While the star power with the team lies in the backcourt - particular Sindarius Thornwell and Tyrone Johnson - the experienced frontcourt gives them a chance to contend in the SEC in a way they haven't so far under Frank Martin. With four returning players in the post, Martin and the Gamecocks can roll out four SEC-caliber players, a line-up that may not overwhelm Kentucky or Florida, but can certainly overmatch some of the understaffed teams they'll face among their weaker conference foes.
Mindaugas Kacinas and Laimonas Chatkevicius get lumped together frequently due to their shared Lithuanian birthplace, but they play very different games. Chatkevicius uses many more offensive possessions, and while at times that leads to mistakes, it also gives him the higher ceiling if he can limit his turnovers and finish at the rim. Meanwhile, Kacinas seems happy playing a more limited role in the offense, while contributing both in rebounding and as well on the defensive end.
Despite his relative lack of involvement on the offensive end, Kacinas found himself playing more of the minutes for the Gamecocks last year as compared to his Baltic brother. That said, he exploits the limited chances he takes, with an effective field goal percentage of 55.6% and an outstanding free throw rate of 61%. He still turns the ball over a bit too much given his limited shot-taking, and he contributes almost nothing via assists, assisting on just over 3 percent of his teammates' baskets last year. But he grabs offensive rebounds (11.2% of those available to him) and stays out of foul trouble, which makes him valuable on this team.
Chatkevicius struggled to earn consistent minutes last year, never topping 21 minutes until the SEC Tournament, where he played 23 and 25 in wins over Auburn and Arkansas. He hit 54% of his shots last year while taking over one-fifth of the shots taken by Gamecocks during his time on the court, which alleviates pressure off other players to produce offense. Given his usage and efficiency, he's an offensive weapon waiting to be exploited.
The concern comes on defense, where his ability to block shots is hampered by his inability to stay out of foul trouble. He did a fine job of avoiding the problem at the end of last year, when in those tournament games he never accrued a fourth foul, and avoiding fouls while defending the interior post will both help the team's defense and offense, by letting him stay on the court more.
The Guy Taking the Next Step
Demetrius Henry was asked to do something last year very few freshmen post players can do in the SEC - play well against upperclassmen. Henry particularly struggled to make shots, both from the field (shooting 42%) and from the free throw line (an even worse 24%). He contributed in rebounding and blocked shots on the defensive end, but simply couldn't avoid foul trouble when matched up against bigger, stronger, older SEC post players.
A year older and 20 pounds heavier, Henry enters his sophomore season primed to take the next step in his development. Martin thinks Henry will contribute in a major way this season, as compared to the difficulties he faced as a freshman:
Demetrius Henry is a lot better than he was last year because he's removed from the pressure. We all sit there with freshmen and we, including me, think that it's a lot easier than it is for freshmen. When you're a freshman and you have a bad day, it gets exposed real bad when you've never been through it before. The next day it doesn't get any easier. You just don't get an easy day so it's hard to regain confidence, especially when you're going through it for the very first time. That kind of happened with him. He wasn't physically ready. He wanted to be, but he just couldn't do it.
With the need to play four players in the post - particularly in Martin's foul-centric system - Henry needs to improve his ability to score inside if Carolina wants to use him as a real weapon on the court, particularly if and when he's paired up with gunshy Kacinas. Given his gains in strength and experience, it's reasonable to expect that the top-100 recruit should fare much better his second trip through the SEC.
The Guy (Hopefully) Returning to Form
Michael Carrera put together an outstanding freshman season as an undersized power forward, playing significant minutes, utilizing tons of offensive possessions, voraciously rebounding missed shots on both ends, and shooting a respectable 45% on 2s for the year. Everyone rightly expected him to take a leap his sophomore season to becoming the best player on the team, and one of the best in the SEC.
Then, he didn't. Carrera shot less, rebounded less, and doled out fewer assists than he did his freshman year, hampered primarily by problems with his transition to the wing. He did improve his defense, increasing his blocks, steals, and reducing his fouls committed, but the offensive production simply wasn't there during most of the season.
This year, he returns to the post, where he should find himself more at home on the offensive end. The issues are two-fold - can he find his form from his freshman year? And can he defend the larger players he'll need to match up with down there on defense without costing the Gamecocks? As a junior, it's reasonable to expect that Carrera's ready to put it all together and play his best basketball of his career this year. But he needs to combine his offensive success from his freshman season with his defensive form from last year to do so.
The Guys That Could Help, Or Might Not
Reggie Theus, Jr. played sparingly last season, and when he did find the court, he seemed out of his depth, not uncommon for a freshman. As Frank Martin said earlier this year:
Reggie Jr. wanted the challenge of playing at a high-major school. Reggie, Sr. trusted in me that I would be the right person to help his son move forward. Those two thought processes have not gone out the window. I'm extremely proud of how much better Reggie is right now than he was a year ago.
Similarly, it's tough to imagine that Brian Steele can contribute meaningfully to the version of this team that's going to compete for a berth in a post-season tournament. Steele plays his best basketball when he can spot up outside and find his shot without having to create it - in fact, all ten of his made three-pointers last season were assisted by a teammate.
The concern with Steele is that he can't create offense on one end, and can't really play the kind of defense on the other end that justifies keeping him on the court. He'll likely provide a little depth to this team on nights where it ends up in foul trouble, and he can do some good things with the basketball, but if the Gamecocks spend significant portions of this season relying on Brian Steele, it's likely not a good sign for the progress of the team.