With the midway point of the SEC regular-season schedule here, South Carolina has had its share of disappointments - you don't make your way to the bottom of the conference standings without lumps - and pleasant surprises.
The setbacks are well-documented. In losing senior Bruce Ellington in early January to the NFL Draft and junior Ty Johnson to a broken foot in the first half against Texas A&M on Jan. 16, had coach Frank Martin lost the only two players with anything resembling significant college experience and his two most vocal leaders.
Left with enough freshmen to field their own starting five with reserves on the bench, Martin had to throw them into the fire of a league more competitive this year than anyone has given it credit for, Martin has said, with elite programs in Florida and Kentucky and NCAA-worthy teams in Mississippi, LSU, Missouri and Tennessee.
While struggling for extended periods while submerged following the departures of Ellington and Johnson, the baptism hasn't been without dividends, especially since the Gamecocks finally came up for air in a dominating victory over Texas A&M on Jan. 29.
The biggest positive for the first half of league play has been the emergence of Sindarius Thornwell as a legitimate star and, Martin said Wednesday following the loss to Auburn, the leader of the team. It's a role coaches hope he'd embrace and he has. In my job I'm able to speak to people close to the program, and I'm told his attitude has been exceptional through the losses. As much as the coaches, Thornwell is able to take the big-picture view and see just how close this team is to having a winning record in the league right now even with the challenges it has faced and difficulties it has overcome. That alone is pretty special in a freshman, as is his remarkable talent.
Another word about Thornwell along those lines - he's unselfish and and is a huge team-first guy. He's a Gamecock. He believes in this coach, this school and this program, and for those who may poor-mouth the team or Martin, know that you're poor-mouthing the kinds of athletes, the kind of people that if they were in your family the sun wouldn't set without you having bragged about them ceaselessly.
The same can be said for the season's biggest surprise, Duane Notice. A recruit out of Canada that Martin's staff shrewdly identified as an overlooked player, Notice is a gem as a freshman, with an SEC-ready body, high level of intelligence and willingness to embrace the immense challenges thrown his way without fear. No one, including the coaching staff, expected Notice to be much of a factor this season. The projections for Notice this year were to learn the different guard positions behind Johnson and Ellington, splitting time with fellow freshman guards Jaylen Shaw and Justin McKie and basically blending into the scenery.
Instead, Notice is the starting point guard and has shown that, while he'll still make mistakes, including careless turnovers and out-of-control dribble-drives typical of freshman everywhere, he'll also shoulder the burden of both leadership and performance, scoring in double figures in three of his last five games, including a career-high 19 against A&M last week.
On the subject of inside play, it has been found lacking thus far in the league, though signs are encouraging that Demetrius Henry and Laimonas Chatkevicius are improving to meet their potential while the effort, if not always the results, of Mindaugas Kacinas is beyond question.
Which brings us to the enigma of Michael Carrera. Last season, I said after one game that he was going to be people's favorite Gamecock because of his enthusiastic style of play that's reminiscent of former USC standout Roland Howell. On a team with the worst talent in the league last year, Carrera never quit fighting and proved he was someone to build around.
Somewhere along the line between last season and this one, I think Carrera may have begun to believe his clippings. Blessed with superstar charisma, his off-the-field activities may have become as important to him as his conquests on the court. How else to explain how deep in the doghouse he was to begin the season and for the majority of the first half? It's fair to speculate a little bit, because we know that to get into Martin's doghouse, one need only have a problem with either attitude or effort. That's really about it. The good news is that it also appears Carrera has fought his way out of the funk, though he's still showing signs of letting his emotions affect his decisions. Case in point, against Auburn, Carrera was a fearsome force in the first half, snaring six rebounds and five points on the road to a double-double and snarling at anyone foolish enough to get tangled-up with him.
In the second half, however, a couple of misses on wide-open eight-footers or so shook his confidence, and over the final 20 minutes he had just two rebounds and three points and was a non-factor in the critical stretch of the game. When he learns that his place on the court, that his role on the team is to be a Dennis Rodman-type interior enforcer who needs to play with an intensity that's fueled by intelligence - which he has plenty of - and not emotion, he'll be a huge cog in the wheel of this program for a long time to come and his points will come not from the perimeter but from the paint and the foul line.
I think Martin himself has been terrific. If he was a recruit, he'd be a five-star stud. He's sensational, and he's doing everything he can every single day to make this program a force in this conference. Which brings me, lastly, to a couple words I'll say about Martin's detractors before I quit this subject for a while.
In my opinion, the anti-Martin crowd falls into three categories - 1) Those who don't understand sports in general; 2) Those who don't understand basketball particularly; and 3) Those who don't understand coaching at all. It's sad that in the world these three types exist, but God bless them, they do, often demonstrating a combination of the categories in a single person. What's worse, these types seem to come cursed with the inability to keep their limitations to themselves.
It's one thing to talk specifically about the factors leading to loss and point in the direction of improvement. It's quite another to throw blind haymakers at a program in general based on wins and losses, especially one that's so clearly moving forward in terms of personnel and player development and with an upside so huge it's a bit scary to consider.
I happen to think these Gamecocks, as currently constituted, will put the fear of God into an elite team before this season is over and will finish with a momentum that will carry over through recruiting and the offseason and into a 2015 in which I believe South Carolina will begin a run of postseason appearances not seen in Columbia since coach Frank McGuire took the Gamecocks to four straight NCAAs from 1971-74.
My best guess on how the Gamecocks will finish the final nine conference games is 4-5, give or take a game here or there. I think the goal for this team should be winning at least one more conference game than it did last year (4-14). But even if it doesn't, even if the Fates conspire against them, there is no discouraging me from my optimism about this team, these players and this coaching staff if for no other reason than I've been close to many different coaching staffs at many different levels of competition in my 15-year career covering sports, and I know the real deal when I see it.
My hope is that Gamecock fans can, too, because the ride is sure going to be fun. And just like a roller coaster, the slow, uphill climb at the beginning, the one where all the anticipation is built before the rush takes over, can be just as much fun if you know how to enjoy it.