The biggest of big men on South Carolina's basketball team enters the 2014-2015 season in the best shape of his collegiate career. This is Laimonas Chatkevicius' third year in head coach Frank Martin's system as well as his third year with the Gamecocks' strength and conditioning staff. Chatkevicius sacrificed a summer back home among friends and family to stay in Columbia and continue to work on his body and his basketball craft. Teammate and fellow Lithuanian, Mindaugas Kacinas, has already seen the rewards of the big man's sacrifice. "He's slimmer and stronger," Kacinas said of Chatkevicius. "He can get up the court faster. He's come a long way with mental toughness, so that's what I like to see." He even referred to his fellow countrymen and good friend as "mean" now.
Laimonas is not only coming into this season in the best shape of his collegiate career but he's also coming off the best play of his career. In the final six games of last season Chatkevicius averaged 7.7 PPG and 6.7 RPG, higher averages than his overall season: 4.8 PPG and 4.1 RPG. The big man also played relative to his size in big time games. He scored eight points, including several clutch baskets in the waning moments of South Carolina's upset of No. 17 Kentucky. Two nights later, Chatkevicius came off the bench to pull down nine rebounds to go along with six points in a loss to Florida.
However the SEC Tournament is where he really began to shine. In South Carolina's opening round win vs. Auburn, Chatkevicius scored 11 points and grabbed 9 rebounds. The next night he had the best performance of his South Carolina career: 16 points and seven rebounds in a win vs. Arkansas. In South Carolina's three SEC Tournament games, the Lithuanian averaged 10.7 points and 7.0 rebounds in bench minutes. Chatkevicius liked the environment during the SEC Tournament. "There was no pressure," he said. "You either win or go home. This year, I want to play as well as we did at the Tournament."
Yes it was an exhibition vs. Benedict but Chatkevicius looked like he did the last stretch of the season during last month's tussle. The big man scored 10 points, shooting five of six from the field, while grabbing 12 rebounds. Benedict head coach Fred Watson took notice. "The big kid inside really came along," he said. "[Laimonas] Chatevicius, I mean, he is going to do some good things out there." Martin has also noticed the impact the Lithuanian can have on his basketball team. "When we played well last year, Laimonas created an impact on our basketball team, offensively and defensively," Martin said. "He is a multi-talented young man who presents size and a skill level. As he has continued to get his body in better shape, he has become a more productive player for us and we expect a lot of things from him."
Chatkevicius' minutes did not dip from his freshman to his sophomore season but he only started one game compared to 10 during his freshman year. South Carolina has a solid, experienced frontcourt with Michael Carrera, Demetrius Henry, Laimonas Chatkevicius, and Mindaugas Kacinas. At 6-11, 250, Chatkevicius is the biggest of the group and like Martin said, he will be expected to heavily contribute this season. Minutes will basically be spread evenly among the Gamecocks' frontcourt, but if South Carolina hopes to accomplish new feats, their biggest player will have to accomplish some big ones of his own.