The South Carolina men's basketball team had more ups and downs this past week than Santa's toy bag. Instead of presents, however, the team mostly got lumps of coal in the form of an 18-point throttling by Manhattan, an embarrassing loss to USC Upstate and a nationally televised 26-point drubbing at the hands of Boise State.
Sandwiched in there, of course, was one major positive, an enormous and welcome gift in the form of a thoroughly impressive 78-71 win over Saint Mary's that will linger in the memory far longer than the pre-Christmas losses ever will.
The Gaels have an NCAA Tournament resume better than any in USC school history, and that's just in the past eight years alone. Since 2005, Saint Mary's has been to five NCAA Tournaments, advancing to the Sweet 16 in 2010. This year the Gaels were unbeaten at 9-0 and on the cusp of making the Top 25 when they faced a South Carolina team that outplayed them in nearly every phase of the game from start to finish.
So what do we know about this team? It can go deathly quiet on offense for long stretches of time and be maddeningly inconsistent on defense. It's youth and inexperience rear their heads nightly in a host of ways detrimental to playing winning basketball.
However, for as bad as the Gamecocks can look - and for me, the Upstate game stands out as a low point in terms of focus and effort - what is abundantly clear is that the upside for this group is huge. They haven't begun to play as well as they're going to be capable of playing, and we got a brief glimpse of that late Sunday night.
Sindarius Thornwell is a star in the making. He's on the right path and just needs to continue to do what he's doing. Ty Johnson has everything physically you want in an SEC point guard - size, toughness, skill. For him, it's about getting to the point where not only can he run Frank Martin's offense in his sleep, he trusts it. He needs to exude confidence in the system in order to get the most out of the other players. That's the job of any point guard anywhere. Right now, Johnson does not exude that. Too often exudes confusion and hesitation, which sets the tone for the younger guys looking to him in terms of their own confidence and effort.
When Johnson gets to the point where he's commanding the team, he's putting guys where they need to be and demanding excellence and effort from them, great things can and will happen. Michael Carrera was the best player on last year's team, and yet this season he's been on the bench more than anyone would have thought because of effort and commitment issues that have arisen internally away from public scrutiny. Only the coaches and Carrera know exactly what that's about, but like Johnson's and Thornwell's, it's an issue that is imminently correctable.
Demetrius Henry is a freshman forward scoring and playing at a level higher than I'd have imagined seeing him play a rather timid form of ball this summer during the S.C. Pro Am. He's been a pleasant surprise with his shot-making and willingness to get his hands dirty, so he has an upside that also is huge and has tons of room to grow.
My gut feel on the two Lithuanians is that both are playing as well now as they're ever going to play. Laimonas Chatkevicius is good for the odd bump of a solid game if things fall his way - one thing about him is he doesn't miss too many of the easy shots and putbacks other Gamecocks seem to make a habit of - and Mindaugas Kacinas is a solid effort guy who, though undersized and weaker than most of the bigs he'll face, is good for a 7-10 point, 7-10 rebound performance most any night. Neither are long-term front-line solutions for a program looking to make it to and advance in the NCAA Tournament, but they were the best of what was available and are doing the best they can with what they have. Every great team needs role players, however, and that may be precisely what these two provide down the road.
So, despite the worst record (3-6) in the SEC, the chance of this team getting hot late is significant - I'd even go so far as to say that it's likely, which is why you don't see Martin losing his cool right now. Whereas last year's team had nowhere to go but down once conference play started, the opposite is true of this group, and experience and confidence will be the two most-important factors in fueling the growth of a program that is unquestionable on the rise.
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