It's been awhile, but South Carolina has a legitimate strength on the basketball court. Last season's growing pains should bear fruit for two prominent freshmen, and the full-time return of a senior point guard allows those two now-sophomores to move into their natural positions while they also look to take their sophomore leaps in production.
Those three starters give the Gamecocks a unit that can compete with some of the best backcourts in the SEC, an advantage that Frank Martin hasn't had in either the frontcourt or the backcourt in his first two years in Columbia. If it comes together as well as it could, the Gamecocks have an upside as high as all but the very top SEC programs this season.
Sindarius Thornwell - The Best Player on the Team
Thornwell's clearly the best player on the team, and if he grows into the type of player that could be a first-round pick after this season, that means the Gamecocks are going to be a team to be feared in the SEC this season. On the other hand, if he stalls out at just very good - and Thornwell's floor is still being a very good player - the Gamecocks can still improve on their season output from last year, but it's hard to see a team without an excellent Thornwell making a run at the NCAAs.
Critically, Thornwell has to improve his production from 2 if the Gamecocks want to succeed. Last year, he shot just 51.3% on twos at the rim and 34.5% on two-point jumpers (all data courtesy of the outstanding Hoop-Math.com), against national averages of 54% and 34.5%. Some of that occurred because Thornwell didn't have enough help, particularly after Johnson went down, but he can't be a below-average player from the inside this year if the Gamecocks want to contend. Simply put, another sub-40% shooting effort from two-point range won't do for him or the team.
Martin added the following thoughts on the talented sophomore from Lancaster:
He's a guard. He's bigger and stronger than the average guard. Demetrius [Henry] at 205 pounds is a lot smaller and skinner than the average front line guy. People are different. Sindarius had some real bad moments statistically, but he was bigger and stronger so he could withstand those moments better.
The Return of Tyrone Johnson
Helpfully, most of the pressure for Thornwell to shoot so much can be alleviated in part just by the return of Tyrone Johnson. Of course, with the loss of Brenton Williams (who took the second-most field goal attempts of anyone on the team last season), there are additional shots that need to be picked up, and Johnson's hopeful return to full-time duty helps spread those shots out.
Johnson's biggest contributions of course come from his ball-handling skills, and the ability for Martin to shift those responsibilities away from Duane Notice should lead to a reduction in turnovers by both Notice and the Gamecocks as a whole this year. Johnson assisted on 29% of his teammates' baskets while he was on the court, while posting a reasonable turnover rate. Much like Thornwell, he needs to improve his inside game - he only hit 39% of his 2s - but his role as a distributor is not in doubt, and he augments his inside game well by getting to the line at a ferocious clip, with a free throw rate (free throw attempts divided by field goal attempts, a pace-adjusted way of looking at how often players get free throws) of 66.9, which would've been good enough for a top-100 placement in the nation had he played enough minutes to qualify.
The Growth of Duane Notice
The third starter returning to the backcourt is Duane Notice, who should be happy to move away from the point guard duties foisted upon him last season by Johnson's season-ending injury. Notice struggled with turnovers all last year, but handled his point guard responsibilities admirably, including assisting on over a quarter of the shots made by his teammates while he was on the floor last year, coming in at 207th in the nation in that category.
Like Thornwell and Johnson, he shot under 40% from two last year, and that's the area he needs to improve on the most if the Gamecocks want to climb the ladder in the SEC. But also like Johnson and Thornwell, he compliments his interior game with the ability to get to the foul line, with a free throw rate of 48.9 (381st in the nation).
The return of Johnson means Notice gets to move to the two-guard position, which hopefully allows him to reduce his turnovers while not suffering too large a drop in assists. If he combines that with improved inside shooting, the sophomore from Ontario could round out one of the better backcourts in the SEC this year.
Justin McKie - The Other Returner
Justin McKie didn't really make a mark his freshman year, playing in just 17 games, which included only five minutes in the final 10 contests. So while he's a returning player, it's hard to know what to expect from him if he logs regular minutes nightly, particularly in the SEC.
Last year, McKie struggled to do much of anything offensively even when he did find the court, hardly shooting and missing most of the chances he took. All indications from Columbia are the sophomore from Irmo spent this summer improving his game - but then again, what player doesn't - and if he can move from bench to contributor, it gives the Gamecocks the chance to keep their primary three guards fresh throughout the rigors of a long season.
Martin praised McKie's effort over the summer at a recent press conference, saying:
Justin - it's day and night. I can only imagine what being Justin McKie at age 18 is like. The easy thing for him to have done is to go to another school. That would be the easy thing to do. Go to another university and you never have to worry about the expectations, the public opinion, of who you should be. He never gave into that.
Justin's in a much better place as a player. He's in a much more stable place from a day-to-day standpoint in his approach to everything that we do, and that includes academically, socially, and obviously athletically in basketball. I wouldn't have handled things as well as he did at 18 when I was 18.
The Newcomer - Marcus Stroman
Marcus Stroman comes to Columbia as a highly sought after recruit that hopefully gives the Gamecocks the luxury of not requiring Notice or Thornwell to run the point, as they were forced to do much of last season, when the losses of Bruce Ellington and Johnson left Carolina woefully short-staffed at point guard.
The freshman from Keenan obviously needs to adjust to the pace of college basketball, but he has all the tools and athleticism needed to do so, and practicing daily against Johnson should only speed along his progression. With the injuries to TeMarcus Blanton and Shamiek Sheppard, Stroman represents not only the lone freshman to take the floor for Carolina this year, but also one of the players with the most to gain from a break-out campaign. As you can see, there's only five real backcourt threats to playing time, and with three spots open in the rotation, he'll be allowed to shoulder as much responsibility as he can carry as soon as he earns the trust of the coaching staff to carry it.