeful last season.

#14 Laimonas Chatkevicius

Chatkevicius finished off an up-and-down season on the upswing somewhat, playing over 20 minutes in four of our last seven games. Of course, in the other three games he logged 0, 5, and 11 minutes - such was life in year one of the Frank Martin era.

Chatkevicius showed off some impressive offensive ability at times, but frankly the game seemed like it moved too fast for him at others. Defensively he could be a considerable liability in some games, but still posted a 4.8% block rate, which would help the Gamecocks lower that 2P% from last season if he can keep it up in extended minutes (promisingly, he didn't pick up his first block until SEC play, so those numbers aren't inflated). His 18.9% DReb rate also played a useful role in cleaning up the glass, although his 5.5 fouls per 40 minutes played was one of the many factors that gave opponents so many FTAs in 2012-13.

Offensively, Chatkevicius shot the ball decently (61% from FT / 47% from 2 / 30% on ten 3PAs), and even assisted on almost 9% of his teammates' buckets while he was on the court. So where did it go wrong? Turnovers. When a possession ended due to Laimonas, 29% of the time it was because he turned the ball over. No matter how well you shoot, there's no way to overcome that sort of carelessness with the basketball.

Laimonas spent the summer playing in the U-20 European Championships for Lithuania, where he averaged 7.9 points, 8.1 rebounds (2.0 offensive, 6.1 defensive), and 2.1 blocks in 21.4 minutes a game, though unfortunately still accumulating 1.8 turnovers per game as well. Basically, he looked like a higher-scoring, stronger-rebounding version of Laimonas that we saw last year. He'll need to improve his game in a few key areas if the Gamecocks are going to contend with the myriad of impressive big men across the SEC this season.

#25 Mindaugas Kacinas

While Laimonas came along mostly as the season went along last season, Mindaugas Kacinas struggled with the adjustment from a weak non-conference schedule to SEC play. In the non-conference portion of the schedule, Kacinas averaged 26.6 minutes a game. In the 19 SEC games, he only saw the court for 13.7 minutes per game.

It's amazing to look back at how strong he began the year and how poorly he ended it. As a qualifying player (which at Ken Pomeroy's site is those who play 40 percent of their team's minutes), Kacinas cracked the NCAA top 500 in block rate (percentage of 2PAs blocked while on the court) at 2.8%. Yet, 13 of his 15 blocks on the season came against the Gamecocks' weak non-conference schedule. Against the SEC, he never grabbed over five rebounds in a game, and never topped his eight point outing against Texas A&M. He disappeared.

Kacinas also spent the summer at the U-20 Championships with Laimonas, where he averaged almost 30 minutes a game, averaging 9 points an outing while taking an incredibly high number of three pointers (60% of his 68 shots were from beyond the arc), and shooting an efficient 58.8% eFG. He also grabbed 5.5 rebounds a game and limited turnovers to 1.4 a game, all numbers that the Gamecocks would happily accept. He may struggle to get minutes against teams that put bigger, more physical players on the board, but with his ability to stretch the court, he could become a weapon for this team given his unique skill set. I'm cautious to predict big things for him based on his defensive concerns, but it'll be interesting to follow.

#35 Brian Steele

Steele had an interesting season last year. He appeared in token mop-up duty against Jacksonville, Presbyterian, and at Florida, where he logged five minutes and two points cumulatively. No one particularly expected to see much else of him for the rest of the year.

And then the trip to Texas A&M happened. The 6'5" walk-on from Greenville was inserted into the line-up and played 25 minutes. He saw at least 15 minutes of action in those final three games, where he put tremendous pressure on the players around him by utilizing only eight percent of our offensive possessions (a number he matched in the season-ending loss at Vanderbilt). Steele did seem to love to shoot against Mississippi State, hoisting six shots against them in the final game at Colonial Life Arena (6 points) and seven in the Gamecocks' swan song in Nashville (2 points). He looked completely over-matched defensively against A&M, and I had not expected him to play much this season, and yet there he was logging five minutes in the scrimmage against USC-Aiken.

Martin explained his insertion of Steele into the line-up because "he has tremendous courage. And he's got that attitude. You've got to have a winner's attitude. It's hard to succeed unless you have that spirit and you engage people around you in a positive way." It's unclear what the plan is for Steele this season, but if he's in the game, the onus will likely be on the remaining four Carolina players to utilize possessions offensively.

The "Returning" Player

#45 Carlton Geathers

Geathers has struggled with a knee injury during his time at Carolina, and at this time is not expected to contribute during the 2013-14 season. It's unclear if he'll ever play for the Gamecocks again. If so, that's sad to hear for the 6'10" junior from Georgetown, SC. While he never contributed significant minutes in the one season he saw action at Carolina (2011-12), it's never fun to see someone's career cut short due to injury. Here's hoping for a speedy recovery for Geathers.

The Newcomers

#21 Demetrius Henry

Another top 100 recruit reeled in by Frank Martin, the Gamecocks beat out the Miami Hurricanes for the services of the 6'9" power forward from Tampa, FL. Given the issues that Carolina had in the post last season, it was no surprise to see Henry trotted out as a starter in the Gamecocks' exhibition against USC-Aiken, and it seems he'll get every opportunity to solidify a spot at either the 4 or the 5, depending on how well the rest of the post players can contribute, which will determine whether Michael Carrera can stay at the 3 or needs to move down into the paint.

Henry likely won't be a polished product at any point during this season, but he has massive potential going forward and fills an area of critical need for Carolina. His ability to round into form early could help the Gamecocks out-perform expectations.

#32 Desmond Ringer

Similarly, Desmond Ringer comes into the program as a slightly less-heralded recruit, but still a top 250 player at a position of absolute need for the Gamecocks. Ringer played a critical role for his Eagle's Landing high school program his senior year, and is widely credited as someone who brings intangibles to the floor. He also brings a 6'9", 260 lb. frame that will need to bulk up to prepare for the college game, but like Henry, is a presence in the paint that Carolina simply did not have last season.

He likely won't be expected to contribute major minutes this season, but an ability to plug in for 8-10 minutes a night effectively could make a major difference on a team whose players and program are renowned for foul trouble, especially given the tight whistles the NCAA seems ready to employ in the early going.

#15 Reggie Theus Jr.

Theus Jr. was a late addition to the recruiting class, and comes best known for his famous father, who was a very successful professional basketball player. Theus Jr. will contest for time at the 3 spot with Carrera and Thornwell most likely, though it's not clear how much progress he's made at this point - he only saw two minutes of action against USC-Aiken and they were clearly garbage time minutes. That may have been a message that Martin intended to send to the freshman, or it may simply reflect where he sits in the pecking order at this point in time. He's not been spoken much about in the run-up to the season, so Theus Jr. may be a year away from making any sort of impact on the Carolina program.

Tomorrow, we'll take a look at the Carolina program, and specifically the system that Frank Marin has put in place during his time at Carolina thus far, and how it looks to operate this coming year.

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