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November 18, 2013

Five things we learned: Week 1 hoops

Five things we learned: Week 1 hoops

We're three games into South Carolina's 2013-14 men's basketball season, and the Gamecocks are 1-2. What have we learned?

1. South Carolina will struggle on the road.

The Gamecocks won just two road games last year and and the year before, which means no one around for either of those two seasons (and only Brenton Williams and Bruce Ellington were here for both) has any experience winning games away from the Colonial Life Arena.

It shows.

At Baylor, a determined defensive effort failed in the final minutes because the Gamecocks had just one offensive weapon to turn to - freshman Sindarius Thornwell. When he's cold or on the bench or the offense doesn't flow his way, South Carolina struggles to score. At Clemson, it didn't matter what he did (10 points) because the Gamecocks got shoved out-muscled, out-hustled and generally bullied by the bigger, older team. While Baylor's gym never got loud in large part because it was a paltry midday crowd, Clemson's Littlejohn arena did, and after trimming a nine-point halftime deficit to one early in the second half, the ensuing Tigers' run, complete with slams off offensive rebounds, 3-pointers and baskets plus the foul, sent the home crowd into a frenzy and the Gamecocks never recovered.

With a young team, it's going to take patience and experience to build the confidence it takes to weather runs on the road, and this team isn't there yet. Looking ahead, winnable road games are versus St. Mary's in Honolulu, at Georgia Jan. 22 and at Auburn Feb. 26. Getting three road wins this year would be an improvement over the past two seasons, and right not, improvement is all you can ask for.

2. Brenton Williams has to score.

One of the most mystifying things about Brenton Williams is how he can go from a player capable of scoring 36 points against Mississippi State last year to one who can absolutely disappear for huge stretches of the game, as he did at Baylor (five points in the second half) and again at Clemson (zero points in 19 minutes). He's a shooter who is afraid to shoot, and I don't know why that is.

Shooters, by very definition, have a shooter's mentality, believing against all evidence, sometimes, that the next shot is going to fall. Williams looks scared to even take a shot this season and turned down several opportunities both at Baylor and Clemson where he got a pass, had an open look and decided to keep the ball moving to someone else. It's getting hard to watch him struggle so bad, honestly, because I just can't recall a player looking more scared to be on a basketball court than Williams this year. For all his limitations - and there were many - Eric Smith was ferocious last year. If Williams played with half the passion and confidence of Smith, I can't imagine him not scoring at least 14 a game with his superb driving skills, excellent free-throw shooting and his 3-point ability, easily the best on the team.

For South Carolina to think about going .500 in the SEC, which I believe is possible, Williams has to emerge, not sink into oblivion. Three games in, however, that appears to be precisely what he's doing.

3. Ty Johnson has to score.

After his 18-point outburst against Longwood, I was hyped about Johnson's role on this team and how it so greatly enhanced the Gamecocks' prospects of a successful 2013-14. After his most recent two games (8 and 5 points, respectively), my expectations have been diminished considerably as to his scoring potential.

Johnson runs a fine point - he's tough and skilled with the ball. Mentally, however, he doesn't have a scorer's mindset, and in fact looks too hard sometimes to get others the ball. After Sunday's beat-down at Clemson, Frank Martin said his players were lethargic off the ball, which made the point guards look bad. That was certainly true. But when that's the case - and it will be sometimes, just as other times they'll be effectively guarded - it's the job of the point guard to create offense. This is a shamefully unfair comparison, I know, but you think of a Devan Downey and his ability to drive and score, drive and dish or drive and get fouled that bailed out USC time after time after time.

This team hasn't had a threat at the point - maybe Bruce Ellington at times his freshman year and once in every blue moon lately - since. I had hoped from what I saw over the summer at the S.C. Pro Am that Johnson could be that kind of penetrating threat, but right now he doesn't appear confident in that role, and he's yet to show an outside shot opponents have to respect. Throw in some particularly embarrassing layup misses against Baylor that could have been the difference in winning and losing, and Johnson is another player who needs to improve his mental game more so than his physical one.

4. Thornwell is the real deal.

He was the top get of the 2013 recruiting class, a top-50 national player and he hasn't done a thing to disappoint yet in a Gamecock uniform. His 20 points at Baylor were all hard-earned and all impressive in that environment. He can create his own shot in traffic off the drive and has a knack for drawing the foul. His outside shot is better-than-average, and with no one else on the team hitting 3s, he probably needs to take more of them (the Gamecocks were 1-for-10 on 3s against Clemson, he was the only player to make one on his only attempt).

It was clear down the stretch of the Baylor game that Thornwell was the team's go-to guy for a final possession score, and that's precisely where he needs to stay, live and get comfortable because no one else is knocking on that door who is currently on the roster. It's going to be exciting watching him develop.

5. Kacinas deserves kudos.

Besides Thornwell, only Mindaugas Kacinas played with consistent energy, intensity, intelligence and control against Clemson. Go ahead and read that sentence again, please, to understand just what that means. Not Michael Carrera, who has been wild and uneven at times, not Johnson, not Williams, not anyone else. It's why he's been on the floor at the end of games, why he, at 6-foot-7, can put up rebounding numbers like his 14 against Longwood and 12 against Clemson - seven of which came on the offensive boards.

He's a fighter on the offensive boards, and that comes from effort and desire. He can put back misses and he can hit his free throws. His shooting percentage is terrific (6-of-11 against the Tigers, 4-of-6 against Baylor and 1-2 against Longwood), meaning he doesn't take bad shots. After the Clemson game, the soft-spoken Midaugas - his nickname 'Mindy' is oddly appropriate in that way - was frank in his comments that other players need to play harder and that he hopes they learn from their mistakes. Nice to hear some tough talk from a player giving everything he has to this team.

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