The Gamecocks come into the 2014-15 season fully expected to put together the best team they've fielded since the 2009 team that won the SEC East. And that's the low-end expectation. If things come together as they should, they'll field the best unit that Columbia has seen since Dave Odom's second NIT champion in 2006, a team that defeated national champion Florida twice, and nearly won the SEC Tournament.
Of course, given the history of the program since 2006, that's a relatively low bar. But that's where we've been for nearly a decade. Frank Martin needed two years to put the program back on remotely stable footing, as the departures of Anthony Gill and Damontre Harris along with head coach Darrin Horn at the end of the 2012 season shook an already unstable program. But with excellent recruiting, Martin's added significant talent over the last two years. Now, it's time to put it all together on the court.
|2015 - 1 player
|2016 - 3 players
|2017 - 5 players
|2018 - 1 players
|2018 - 3 players
Reggie Theus, Jr.
*The Gamecocks expect Shamiek Sheppard, who suffered a torn ACL injury this summer, to redshirt this season. Frank Martin has also announced TeMarcus Blanton will redshirt as well.
The Gamecocks have 10 scholarship players at their disposal this season due to season-ending injuries to TeMarcus Blanton and Shamiek Sheppard, along with the non-enrollment of 6'9" power forward recruit James Thompson due to his arrest for battery over the summer. Since he doesn't take up a scholarship, this chart does not account for Brian Steele, who contributed minutes in each of the last two seasons at the small forward spot.
Depth Comes to the Frontcourt... in 2015
Frank Martin may deny it, but he loves to foul. His teams have conceded a 38.3% free throw rate (FTA/FGA, a pace-adjusted measure of how much a team fouls) every year he's led, never ranking in the top 200 of the NCAA, and ranking in the bottom 50 in four of his seven seasons as a head coach.
That strategy can work, but it requires deep rotations. Also, given that most of the fouling occurs by big men trying to prevent easy 2s, it requires depth in the post, where those players accumulate fouls and need others to come in and take up minutes (and, frankly, more fouls). Martin acknowledged recently the Gamecocks could play Thornwell at the 4 "in a pinch," and while on offense the team could certainly survive with a four-out set and one post presence, it's questionable that Sindarius Thornwell could defend and rebound in the post the way Martin wants to see from players that play that position.
Martin prepared for this by recruiting and signing two players that could help in the post this season. James Thompson represented a natural power forward in the SEC, and while all but the most elite freshman will struggle in the post in this conference, he could've added a few valuable minutes a game. Also, while he's not designed for it, Sheppard enrolled at Carolina as a 6'6" wing that could guard the post if the team really needed him.
Neither of those guys will suit up for Carolina this season. However, the Gamecocks don't lose a single post player at the end of the season, and newly-committed top-100 recruit Chris Silva will join the returning Sheppard to help in the post. For the first time in his tenure, the 2015-16 team looks to have the frontcourt talent and depth required to run Martin's system.
The Backcourt Could Go From Good to Great This Year, and Then Improve
Tyrone Johnson enters the season as the only senior on the Gamecock roster. On his senior night, he'll continue one of the weirdest traditions in South Carolina basketball - for the fourth-straight season, the Gamecocks will have one scholarship senior walk on senior night, and like three of those last four players, he won't have been with the program all four years (after Brenton Williams in 2014; Lakeem Jackson, who did spend all four years in Columbia, in 2013; and Malik Cooke in 2012).
But in his last season, he could lead one of the best backcourts in the SEC. He joins Duane Notice, who got major minutes last season while Ty spent months out with a broken leg. Notice gets to move back to his more natural position at the 2 this year, and that should help him reduce turnovers, a problem that plagued him last year. With fewer ball-handling responsibilities combined with the leap most sophomores make after their freshman campaign, Ty should expect a capable partner next to him in the backcourt.
And of course, over at the 3, the best player in Columbia sets up. The Gamecocks certainly need Sindarius Thornwell to be a great player in order to really achieve a lot this year, and there's no reason to think he'll be anything other than excellent in his sophomore campaign, after a freshman season where he was the brightest spot on the roster. One area he needs to improve is his two-point shooting - Thornwell hit fewer than 40% of his shots from inside last season, and given the volume of shots he took (he led the team with 270 two-point attempts), the Gamecocks need him to improve on his conversion rate of those shots if they want to improve on offense.
Joining them in the backcourt are Justin McKie and Marcus Stroman. McKie failed to really make a mark in his freshman season with the Gamecocks, so he's about as unknown as Marcus Stroman is this season. Stroman comes to Columbia - well, stays, as he's from nearby Keenan High - as a highly regarded recruit that gives the Gamecocks the chance to put another very talented player on the court, and someone that can step into the role that Tyrone Johnson fills this season.
This Team Could be Very, Very Good in 2016
With all the optimism that comes from what's written above about this team, it's worth remembering that all of those guys with one exception will be back in 2015-16, as well as one year older and better, and joined by top-100 recruit Chris Silva, who committed to the Gamecocks.
Aside from natural player growth and the incoming Silva, the Gamecocks could also add two impact recruits - P.J. Dozier of Spring Valley High School and Tevin Mack of Dreher, both top-50 recruits, intend to announce their college decisions on Wednesday. While neither is expected to join the Gamecocks, if either chooses to take his game to the Colonial Life Arena, then that moves this team from possible NCAA team to likely.
But that's the rub - even without those two guys, this team gets a lot better next season. That would mark the fourth consecutive season of improvement under Frank Martin, and it's hard to ask for much more than that. When it comes to the state of the program, the Gamecocks are in excellent shape. If they can win one of their two recruiting battles this week, the timeline accelerates, but for now, it's hard not to be excited about the direction of Carolina basketball.