South Carolina finished its regular season on Saturday with a win in Starkville, which means they topped their SEC win total of four from last year, and improved on the two-win season it posted in 2011-12. This concludes one of the most depressing stretches in a program used to bad stretches. Since the 1997-1998 season, the Gamecocks have posted a winning record in exactly one SEC season - the 2008-2009 team, coached by Darrin Horn, which won a shockingly bad SEC East co-championship with Tennessee with only a 10-6 record. That's the only winning record in 16 straight seasons of SEC play. Yikes.
The program also underwent significant turmoil over the last week when Ray Tanner suspended Frank Martin for one game due to his treatment of Duane Notice on the sidelines during a 72-46 loss to the top-ranked Florida Gators.
Heading into next season, the Gamecocks only face the necessary departure of Brenton Williams from the program (though others may also depart, as four did last year, and as is typical of a Frank Martin program). In the fall, Frank Martin inked two guys to letters of intent, and just added a third commitment in Shamiek Sheppard. How can those three help this team improve?
Marcus Stroman, PG (Keenan H.S. / Columbia, SC)
120th-best player in the nation; 27th-best point guard, per 247 Composite
Martin kept the 6'1" guard from Columbia at home, locking up a commitment early on and thwarting off advances by Florida State and Georgetown to keep Stroman in the fold. Stroman seemed an incredibly important recruit entering this season, when Carolina looked to have only two point guards (Tyrone Johnson and Bruce Ellington) available this year, neither of which would be ready to go as the season began. Through odd turns of injury, NFL Draft declarations, and overturned suspensions, the season hasn't played out as expected specifically, but the general concern about point guard depth has been realized.
Fortunately for the Gamecocks, Duane Notice has come along nicely, and while he still struggles with turnovers (another 5 in 32 minutes against Florida on Tuesday night), he's allowed Carolina to weather the loss of Johnson. The presence of Stroman should allow Notice to move to the 2-guard spot, where he should limit his turnovers simply by handling the ball less. With expected freshman-to-sophomore improvement, that duo looks set to give Carolina a capable backcourt for the 2014-15 season.
Stroman helps Carolina because it allows Notice to stay at the 2 even when Johnson needs a breather. Martin praised his abilities as a point guard when he announced the signing, describing Stroman as a "consummate point guard" who "understands the position at his age as well as, if not better, than most." His growth at the spot opens up options for Carolina around the rest of the court by not requiring Notice to move to the 1 every time Johnson sits down. If he can play a capable 8-10 minutes a game, he dramatically improves the Gamecocks.
TeMarcus Blanton, SG (Luella H.S. / Locust Grove, GA)
239th-best player in the nation; 54th-best small forward per 247 Composite
247Sports.com rates Blanton as a wing, though I'm not sure he won't try to break the rotation as a two-guard next season. Right now that position is very crowded, with Justin McKie, Jaylen Shaw, and Duane Notice all potentially looking for minutes there, so perhaps Blanton makes more sense as a 3 backing up Sindarius Thornwell. Of course, that then asks the question of whether Michael Carrera plays the 3 or the 4 next season. If Martin continues to try to move him out to the wing, Thornwell bumps up to the 2, and the positions only become more crowded.
While perhaps not in Carrera's best long-term interest, given the deficiencies in the post and the relative strength of Carolina's guard play, it makes sense to keep Carrera on the blocks where he can help an area of weakness. That means Blanton could see time as either a back-up 2 or 3 for the Gamecocks.
Martin described Blanton as a "wing that is ultra-competitive on both ends of the floor. He fits exactly the kind of guard that we want to build our program around. He's a slasher, a defender, and an athletic finisher that loves every opportunity he gets to compete."
Defense is certainly an area the Gamecocks could use help, given the 1.093 points per possession they've bled away to opponents in SEC play this season, which ranks 12th in the 14-team conference. That's against an SEC average of 1.038, which means in a typical SEC game, Carolina gives up 3.6 more points than the average SEC defense.
Shamiek Sheppard (Brooklyn, NY / Fishburne Military School)
299th-best player in the nation; 63rd-best small forward per 247 Composite
The Gamecocks received the commitment of Shamiek Sheppard (Brooklyn, NY / Fishburne Military School) on March 10. Sheppard does not rank highly in the 247Sports ratings (299th in the nation), but who has a competing offer from Martin's old program, Kansas State. At 6'6", Sheppard likely doesn't solve post issues for Carolina, though his athleticism could certainly find a place on the floor as soon as next season. If he can serve as a capable back-up to Sindarius Thornwell, he could allow Michael Carrera to permanently play at the 4, since the Gamecocks currently lack a reliable back-up at the 3 position.
The big issue for Carolina is that, while the help at the guard position certainly doesn't hurt, they need big men, and thus far this class doesn't have anyone that fits that mold. With Brenton Williams leaving and Carlton Geathers expected to receive a medical hardship, Carolina only has two scholarships currently available if everyone comes back. But, as we noted before, it does not seem likely that everyone will return to the program next year.
At the moment, there are no other names closely attached to Carolina basketball, and every player that signs from here on out means a transfer of a current player. It will be interesting to see how the off-season unfolds in Columbia on that front.
Stroman and Blanton both signify improvements for Carolina on its recent talent acquisition, and Stroman particularly is a guy who has the makings of a three-year starter at the point if he can do enough to convince Frank Martin that Duane Notice should move over to the 2. Shamiek Sheppard represents more of a project - guys with his pedigree have come in and been Michael Carrera, but they've also been Reggie Theus, Jr. (who still has a chance to contribute if he returns, but is clearly a step behind Carrera's freshman year). With the expected improvement of an already great Thornwell, Carolina looks ready to take another step up the SEC ladder in the 2014-15 season.
Stroman, Blanton and Sheppard help with that, but as results on the court clearly indicate the last two seasons, what they really need is to find someone who can help out in the post. Without stronger post play, Carolina looks likely to struggle for a third consecutive year under Martin, which could lead elite recruits like Perry Dozier Jr. and Seventh Woods to wonder if Columbia is the place for them when it comes time to decide where to continue their careers.
So it's a big year coming up for the program. And next season's chances come down to whether they can either find new post players or develop the ones they have on campus. The answer to that question likely determines the Gamecocks' fate in Frank Martin's third year, and perhaps the trajectory of the program going forward.