South Carolina basketball: What to expect this season

2996452South Carolina basketball fans have plenty of reason to be optimistic about the upcoming season in what will be Frank Martin’s best team since arriving in Columbia. And that optimism has nothing to do with five-star shooting guard Perry Dozier’s commitment to the Gamecocks yesterday.

Due to injuries this offseason, Martin will have just 10 scholarship players (and just one senior) at his disposal. But this is his best collection of talent on campus after weeding out some of Darrin Horn’s mediocrity the last two seasons.

The talent starts for Martin with sophomore guard Sindarius Thornwell.

Thornwell might be very well be the most talented guard in the SEC outside of Kentucky’s top-three backcourt players (Harrison twins and Devin Booker). He started all 34 games last season and was USC’s second-leading scorer (13.4 ppg). The Oak Hill Academy product wasn’t just a scorer either, leading the squad in assists (101), steals (40) as well as free throws made and taken (131-178).

At 6-foot-5 and 215 pounds, Thornwell is versatile and big enough where he can play four different positions on the floor. He was a one of top frosh in the SEC last season and is projected in the first round of several NBA mock drafts. If the Gamecocks are going to push into the upper half of the league this season, a monster second-year campaign from Thornwell will be the biggest reason why.

He’ll have help from another talented sophomore, 6-foot-9 forward Demetrius Henry. The Miami native started 29 games last year but the foul-prone forward wore down as his freshman season progressed, going up against future pros as Carolina’s only capable big man. He averaged just 4.0 points a game and 3.4 rebounds a game, but he’s especially effective on the offensive glass.

One of the top 100 players in the country out of high school, Henry has added more than 20 pounds to his frame since last season and will be the Gamecocks anchor inside along with a pair of junior forwards from Lithuania 6-foot-11 junior forward Laimonas Chatkevicius.

In the backcourt, scoring point guard Tyrone Johnson is the lone senior on the roster and is coming off a foot injury that sidelined him for the last two months of the season. He averaged 11.1 points per game and still ranked third on the team in assists (55) despite missing more than half of the Gamecocks games.

However, the heart and soul of this entire Gamecock team is undersized junior forward Michael Carrera. The Venezuelan started 20 games last season and led the squad in blocks (32) despite his 6-foot-5 frame. Carrera brings a “pesky” energy level to the floor, primarily on the glass and the defensive end that teams hate.

Martin will test his squad early and often before SEC play begins with another matchup against Scott Drew’s Baylor Bears in the ESPN’s 24-Hour College Hoops Tip-Off Marathon (Nov. 18). The Gamecocks will then head down I-26 to the Charleston Classic where they’ll face Cornell in the opening game of the tournament (Nov. 20). USC will also host Oklahoma State (Dec. 6) in the SEC-Big 12 Challenge and rival Clemson (Dec. 19) before a big neutral site game in Brooklyn, N.Y. against Final Four dark-horse Iowa State (Jan. 3).

South Carolina Gamecocks
Last season: 14-20, 5-13 (13th)
Postseason: None

Expected starting lineup
G – Tyrone Johnson (Sr., 6-3, 11.2 ppg, 3.4 apg)
G – Duane Notice (Soph., 6-2, 8.2 ppg, 2.9 apg)
G – Sindarius Thornwell (Soph., 6-5, 13.4 ppg, 4.1 rpg)
F – Michael Carrera (Jr., 6-5, 6.0 ppg, 5.6 rpg)
F – Demetrius Henry (So., 6-9, 4.0 ppg, 3.4 rpg)

Key player: Demetrius Henry
The Gamecocks need an improved post presence from Henry this season. The talented sophomore has added size to his frame and will be better equipped to compete inside against the SEC top “bigs.”

Go-to guy on the last play: Sindarius Thornwell
Thornwell was the best option for the Gamecocks last season and that certainly won’t change this year. His versatility creates matchup problems for opponents and his size allows him to drive and get to the free throw line, where he shot over 73%.

Best defensive player: Michael Carrera
Carrera is incredibly undersize in the paint at 6-foot-5 but he’s scrappy and plays with a sky-high energy level on every possession. He led Carolina in blocks last season (32) and his quickeness allows him to wreak havoc on the perimeter (26 steals last season).

Best all-around player: Thornwell
There’s no question Thornwell is the Gamecocks most talented player. Henry has a high ceiling and should make big strides in his second season as well.

Mostly likely pro on the roster: Thornwell

Most likely first-team All-SEC selection: Thornwell

Toughest non-conference game: Iowa State (Saturday, January 3, TBA)

Key SEC stretch: Four games from Jan. 14-Feb. 3 against the league’s top-four NCAA Tourney contenders (Kentucky, at LSU, Georgia, at Arkansas)

Click for South Carolina’s full 2014-15 schedule

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