A year ago at this time, freshman Michael Carrera was introducing himself to South Carolina fans in the best way possible with a spirited brand of basketball that brought enthusiasm, excitement and toughness to a team rocked by massive departures following a coaching change.
Counted on to increase both his leadership role and his freshman production of 9.9 points and 7.2 rebounds per game, Carrera has appeared the odd man out this season as his numbers have regressed and he has spent more time on the bench than anyone would have guessed while he fights his toughest opponent yet - expectations.
Through the first 13 games Carrera is averaging 7.2 points and 4.3 rebounds per game as he's tried to make the switch to small forward, one that hasn't gone smoothly and has resulted in him returning of late to the power forward position he played last year but is physically undersized to excel at in the SEC.
"The one thing we tried to do was move him to the small forward spot, which for Michael down the road is the best position for him as far as money-earning," associate head coach Matt Figger said. "He's had some struggles because now he played that position early and we've tried to move him back to the kind of, I guess you'd call it the stretch-four spot."
But more than just fighting through a position switch, Carrera's attitude also has kept him off the floor as his minutes have shrunk from 21.2 last season to 17.8 so far in 2013-14. Having already lost his starting role to Mindaugas Kacinas, Carrera slid even deeper into Frank Martin's doghouse following a post-game altercation with a Manhattan player that got Carrera suspended for the USC Upstate game, a close six-point loss in which the team desperately could have used him.
"People would say he's kind of in a sophomore slump right now," Figger said. "We've got better players. Last year, we struggled as a team and so somebody had to put up numbers and Michael put numbers up on a bad team. Now, there's more responsibility, and he's trying to find his way through having to be more of a leader and things like that. He's having some struggles taking that next step."
Figger said another player who is battling through some consistency issues is freshman guard Sindarius Thornwell.
"(Thornwell's struggles) are typical," Figger said. "We got in all these games in late December and we've not had time to show Sindarius, 'Hey, this is what you're doing wrong,' and the game's not coming easy for him right now.
"It's typical freshman stuff. There's been a couple of games that he's not had a lot of success, so he's got to find his way through things. He's the one that has to make those adjustments, and knowing Sindarius, I think he will."
For the Gamecocks to grow this season, the conference portion of which begins Wednesday in Gainesville, Florida, Figger knows both Thornwell and Carrera will have to play significant roles.
"We need (Carrera) to be good," Figger said. "We need Michael Carrera to get back to a seven, eight rebound per game guy.
"We need him and Thornwell both to be good to help us compete in this league, and we're asking a lot of those guys.
"(They) have to do it because there's nobody else in the locker room to do it. "