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July 26, 2014

Five things we learned: S.C. Pro-Am

With the regular-season portion of the 2014 S.C. Pro-Am over and done with, what did we learn about the University of South Carolina basketball team? With every current and incoming player participating besides the injured Shamiek Sheppard and Ty Johnson and the legally entangled James Thompson, we learned quite a lot, actually.

So, without further ado, let's hit it!

1. Sindarius Thornwell is the team's leader on the court and off.
This is not up for debate. On the court, Thornwell scored virtually at will, notching dozens of high-flying dunks, a few 3-pointers here and there and, most importantly, a fierce desire to break down his opponent off the dribble and create space for himself to lift a shot. With the exception of former Gamecock and current professional Carlos Powell, who played like a madman the entire season, Thornwell was the best player in the league.

When he wasn't playing at a high level on the court, he was leading on a high level off it. Rather than play the BMOC (Big Man On Campus) and arrive late and leave early, Thornwell did the opposite, including coming to games on nights he wasn't even competing. After his games would finish, Thornwell routinely stuck around in the stands to interact with fans and friends and cheer on - sometimes coaching - his fellow USC teammates.

As I wrote in my feature on him earlier this month, Thornwell had the least to prove but played like he had the most on the line. He scored 32 and 30 points in his final two regular-season Pro-Am outings, averaging 27 points in five games.

2. Duane Notice is a beast.
Last season, the muscular but heavy Canadian shooting guard found himself in the unlikely role of starting point guard when starter Ty Johnson went down and senior Bruce Ellington left the team for the NFL Draft.

Thrown to the SEC wolves, Notice performed admirably, becoming an offensive factor down the stretch as he learned the position and a key performer in the team's 4-2 stretch run that included a win over national runner-up Kentucky. Against Auburn in the SEC Tournament, Notice led USC with 23 points to defeat the Tigers.

Over the offseason, Notice threw himself into fitness and improving his body with a passion, dropping 16 pounds and elevating his game and his confidence. Averaging 22 points per game, Notice had highs of 29, 28 and 27 where he showed he could take over a game offensively and guard players as skilled as former USC star Devan Downey.

With a newly sculpted body and the confidence of his experience, Notice will be an enormous benefit to the 2014-15 Gamecocks as a player with point guard experience who can shoot and slash as the third guard in a speedy rotation. Overlooked as a recruit, Notice is poised to be the kind of player USC fans (and recruitniks) look back on as an absolute steal.

3. The Lithuanians: liability no more.
Continuing the trend from about the last third of the season on, Mindaugas Kacinas and Laimonas Chatkevicius have made the progression from "projects" to "contributors" to, at least in Kacinas' case, "starter."

Against Kentucky and through the SEC Tournament, Chatkevicius caught fire, playing with fearlessness and skill. In the signature win over the Wildcats Chatkevicius scored six points in the final 2:36 and he scored 11 against Auburn in the SEC Tournament.

Though Chatkevicius remained in the doghouse most of the year because of his poor rebounding and defense, those areas became his focus over the offseason and have improved visibly through the Pro-Am, averaging 11.2 points per game and becoming, if not a rebounding force, at least a rebounding contender.

Kacinas, who started 37 of 34 games and contributed valuable minutes in 2013-14 while averaging 5.6 points and 5.1 rebounds per game, has improved his body, adding what looks like at least 10 pounds of muscle and working on his outside shooting. While only averaging 10.8 points, the majority of his shots have come from outside as he develops his touch.

Where once thought of as placeholders in Frank Martin's program who at best could develop to become capable backups, both players are showing that coming into in their third year each one is ready to help this team win and contribute as many meaningful minutes as Martin requires - which likely will be tons with the transfer of forward Desmond Ringer and uncertainty over whether the lone big man from the 2014 class, James Thompson, makes it to campus this year.

4. The point guard position is SET.
As mentioned, this position became a nightmare in 2013-14. Thought of as a strength with Ellington returning after football in time for conference play and the high expectations around former Top 40 recruit and Villanova transfer Ty Johnson, the loss of both players by mid January meant the Gamecocks were most vulnerable at the most-important position on the court.

Fast forward to now, and not only can Notice step back in if needed (as well as Thornwell, who can bring the ball up the court in a pinch and run the offense), but Johnson is fully healed and eager to play and the Gamecocks have a terrific incoming freshman point guard in Marcus Stroman. When Jaylen Shaw transferred, he did so because Stroman has the look of a player who can lock down the point for years to come.

Not only that, but he'll have the benefit of playing with and learning from Johnson. Stroman averaged 14.4 points in Pro-Am play and showed that he could take any game over against any level of opponent with his quickness and physicality. While thin, he's wiry and tough and routinely got far more rebounds than one would expect from a point guard. He can get vertical when he has to with ease, and his athleticism is above-average. What's more, he's a pass-first guard who was born to direct an offense and get others involved. He also can take over the scoring duties when called upon, as he did earlier in the Pro-Am when he scored 25 in a game.

Simply, Stroman's DNA is positioning others for success on the court with a cool hand, which is precisely what Martin and his program desperately needs.

5. TeMarcus Blanton can ball.
A 6-foot-5 guard who can play the wing, Blanton has superior ball-handling skills for someone his size and the quickness of a point guard. He's explosive off the dribble and a player who immediately causes matchup problems for any guards trying to defend him because he can go over you as easily as around you.

Blanton served notice in his second outing of the Pro-Am, dropping 28, and finished the regular season scoring 25 Thursday night. He's an electric player who can jump out of the gym and has no fear of the paint or any of the monsters living there.

When I first saw him in the Pro-Am opener with a hit-or-miss 11-point performance, I worried his size may be a liability inside. Over five games I changed that opinion, if for no other reason than his attitude and body control, which is outstanding - he simply finds a way to create a shot for himself no matter where he is on the court.

Through five games Blanton averaged a stellar 19.6 points, becoming a player his teammates' loved to feed. Hopefully for USC, that will continue to be the case in the time leading up to the season opener Nov. 14 against North Florida.

To catch a glimpse of these and other Gamecocks before then, check out the S.C. Pro-Am playoffs running Sunday-Tuesday. For a schedule, visit scproam.com.

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