In life and in sports, perspective is a beautiful thing. With the 2013-14 University of South Carolina athletic season in the books, this week we'll take a bit of a fun look at what it all meant.
Today, we hoop it up!
PLEASANT SURPRISES: It's hard to call Sindarius Thornwell a pleasant surprise when he was rated the No. 39 overall player in the nation by ESPN and the unquestioned star of the seven-man 2013 recruiting class.
And yet for all the expectations, Thornwell delivered, finishing the season second on the team in scoring (13.4 ppg.) and first in toughness. Bearing almost the entire weight of the future of the program on his shoulders in a league as unforgiving physically and mentally as any, Thornwell never gave up. Despite a brutal season and losing backcourt mate and point guard Ty Johnson to injury in January, Thornwell accepted the burden of responsibility both at shooting and point guard and learned, the hard way, how to play Frank Martin's uncompromising style of basketball on both ends of the court.
Even as the team lost its first six SEC games and eight of its first nine, Thornwell performed admirably, eventually earning SEC Freshman of the Week three times and making the SEC All-Freshman team as the Gamecocks rebounded to finish strong, going 4-2 over their final six games, including a win over national runner-up Kentucky and two wins in the SEC Tournament for the first time since 2006.
Additionally, I'd be remiss not to mention the play of the Lithuanians here. Not expected to be front-line SEC players, both did as much as they were asked and more. Mindaugas Kacinas toughened himself up and gave the maximum effort possible all season long, while Laimonas Kacinas also got worked himself both into shape and improved more than anyone else on the team offensively and defensively, becoming the unlikeliest of forces on the boards over the final 10 games of the year.
DISAPPOINTMENTS: It's unfair to put this category on a single player, but it's hard not to categorize Michael Carrera's 2013-14 season as anything other than a disappointment.
After electrifying Gamecock Nation with an enthusiastic style of play, fiery passion for the game that made his teammates better and solid 9.9 points and 7.2 rebounds per game as a true freshman, Carrera's numbers dipped to 6 points and 5.6 rebounds per game as a sophomore. In 2012-13, Carrera started 22 of 27 games. In 2013-14, he started 20 of 33 and was relegated to the bench for long stretches of games as the coaches tried to iron out attitude and consistency issues that got in the way of team goals.
Though he started less and was less effective as a sophomore than a freshman, it's clear the light did come on for Carrera late, so there's a positive end to what was a frustrating sophomore story. Moving forward, he and his frontcourt mates Kacinas and Chatkevicius will be relied upon - especially with the loss of wide body Desmond Ringer - even more to provide scoring and defensive pressure on the glass.
And I'd also be remiss in not mentioning the one-game suspension of coach Frank Martin for language as a disappointment. I don't believe he should have been suspended and publicly chastised, so in that sense, for me the suspension itself was a disappointment on the part of an administration that could have, should have, handled that differently.
BEST MEMORY: While the two-game run at the SEC Tournament was icing on the cake and a great way to finish the season, 2013-14's best memory, by far, was the 72-67 win over eventual national runner-up Kentucky on March 1. Chatkevicius provided a huge spark in the second half to thwart a late Kentucky run and Brent Williams scored 24 as the Gamecocks thrilled a packed house half-filled with UK fans with the signature win of the young Frank Martin era.
In an arena as loud as it was all year with USC fans competing with Kentucky's to out-shout each other, South Carolina played perhaps its best basketball of the season over both halves to earn a physical win in a game UK coach John Calipari was ejected from, much to the delight of the Gamecock faithful. For the USC fans who came and cheered hard for a team that was 3-12 in the SEC at that point, they were rewarded with a win that no one will forget and that no one could have predicted would be as big in hindsight as it turned out to be given the Wildcats' run to the NCAA Championship game.