Excitement has surrounded the South Carolina men's basketball team all preseason. The program's followers are just now getting elements of the team and upcoming season to grasp onto. Before, it was pure anticipation, now, fans have quotes and numbers to ponder in their heads.
Shortly before yesterday's SEC Media Day began, the preseason media poll was released, where the Gamecocks were picked to finish seventh in the conference. That's the highest preseason finish in the media poll for USC since the league stopped doing divisions in 2011.
"You'd rather be spoken about in preseason than not," head coach Frank Martin said from SEC Media Day in Charlotte, N.C. yesterday. "That creates excitement. In our locker room that doesn't mean a thing. But it creates an atmosphere with your fan base, your community, on your campus where people say ‘you know what, they're going to be good.'"
You'd have to go back six years to find this kind of frenzy surrounding the men's basketball team and Martin hopes that means more butts in the seats, but he also wants those butts showing up from the season's opening tip. "You want people to be invested in there from day one," Martin said. "Since I've been at South Carolina everyone has said, ‘well, they'll come in January.' Unfortunately the games we play in November count."
This season's hype will bring fans to Colonial Life Arena but Martin hopes the schedule and his team's style will bring more passionate basketball fans. "We've upgraded our schedule and we've won some games," Martin said. "I think our brand of basketball is fun to watch sometimes ... I think it's fun to watch. I think that there's an excitement."
A heralded recruiting class and the return of several key figures has turned up the fan base's passion this season. The team returns four of its five starters from a season ago and adds one of the best recruits in the country, local product P.J. Dozier. Martin has been vocal about how good this entire freshman class is but that wasn't the biggest surprise to him this preseason.
"That one's easy. Sindarius' (Thornwell) health," Martin mentioned yesterday when asked what stuck out at the start of preseason. "To see him flying around and that joyful, excited player that we couldn't get last year. When you're a good player and your body doesn't respond and it's the first time you ever go through it, it puts you in a different place mentally. And that was a grind for him last year."
We knew Thornwell dealt with injuries last season but it appears they may have affected him way more than any of us realized a year ago. Despite a dynamic freshman class and a handful of returning lettermen, the Gamecocks may only go as far as Thornwell can take them this season.
The team undoubtedly has its own goals, but those are unknown to the public and weren't specifically addressed yesterday. We've always known Frank Martin's goal and it has always remained the same - an SEC championship.
"The day I walked in the locker room for the first time, that's what I said and that's where I keep it at."