COLUMBIA, S.C. — It wasn’t going to be until next summer that Frank Martin took his South Carolina basketball team on an overseas trip.
But as his roster changed shape drastically in recent months, the fifth-year head coach decided it was time to move the trip up to 2016. On Saturday, the Gamecocks will head for Costa Rica with ambitions of helping balance out a roster that has plenty of upperclassman experience combined with a lot of underclassman depth.
The hope is to set up for a solid 2016-17 campaign, especially for seniors Sindarius Thornwell, Justin McKie and Duane Notice, all of whom Martin said have given so much to the South Carolina program.
“I don’t think it would be fair to Sindarius and Justin and Duane — guys that have sacrificed so much for so many years — to not give them every opportunity (in) their senior year for us to become the best team that we can,” Martin said.
The Gamecocks are coming off a solid season in which they went 25-10, reached the NIT — the first postseason appearance for the school since 2009 — and came up just short of the NCAA Tournament. But they want to be on the right side of the bubble this season, and the weeklong trip to Costa Rica will provide what Thornwell sees as both a fun trip and an opportunity to build toward more success.
“For my last year, my last go around, I just look at it as a vacation for everything we’ve done for the four years,” Thornwell said. “We’re coming here to win, most importantly, and to learn each other, prepare each other for the season. That’s the most important thing for me.”
The Gamecocks will enter the trip and then the season with a much different group than at the end of last season. Four seniors graduated, two players were dismissed and one transferred.
To get the new group rolling, South Carolina will play two games against the Costa Rica national team and also practice with it as part of the tour, the program’s first since a European trip in 2008. This trip also includes two clinics, including one for the Special Olympics, and provides time for the team to form stronger relationships and improve chemistry.
“I think the most important thing is getting the freshmen to learn everything,” Thornwell said. “It helps them and gets them better prepared. When October comes around, they kind of have a head start on things when we start practice. Also, us knowing each other, getting a feel for playing with one another and continue bonding off the court will be a good thing for us on this trip.”
That growth already has been underway in practices to ready for the trip. Assistant coach Matt Figger said the trio of senior guards has been tremendous leaders so far.
“Sindarius, Duane and Justin, to an extent, they know stuff as well as I do,” said Figger, who will be the acting head coach in Costa Rica with Martin taking on an assistant role. “They have been able to help and teach on the floor. All the returning guys have been very helpful to the new guys.”
Martin noted successful teams, even some the best that John Calipari has fielded at Kentucky, often have key upperclassmen to get their teams through tough times and difficult stretches.
Experience affords the Gamecocks time for new players and signees to transition in, though big man Ran Tut and point guard Rakym Felder won’t make the trip because neither is enrolled in summer classes. Freshman Sedee Keita and sophomore Chris Silva won’t play because of injuries. Both are expected to be ready for the season.
But for those who go, Martin expects the trip will prove a key opportunity to forge chemistry in a way that can’t be done as naturally in Columbia with the normal flow of friends and family.
“The most important thing is being around each other,” Thornwell said. “And getting to know each other more and getting that chemistry and team-bonding, on and off the court, and having fun while we’re out there. Nobody is pressuring anybody to win.
“Everybody is still learning, so we’re going out there to have fun and to learn and get better.”
Mike Wilson covers South Carolina athletics for SECCountry.com and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Follow him on Twitter for the latest on the Gamecocks.