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Basketball Preview: The Backcourt

The Gamecocks will be undermanned in the backcourt until at least December 16 when Tyrone Johnson becomes eligible. Until then, it's Brenton Williams surrounded by freshmen.

Brenton Williams leads a young backcourt for the Gamecocks.
Brenton Williams leads a young backcourt for the Gamecocks.
Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

Confused? See an explanation for what these numbers are and what they mean here:

The Returning Players

#1 Brenton Williams

Here's the secret about Brenton Williams - he had a really, really nice 2012-13 season on the offensive end. Though he only averaged playing half the game, he took a very high percentage of shots (26.3%) and hit them at an incredibly efficient 54.6% eFG. That took pressure off the weaker offensive players on the team without compromising on our ability to score, a huge asset for a team like the Gamecocks that struggled mightily offensively.

Brenton hit shots efficiently from everywhere - 49% of his 2s, 40% of his 3s, and 84% of his FTs, further helped by his ability to get to the line (he drew five fouls per 40 minutes). Combined with a turnover rate of only 15% (which was in the top 400 in the nation), Williams' contributions offensively were on of the few bright spots of the 2012-13 season, highlighted by his 39-point effort against Mississippi State.

The knock on Williams last year was that despite all he brought offensively, he wasn't able to hack it defensively, though the admittedly imperfect defensive win shares from Sports Reference disagreed. While my eyes tended to agree with Martin that we needed more from Brenton on the defensive end, I also think Martin undersold just how much he contributed on the offensive end of the floor.

Until Ellington and Johnson arrive, Williams will be the only scholarship non-freshman in the backcourt. He's got the ability to put together a big senior season if he can stay in Martin's good graces.

#23 Bruce Ellington

Speaking of our favorite wide receiver, Ellington returns for his senior season on the hardwood. Beloved by Frank Martin (and Darrin Horn before him), Ellington averaged 32 minutes a game in the games he played in last season, never playing less than 23. Even more than Lakeem Jackson, he's the guy Martin trusts the most.

While it's nearly sacrilege to suggest this - I'm not entirely sure why. No one questions the soft skills that Bruce brings to the floor, but he has to improve in other areas to become a valuable contributor. His biggest problem last year was simply overuse on the offensive end relative to how much production he brought, something that he began to correct as the season went on (in the first 9 SEC games he used between 20-38% of possessions while on the court; in the last 10, he lowered that range to 17-25%).

Bruce simply doesn't shoot well enough to take 22.7% of the shots available to him - not with a 38.4% eFG and a FT% of 64.9%. His best bet would be to return to the guy he was in 2010-11 and 2011-12, when he assisted around 25% of his teammates baskets while on the floor and turned the ball over less than 20% of the time. Last year, he flipped those numbers (17.9% assist rate; 24.3% turnover rate) and it killed Carolina offensively.

That aside, Bruce remains an important part of the team, and someone who can contribute if he's playing the right role. He also adds a proclivity for swiping the basketball (2.4% of opponents' possessions he defended ended with him stealing the ball) that we didn't have much of elsewhere on the team last season. His ability to return and perform at a high level strongly affects how far this team can go this year in SEC play.

The "Returning" Player

#4 Tyrone Johnson

One of the four top 100 recruits on the team (along with Thornwell, Ellington, and Demetrius Henry), Johnson joins the Gamecocks beginning December 16 after a year-long hiatus required by the NCAA after his transfer from Villanova. Martin wisely only scheduled four games before Johnson's return, which will lead to a slow beginning to the college basketball season for fans, but likely give the Gamecocks a better chance of winning games. He'll primarily man the point for the eight games between December 16 and the start of SEC play, when Ellington will likely be available on a very limited basis, depending on the success of the football program.

Johnson played 32 games in 2011-12 at Villanova, where he averaged about 17 minutes a game. Johnson did a good job of drawing fouls and getting to the line (his FTA:FGA ratio ("FTR") was 37.7%), and made 88% of his FTAs, while also assisting on 22% of his teammates' baskets while on the court. Given the only Gamecock that cracked the top 500 in the nation last year is departed Eric Smith, his skillset and experience will be a welcome addition to the roster.

But he struggled mightily elsewhere - he didn't make 2s (34%) or 3s (23%), and his turnover rate was truly abysmal (35.8% of possessions he concluded were turnovers, not shots). While this was partially bolstered by his admittedly wise choice not to use too many possessions on shots, Johnson's turnover struggles would be particularly unwelcome on a South Carolina team that turned the ball over with impunity last season, ranking 308th out of 347 teams in offensive turnover percentage.

The Newcomers

#0 Sindarius Thornwell

The first top 50 recruit to come through Columbia since Rolando Howell in 2000, Thornwell is a 6'5" shooting guard from Lancaster, SC that should add size to a Gamecock team that sorely lacked it last season (when adjusting for playing time, the Gamecocks were on average 1.5" shorter than the NCAA average last season).

While Thornwell is an excellent prospect and should step in and contribute immediately, he's not the type of player that will step in and become the leading scorer on the team. What he will do is bring size and athleticism to a group in need of it. His progression over the season will be one of the most fun things to watch about the Gamecocks this season.

#5 Jaylen Shaw

Shaw was the last addition to the recruiting class, a two-star point guard from Hartsville, South Carolina that the Gamecocks offered (and who immediately accepted that offer) in May of 2013. Shaw is a 6'0" point guard who led Hartsville to back-to-back state championships.

Shaw describes his style as someone who prefers to be a "complementary" player, and that seems to be the type of role that he would best fit for the Gamecocks, particularly his freshman year. He'll struggle to see the court once Bruce and Tyrone get back, but could potentially push for playing time at the spot where he's the only natural point guard in the early part of the schedule. He will vie with Duane Notice and Sindarius Thornwell for those minutes.

#10 Duane Notice

The likely starter on opening night against Longwood, Duane Notice comes to Carolina from St. Thomas More school in Connecticut by way of Etobicoke, Canada (a suburb of Toronto). He spent his summer in Prague, leading the Canadian team in the FIBA U19 Championships, where the Canadians advanced to the quarterfinals before being discarded by the United States (the ultimate winners of the tournament).

Notice played significantinutes in that tournament, and aside from a rough 2-14 shooting outing against Korea, played relatively well, especially on the glass, where he hauled in 4.4 rebounds per game, a skill surely not lost on a Gamecock coaching staff that treasures rebounding.

Pre-season discussions suggest that Notice will be the guy to start the season, and nothing about his effort against USC-Aiken suggested otherwise, as he looked confident handling the ball against the Pacers, dishing out six assists while only committing one turnover. If he can hold down the fort until the cavalry arrives, it should give the Gamecocks a chance in their tough early non-conference schedule.

#20 Justin McKie

The legacy from Irmo, SC, Justin helped guide the Yellow Jackets to an undefeated state championship run last season. He'll carry with him the experience of living under his father's shadow, as Gamecock legend BJ McKie also came to Carolina by way of Tim Whipple's program.

McKie was not one of the more heralded recruits of the class, coming in with only one other major offer, but that being from the excellent Memphis Tiger program. He may struggle to break the rotation once Ellington and Johnson return, given the logjam at the two guard spot with Thornwell and Williams, but it will be fascinating to see how he ultimately looks in a Gamecock uniform. One thing's for sure - he's got a bit of his father's form.