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Basketball Preview: Final Questions

Answering the important questions you have on the eve of our season tip-off.

Bruce Ellington will lead - in time - the Gamecocks in 2013-14
Bruce Ellington will lead - in time - the Gamecocks in 2013-14

With the Gamecocks standing at the precipice of the beginning of the 2013-14 season, we've won an exhibition game, looked back at our history, and looked forward to our backcourt and frontcourt for this coming season.

With the season closing in, I thought it made sense to look at the questions people have coming into the season, as I see them based on conversations with people who like Carolina basketball, but aren't the biggest fans. With no further ado, let's take our final look without the help of any retrospect at the 2013-14 Gamecocks:

Who are our 3 best players?

First and foremost - Michael Carrera. As we noted in the frontcourt preview, it's not just that he does the things that make you want to cheer for him (the relentless effort on both sides of the ball), but he's actually the most efficient and effective guy we have on the floor. If, as discussed in our other preview pieces, we can get two of our four other big men - Chatkevicius, Kacinas, Henry, and Ringer - on the floor with him, that lets him bump up to the 3 and makes us very big defensively, particularly if Thornwell is at the 2. And he'll be a match-up nightmare for other small forwards asked to guard him on the interior.

Brenton Williams is also on the list. Last year, despite Martin's regular displeasure with his defense, he was the one shining spot on our offense, posting the 26th best offensive rating of any player in the country that used at least 20% of his team's possessions. 26th in the nation. That's really good, folks. Brenton will be coming off the bench because that's just how it's going to be under Frank Martin, and he needs to improve defensively, but he's the primary offensive weapon we have in our arsenal aside from Carrera. His 38-point performance against Mississippi State in Columbia last year wasn't a fluke - it was an example of what he can do if you give him the ball and the minutes. If he gets enough of both this season, he could be primed for a big senior year.

The third spot is wide open. Thornwell of course brings the talent, but how it'll translate as a freshman remains to be seen. Ty Johnson brings the pedigree as a former top 100 recruit and Villanova player, but that didn't translate during his time in Philadelphia, and so the jury is necessarily still out on him. While people love Bruce Ellington, he hasn't been an efficient user of the basketball during his last two seasons. If forced to choose, I think it'll ultimately be Tyrone Johnson, but it's important for the Gamecocks that they have a couple of folks vying for this spot if the team wants to achieve its goals this season.

Any freshmen who may be really good?

The guy is Thornwell. A hyped top 50 recruit (the first in Columbia since Ro Howell), he's going to start opening night and should be an impact freshman. Not impact in the sense that I'd expect him to score 15 points a game this season, but he'll get a bunch of minutes, play good defense, and overall just be a good basketball player for our team, while contributing points as well. I'm excited to watch him.

The two guys who have a chance to be good and be really make an impact this year are Duane Notice and Demetrius Henry. Notice will be especially important in the early going as the Gamecocks venture into difficult games at Baylor, Oklahoma State (against Marcus Smart, an All-American point guard who was fifth in the NCAA last year with a 5.3% steal percentage), and Clemson without Bruce Ellington or Tyrone Johnson. If he can handle himself, he's got the chance to get 30 minutes a night in the early going and keep us in those games. If he can't, then Thornwell moves up to the point (where he won't be as comfortable or productive) and the entire team takes a hit. His exhibition performance gave hope, but that's not the same as getting it done in these hostile venues.

With Henry, his importance was stressed above in that it lets Carrera play the 3, but he's also got the chance to give us an interior presence both offensively and defensively that we didn't have last season. While Chatkevicius and Kacinas improved in the offseason, the Gamecocks (especially given their propensity for fouling) will need at least one more - and probably two more - bodies down low. Henry is a top 100 recruit with the size and skillset to step in and start immediately and make an impact down low. Again, his ability to do so can really change just how good this team can be this season.

Whats the best-case scenario for this year? Worst-case scenario?

A lot of people are saying they think the NIT is a reasonable assumption for this year. With all respect to those folks, I question whether they've taken a serious glance at our schedule. Aside from Longwood, SC State, and probably Marshall, we don't have any lay-ups in non-conference action. Manhattan and USC Upstate both bring back teams that were good last season and that lost almost no major contributors from last year. We play three road games against BCS schools (Oklahoma St., Baylor, and Clemson) where our only point guards will be freshmen. And because we were worried about getting those guys back, Martin scheduled eight games in seventeen days between December 17 and January 3, so we could be running on fumes by the time we get to SEC play.
Ultimately, we probably aren't going to win any of those three road games, will likely go 1-2 in Hawai'i, and are likely to drop at least one of our other non-conference games against FIU, Akron, and USC Upstate. So that puts us generously at 7-6 coming out of non-conference play, which would require a 9-9 SEC record to make the NIT. That's an uphill fight, y'all.

So let's answer the question posed -

Best-case scenario: the Gamecocks get it right early on and get Bruce back early, and he comes out playing well. We end up with a 9- to 10-man rotation of guys who are playing over their heads. We steal a win in Clemson, hold serve at home, and despite a first-game loss to St. Mary's in Hawai'i, we beat Hawai'i and a team from the other side of the bracket to go 2-1 on the islands. That puts us at 10-3 in non-conference play. Heading into the SEC, we take three of four from our sets with Auburn and Georgia and basically hold court at home but for games against Kentucky and Florida late. Put us at 9-9 in the SEC with a 19-12 record overall, and a chance at making the NCAAs.

Worst-case scenario: the freshmen can't handle the responsibility early, leading to a squeaker over Longwood that portends doom - getting flattened on the road against Big 12 teams and embarrassed in Littlejohn. The Gamecocks drop two more non-conference games at home and go 0-3 in Hawaii when the Warriors take us out on their home floor. Limping into conference play at 5-8, Carolina can't win the close ones at home and loses disheartening games on the road to the likes of Mississippi State and Auburn, falling to 4-14 in conference play again. Some of the freshmen get spooked and head out, and worse yet, our 2015 recruiting falls off.

Frank Martin is a great coach right? When are we going to be good?

Yes, the program is in good hands. Despite the various preferences we all might have had during the hiring process, we'd all be hard pressed to argue that we didn't hire someone who was at the top of the field - he went to four NCAA tournaments in five years at Kansas State, and while that certainly was helped in some part by Bob Huggins recruits, five years of sustained success should be attributed to the guy who sustained it. When we hired Martin I was at least slightly concerned that he had maintained a program but had never built one, but judging by the recruiting successes we've had thus far (Thornwell last year, Stroman this season), it's a matter of when, not if, this team gets good.

So when will we? The great thing about this season as opposed to last is that there are going to be a lot of guys on the court who should - if things go as intended - be on our next NCAA tournament team, and be major contributors. Last year, the only guy I felt assured would contribute on our next tournament team was Carrera, and possibly Chatkevicius. This season, I feel much better about the fact that Laimonas will be an important piece, as well as Carrera, Thornwell, and at least one other freshman (if I had to guess, Notice). Last season you knew it was nothing but dead money on the court - this year, the growing pains  should pay off down the road. That may not be a difference in wins and losses, but it sure feels better.

Think we'll beat Clemson?

Unfortunately not. But rest assured - this team is on firmer footing than the Tigers at this point. Right now Clemson is struggling to bring in the type of talent that can sustain a program and is facing a conference that will only bury it further. On the other hand, we've got a coach that has sustained success in one of the best basketball conferences out there, and are dealing with a version of the SEC that is currently a bit on the downswing, which gives us room to move into the upper echelon.

It probably won't happen this year, but overall, I think our program is on firm footing.
And you know, if we get Bruce back in time for the trip to Littlejohn, he's had a knack for having big games up in Tiger town...