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July 17, 2014

Lithuanians' long journey to SEC success

When Mindaugas Kacinas and Laimonas Chatkevicius signed to play basketball as part of coach Frank Martin's first recruiting class in 2012, few knew what to make, much less expect, of the pair of Lithuanians other than their size (6-foot-7 and 6-11, respectively).

Chatkevicius originally signed to play with Martin at Kansas State but then followed his coach to Columbia after prepping in Connecticut. Kacinas played his high school ball in Kansas, where he came to the attention of Martin's staff. Both were rated as three stars, and both had the look of players who would best be suited contributing off the bench until they physically developed enough to be able to take the wear and tear that a Division I league and Martin's demanding system require.

Only in South Carolina's case, they were needed. Immediately. On the floor.

Three other players in that 2012 recruiting class - Tarik Phillip (6-3 guard who went to JUCO, will play for West Virginia this season under Martin's mentor Bob Huggins); Tyrone Haughton (6-9 center, went JUCO route and just signed to play for Pitt this season); and Thaddeus Hall (6-5 guard, prep school in Rock Hill then JUCO in Mississippi, considering Iowa and USC among others) - never made it to campus.

That put the onus on the two Lithuanians to play and play often, which they did as the Gamecocks struggled through a 14-18 (4-14) season. Kacinas had 31 appearances with nine starts as a freshman, averaging 4.9 points and 3.7 rebounds per game, while Chatkevicius played in 23 games, starting 10 and averaging 4.4 points per contest and 3.2 rebounds per game.

As sophomores with a year in the weight room under their waistbands, both improved measurably in production and conditioning. Kacinas averaged 5.6 points and 5.1 rebounds per game with 27 starts in 34 games, while Chatkevicius averaged 4.8 points and 4.1 rebounds appearing in 33 games with one start.

Last year, both players spent the summer at home in Lithuania playing internationally. This year, they've traded European courts for the Heathwood Hall Episcopal School gym, developing their games and the chemistry they need with their Gamecock teammates at the 2014 S.C. Pro-Am.

So far, so good. Through two games playing with Duane Notice, Chatkevicius scored 15 points with eight rebounds in his first game, then followed that with 11 points and eight rebounds. In his only game, Kacinas scored 16 points with three rebounds playing on a team with 2014 incoming freshman point guard Marcus Stroman.

Kacinas said he's spent the summer in Columbia working hard and appreciates the competition the S.C. Pro-Am provides.

"Basically the whole team is here (at the Pro-Am)," Kacinas said. "So we get to spend time together, be together, practice together. It's good.

"I'm trying to gain some weight to be strong in the post, and I'm working on my jump shot to be stretch four and help my team."

Paired with Stroman, Kacinas said the Gamecocks are getting a terrific player in the freshman.

"I really like playing with him," Kacinas said of Stroman. "I think he's going to be very useful for us. He's very good."

For Chatkevicius, the chance to bang against bodies other than those in Gamecock jerseys is a plus, as is just being around the team versus out of the country.

"It helps a lot," Chatkevicius said of staying in Columbia this summer. "I've been able to improve my strength, my quickness, I see my players. Those three months in the weight room and on the court were just an advantage for me and the whole team."

After spending a portion of the 2013-14 season in Martin's doghouse due to rebounding issues, Chatkevicius excelled over the final six games of the year, including the SEC Tournament, where he became a key contributor inside offensively and defensively.

"I felt like we were in a corner, we had to do whatever it takes to change something," Chatkevicius said. "I tried, everybody tried, and we did it."

Chatkevicius said he's focusing his development this summer on his positioning and skill work.

"Mostly, (I'm working on) my legs, to get low, and my left hand," he said. "Also, all the bigs are trying to work on our threes.

"I like to have that option (of a 3-pointer)."

Just like in 2012, the interior help Martin thought was on the way in the form of recruits Shamiek Sheppard (injury) and James Thompson (legal) hasn't materialized as planned, and with the transfer of big man Desmond Ringer, Chatkevicius alone stands as the team's unquestioned center given that fellow forward Demetrius Henry's size prevents him from taking on the behemoths of the SEC.

Despite only starting a single game last year, Chatkevicius said he can handle the task.

"This summer can help me prepare for that," Chatkevicius said. "I look at is as an opportunity for me and the other guys to have to step up."

Playing against other college and professional players in the Pro-Am, Chatkevicius said, is a big help toward his taking the increased post role the Gamecocks need.

"I feel it gives me confidence to play against some professional players," he said. "It's good to try your game against other players."

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