Fans piled into the seats of Colonial Life Arena’s lower bowl Friday evening as the University of South Carolina basketball programs returned to the court for Gamecock Tipoff.
The first event of its kind, Gamecock Tipoff had free admission, opportunities to take pictures with Cocky and a team meet-and-greet with both new and familiar faces.
The event was a highlight for fans, many of whom have never met the players they root for. According to head coach Frank Martin, it's those conversations that make events like Gamecock Tipoff special.
“Every time we’re with the fans, for the most part ... it’s game day," Martin said. “To be able to have an atmosphere like today where we can just take pictures and sign autographs and laugh and say jokes. They get to see these guys, kind of who they are, away from the competitive environment which is what I’m privy to."
For women's head coach Dawn Staley, whose team finished 2017-18 with a 29-7 record and made an appearance in the NCAA Tournament, she credited fan support as a vital role in making the women's team a success.
"I think it helps us to jump start basketball season," Staley said. "I know a lot of our fans love to be around our teams and it's truly helpful to bring some excitement to Colonial Life Arena."
Basketball attendance at the University of South Carolina has been especially high across Martin and Staley's seasons, which Martin sees as even more reason to interact with the community and host events.
"It promotes the beginning of the season," Martin said. "Generates some real interaction between fans and players and the stronger that bond and connection is, the more committed the fans are. The more committed these guys are to go out there and perform for the people that believe in them."
The men’s basketball team has been practicing since Sept. 25, and Martin has kept a keen eye on improvements to the offensive front for the Gamecocks.
“Best offensive rebounding team I’ve ever had,” Martin said. “We’re way ahead of where I’d thought we’d be. Way ahead, not even close. The returning guys have been great."
Coming off a 17-16 finish in 2017-18 which left the Gamecocks placed at 11th in the Southeastern Conference ahead of Ole Miss and Vanderbilt, Martin noted a few players including Chris Silva, Hassani Gravett, Maik Kotsar, Justin Minay and Felipe Haase, that are in a "much better place" going into 2018-19 than they were during last season.
"They're that nucleus of guys played a lot of minutes for us last year. They’re in a much better place right now as players, as people. They’re a lot more comfortable with who they are and for people to lead, they’ve got to be comfortable with who they are first."
During the offseason, fourth-year power forward and 2017-18 leading scorer Chris Silva chose to return to Columbia after withdrawing from the NBA Draft. Emerging into this season’s lineup with veteran leadership, especially from being a member of South Carolina’s Final Four team during his sophomore season, Silva says he's ready for another season.
“Last year, I just stepped in a new role, so my leadership role experience was a little bit low,” Silva said. “I didn’t really know what to do ... everybody, the returners are in a much better place, so I’m not the only one trying to lead, we lead as a team."
The women's team began its practice schedule later than the men's, but Staley weighed in on what fans could expect with three-point shooting and other elements of her team's offensive distinctiveness.
"It's something that we have been working on and we've been stressing throughout the summer and the fall that we have to be a better three-point shooting team in order for us to utilize some the other skill sets that we have," Staley said. "It's a strength of ours to get to the basket and attack so we've got to protect that by hitting outside shots."
The men’s basketball team will open its 2018-19 season against University of South Carolina-Upstate on Tuesday, Nov. 6 at 7 p.m. at Colonial Life Arena. The Gamecocks will also host Augusta University in a free exhibition game on Fri., Oct. 26 with tipoff to be determined.
The women's team will face Lander University at 7 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 2 in a lone exhibition game and will open regular season play on the road at Alabama State University on Sunday, Nov. 11 at 4 p.m. In-state rival Clemson will come to Colonial Life Arena for the team's home opener on Thursday, Nov. 15 with tip off set for 6:30 p.m.