The 2017-18 season was undeniably a brutal crash back down to Earth for the South Carolina Gamecocks. Coming off that magical Final Four run, expectations and excitement were running high. But most observers figured the Gamecocks were due for a step back with the loss of stars like Sindarius Thornwell and PJ Dozier, as well as reliable role-players like Duane Notice and Justin McKie. What most of those same observers likely didn’t realize, though, was just how much of a step back it would be.
Let’s take a look at the good, the bad, and the ugly from this season, which ended with a 17-16 (7-11 SEC) record and no postseason action:
Unquestionably, the 84-75 upset of then-No. 10 Auburn is at the top of this list. It was an incredible way to snap a six-game losing streak — South Carolina led 46-25 at the half — and showed the Gamecocks still had a little of that magic in them. South Carolina also completed a season sweep of Georgia, and beating the Bulldogs in any sport always does a body good. Almost as impressively, the Gamecocks avoided their tendency to faceplant in the first round of the SEC Tournament, squeaking past Ole Miss 85-84 to stick around for more than just a few hours.
There are, unfortunately, a handful to choose from in this category. Look no further than the aforementioned six-game skid that hit in late January, starting with a narrow 70-63 loss to a top-15 Texas Tech squad in the Big 12/SEC Challenge and snowballing from there. There was a disappointing 81-76 loss against Mississippi State that represented a blown opportunity, and two thumpings at the hands of Texas A&M (83-60) and Arkansas (81-65). But an unholy 65-41 beatdown that Florida administered in Columbia was the true piece de resistance. The 70-67 heartbreaker at Tennessee was the final blow, and mercifully the Gamecocks channeled that “improved” play — such as it was — to bust their slump and net the upset over Auburn.
Oh, and then there was Clemson. Seeing as the Tigers have reached the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16, that doesn’t qualify as a “bad” loss in the typical sense of the word. But it’s always an emotional game, and not even breaking 50 points in a 64-48 defeat really set the tone coming out of non-conference play.
Rebounding. As usual for a team coached by Frank Martin, the Gamecocks rarely got out-hustled on the glass. South Carolina averaged 36.8 boards per game, good for fifth in the SEC, and rebounding was otherwise at the bottom of the list of things to be concerned about with this squad.
Post play. Junior forward Chris Silva, the biggest returning piece from last season’s Final Four run, took another step forward with the Gamecocks. An All-SEC First Team selection and also named the conference’s Co-Defensive Player of the Year, Silva led the Gamecocks in points per game (14.3), rebounds (8), blocks (1.4), and attempted free throws (283!). While refining his offensive approach and finding ways to get to the free-throw line, Silva also cut down on his propensity for foul trouble. He should be set up for a huge senior season.
Freshman forward Justin Minaya and freshman center Felipe Haase also showed a lot of potential, with both displaying some 3-point shooting touch and just a general feel for the game. Minaya was overall the most impactful rookie, putting up 11 double-digit scoring efforts. Hopefully this baptism by fire will pay off for South Carolina moving forward.
Depth. With the amount of attrition the Gamecocks had suffered due to upperclassmen/NBA departures, dismissals from the team, and some injury woes just for good measure, it all added up to a bench thin on both bodies and experience. Altogether, there were eight Gamecocks who had never worn a South Carolina uniform prior to this season, whether because they were freshmen or players new to the program. It’s hard to expect a lot of cohesive team chemistry under those circumstances.
Guard play, specifically at the point. It’s been harped on here and elsewhere, but South Carolina’s backcourt was the worst we’ve seen in Columbia in quite a while. I’d be remiss, however, if I didn’t first acknowledge my appreciation for Frank Booker. A little-discussed grad transfer via Florida Atlantic, Booker was expected to contribute mostly a steadying, veteran influence on a young squad before the season started. But “Big Shot Book” ended up second on the team in scoring (12.7 points per game), second in field goal and 3-point percentage (43.3 and 40.9%, respectively), and first in free-throw percentage (76.4%). As bad as it could be, the backcourt would have been even uglier without him.
So, what happened, exactly? Returning role-player Rahkym Felder landed in hot water — and subsequently, Martin’s doghouse. The promising and fearless guard wasn’t allowed to play this season, and Felder aside, Martin’s best-laid plans to replace the production of Thornwell and Dozier quite simply fell through. Kory Holden, a fairly heralded transfer from Delaware who averaged 17.7 points per game with the Blue Hens, was so limited by injuries that he rarely played and eventually left the Gamecocks in mid-February. Wes Myers, another grad transfer who averaged 16.9 points at Maine, put up a few big performances but was largely inconsistent. That left junior Hassani Gravett, who performed capably off the bench last season in spot duty, but turned in just 7.4 points per game and struggled with turnovers as a starter. Sophomore Evan Hinson, who moonlights as a tight end on the football team, also logged substantial minutes as a starter. Just about everything concerning the South Carolina backcourt was suboptimal, but the Gamecocks had to play the hand they were dealt.
Shooting. Quite frankly, the Gamecocks couldn’t throw the ball in the ocean. South Carolina was either dead last or close to it in multiple major offensive categories in the SEC: 14th in field goal percentage (37.4%), 14th in 2-point percentage (39.3%), and 13th in points per game (68.3). Things get a little better when you look at 3-point percentage (34.1%, good for seventh in conference) and free-throw percentage (73.%, sixth), but South Carolina’s offense was largely woeful and prone to scoring droughts that stretched for several minutes.
The Gamecocks currently have just one commitment for the 2018 class in three-star guard Jermaine Couisnard out of Montverde, Fla., but are in the mix for several targets. Perhaps most critical will be the return of Felder, and whether Louisville transfer and former five-star McDonald’s All-American Brian Bowen can suit up for South Carolina. With his involvement in the FBI’s college basketball corruption probe, Bowen’s eligibility is a bit of a tossup right now. Until that’s resolved and the recruiting class comes into sharper focus, it’s hard to say exactly what the Gamecocks will have next time out — especially since offseason attrition of some kind has been fairly common in the Martin era.