COLUMBIA, S.C. — The situation for South Carolina basketball heading into the 2016-17 season is clear.
Frank Martin has proven seniors at guard. He also will rely on youth in the post. But when the Gamecocks coach rolls together all he knows about his team, he has a good idea of what it will take for his team to reach the NCAA Tournament.
“Just patience,” Martin said. “That’s the most important word.”
Patience is so important that Martin went on to say it three more times in addressing what it would take to reach the tournament, which his team fell just short of making a season ago. The Gamecocks had the best second-start in school history last season and landed in the NIT — the school’s first postseason appearance since 2009 — but had a high degree of turnover this offseason. Four seniors graduated, two players were dismissed and one transferred from the team that went 25-9.
With a trio of senior guards expected to lead the way — in play and leadership – the Gamecocks hope to take another step this season. It likely won’t look like a tournament team from the start. The improvement and necessary experience won’t show immediately. There is a blend of questions and known commodities that have the Gamecocks knowing it will be a work in progress that requires patience.
Martin pointed to senior guard Sindarius Thornwell and his growth in understanding what it takes to have a tournament team. The USC coach said when Thornwell arrived, he expected it would be easy. Now Thornwell understands what it takes to make the NCAA Tournament.
“I think that we still have the potential to make the tournament,” Thornwell said. “We have the roster. We have the players to make the tournament. It’s a different type of team. We were older last year. We had been together last year for three years. So, we had known each other and had a feel for each other. It was kinda easier for us last year, as far as us playing together. We knew what we were going to get out of each other.
“This year, us older guys have to work harder and the team is going to move a little different and play a little different with the younger guys and us older guys being all guards. I think we still have the same type of potential, it’s just that the game will be played a little different and everything will just be a little different from the team standpoint.”
The Gamecocks will rely heavily on a trio of senior guards, who will have duties on the perimeter and even in the post from time to time.
Thornwell is South Carolina’s leading returning scorer with 13.4 points per game last year. Senior guards Duane Notice (10.8 PPG) and Justin McKie (1.5 PPG) also are expected to help lead the Gamecocks. Sophomore guard P.J. Dozier has “star written all over him,” Martin said, after he averaged 6.7 points as a freshman.
In the frontcourt, Martin expects 6-9 sophomore Chris Silva to make big strides in his understanding of the Gamecocks structure and the player he is within it. Behind Silva, the USC frontcourt largely is comprised of young players with little experience.
Martin said he expects the Gamecocks will be fine in the post, but the development of the players at that spot is one area that will require patience.
“I don’t think we are worried at all,” Notice said. “I think we’ve done a good job of building a team that can cater to the offense and the defense that fits Frank’s system the right way. Guys that will play hard, work hard and are positive and love the game of basketball. … You have a plethora of guys who have been here and been through the fire, so we can help the young guys as well.”
That is a way Martin will rely on his seniors to help him bring this team along with its exhibition opener coming Nov. 6 against Newberry. He praised Notice for becoming more vocal as a leader and said McKie is as grounded and comfortable as he has been in his career.
“(Martin) just came to us and told us that he is going to need our help with leading the younger guys and showing them the way to do things,” Thornwell said. “His focus is not on us as much anymore because we know everything. His focus is on catching the younger guys up. Our job is to help him with the process.”
That’s what Martin expects it to be: a process. That’s why he preaches needing his team to not overreact to the good or bad and to have patience, which all starts with his seniors.
“There’s a confidence level about the older guys that I like a lot, but there’s also a realistic approach to what they do every day,” Martin said. “They stay humble and they stay committed to the work. They keep the young guys on edge. …
“Those guys are really, really engaged with what we do every single day and help each other. They are not happy with each other when one guy has a bad day, they are not happy with it. There is a commitment to helping one another that’s a whole lot of fun to be around.”