Coming off an upset-full 18-13 season, Gamecock men's basketball will look to make its first NCAA Tournament since its Final Four run in 2017. South Carolina returns five of seven key players from a year ago and is squarely on many Bracketologists' bubbles coming into the season.
It all starts with star guard A.J. Lawson. On Thursday, he was named to the All-SEC preseason first team. This is the second year in a row that he has garnered this accolade from the league. The junior guard put his name into the NBA draft in the offseason but pulled out in late July to return to Columbia.
“He might be the most under-appreciated, real good player in the country. By the way, he’s a real good player on a real good basketball team. Not just a guy, a guy with real good stats on a team that couldn’t beat anybody,” head coach Frank Martin said in October.
Possibly the most underrated Gamecock is Jermaine Couisnard. The sophomore from Indiana is listed as South Carolina’s only Major Contributor on KenPom, ranking in the top-10 of the SEC in percentage of possession and percentage of shots. This means he almost always touches the ball.
Couisnard is the only double-digit scoring returner for the Gamecocks besides Lawson, starting 16 games during his freshman season. Keyshawn Bryant, Justin Minaya and Alanzo Frink all started double-digit games for South Carolina a season ago, as well. The Gamecocks lose double-digit starters in Maik Kotsar and Jair Bolden.
An underrated returner to this year’s squad is sophomore Trae Hannibal. The South Carolina native showed flashes of excellence throughout the season, even being named as a Significant Contributor on KenPom. He had his best game of the season in the season finale against Vanderbilt, scoring 11 points in 20 minutes of action.
South Carolina brings in one freshman and one walk-on to this year’s squad. Ford Cooper rarely played at Missouri State and comes into Columbia with three years of eligibility. He was a preferred walk-on but had an offer from Tulane before committing to Missouri State last season.
Ja’Von Benson is a name Columbia basketball fans know well. He brought back-to-back titles to Ridge View High School, averaging a double-double last season en route to Class 4A Player of the Year honors.
The defense was the Gamecocks' calling card a year ago. To finish the year, they ranked 50th in defensive efficiency and top-25 in the country in blocks, in large part to Kotsar, Minaya, Frink and Bryant. They lose their leader in Kotsar with 34, but Minaya and Frink both picked up 20 apiece last season.
South Carolina also played with the 11th fastest-paced offense in the nation, according to KenPom.
The Gamecocks open their season against a non-DI opponent, Coker, on Wednesday. They will then head to Kansas City for the Hall of Fame Classic that weekend. Their first opponent is now Liberty, as Northwestern dropped out of the event.