New-look team takes on Longwood Saturday
In coach Frank Martin’s final press conference before the South Carolina men’s basketball team gets its season underway Saturday, he said his young team has come a long way in the preseason.
“I’m happy with some of the things we’re doing offensively,” Martin said. “I think our young guys for the most part are trying to do what we ask them to do. I was actually more pleased with the freshman than I was with the upperclassmen as far as their attention to detail.”
In the team’s only exhibition contest, the Gamecocks let a 21-point lead slip to just three points, but they held off USC Aiken to take a 84-72 win. Sophomore forward Michael Carrera said that he thought the Gamecocks handled the adversity well and did not sense any panic on the bench from the veterans on the team.
Martin said the team had different levels of focus during the first and second halves. He said the Gamecocks played the first half with good aggression and a sense of urgency, but in the second half, they started to lose discipline.
Martin said that some of the change had to do with the team’s youth; seven of the team’s 16 players are freshmen. In the second half of play, he said his players started gambling on passes when the shot clock got low, putting their teammates in bad positions defensively.
The Gamecocks’ first game of the season is Saturday against Longwood at 1 p.m. This is the Lancers’ second year in the Big South after being a D-I independent program. Last season, they went 4-12 in conference play, finishing 8-25 overall. Coach Jayson Gee is at the helm for Longwood in his first year as the program’s head coach.
Returning for the Lancers is last season’s leading scorer, senior guard Tristan Carey. He averaged 15.6 points per game last season and is expected to set the pace in scoring again this year.
However, the Lancers’ second leading scorer and best big man from last year, Michael Kessens, has transferred to Alabama, and redshirt junior Jeylani Dublin will take a larger role in his absence.
Dublin averaged 10 points and almost six rebounds per game last season.
Martin said that film on the opponent is important early in the season, because the coaching staff does not know as much about the smaller programs as they do about conference opponents. But because Gee is in his first year in charge, Martin has nothing to draw on.
One area where South Carolina has noticeably improved is size. Against Aiken, Martin started freshman Demetrius Henry, who is 6 feet 9 inches tall, and sophomore Laimonas Chatkevicius, who is 6-foot 11, at the forward positions. Last year, the second-tallest starter in many games, Carrera, was only 6-foot-5.
“If you follow my career, you’ll always find out I like playing as big as possible,” Martin said. “I think size is huge in this game.”
Martin said that Chatkevicius and sophomore Mindaugas Kacinas have been catching up from the time they missed with the Gamecocks over the summer, when both played for the Lithuanian national team. Martin said they were unable to get the same individual instruction that others did.
Martin also said that Kacinas really cares and listens to the coaches to get better, but it has been more of a “crash-course” in preparing him for the season. Kacinas said he’s been excited about the new faces on the team and the challenges that each day presents.
“Last year, we had guys maybe who didn’t play hard enough, and this year because we have so many freshmen, they’re trying to get their minutes in the games,” Kacinas said. “So they go really hard during the practices, so the competition is really hard. Such little details push us forward, and
we’re going to try to do the best we can.”
The Gamecocks are not projected to finish high in the SEC; The Associated Press predicts they will finish No. 12 of 14 teams. Carrera said the predictions motivate the team.
“I really don’t care what people say about our team,” he said. “I think we have a great team. I think we have one of the best coaches in the nation and we want to just work hard, be together as a family and just win as many games as we can win, so we can make it to the NCAA Tournament. That’s our goal this year.”