The Daily Gamecock

Gamecock men's basketball experiences series of highs, lows in first season with Paris

The South Carolina men’s basketball team's season-long journey consisted of many high and low points in what could be described as an inconsistent year in a program-defining season. 

The Gamecocks had a few bright moments but struggled, finishing 11-21 overall and 4-14 in the SEC during the first season under head coach Lamont Paris. Despite the record, Paris said the team displayed a lot of growth.

“It’s hard to describe how much growth that there was this year,” Paris said. “I’m happy about that and thankful for that, but there is a lot of foundation that’s been laid.”

The Gamecocks' season ended in the first round of the SEC tournament, but graduate forward Hayden Brown said the players on this team can hold their heads high knowing they were the start of a new culture.

"I feel like we have built something. It was started, a foundation was laid," Brown said. "I'm just excited to see where the program heads, and I was just incredibly grateful and thankful and happy and excited to be a part of it in the first year."

South Carolina finished near the bottom of the SEC in almost every metric, having the second most points allowed per game while also scoring the least points per game and finishing with the worst overall win percentage.

The Paris era started hot when the first-year coach landed a commitment from the program’s highest-rated player, freshman forward Gregory "GG" Jackson II. 

Jackson was previously the No. 1 ranked recruit in the class of 2023 and committed to North Carolina. He decommitted from UNC on July 14 and nine days later announced his decision to forgo his senior year and join the Gamecocks.

Jackson’s season, like the team’s, was inconsistent — he showed many bright spots but struggled to adjust to the physicality of SEC play.

Overall, Jackson averaged 15.4 points and 5.9 rebounds per game this season, but his scoring outputs were sporadic at times. He had 11 games where he scored at least 20 points but also seven games where he scored less than 10.

This season could ultimately be Jackson's only season in garnet and black, as he declared for the 2023 NBA Draft in March. 

The team captured a few important wins throughout the season. South Carolina beat its rival Clemson 60-58 and earned a 71-68 upset win over Kentucky, its first road victory against the Wildcats since 2009.  

Sophomore guard Meechie Johnson scored a season-high 26 points in that game, adding six rebounds and six assists.

“Coming out with a win was all that really mattered to me during this whole game, coming off a loss like we did,” Johnson said. “They were 9-0 here, so we just wanted to make something happen.”

The Gamecocks closed out-of-conference play on a high note, going 4-2. But the team's weaknesses were exposed early on in conference play. The team found itself near the bottom of the SEC standings after going on an eight-game losing streak against conference opponents. 

The Gamecocks captured three wins in its last seven regular season games, but it was not enough to recover in the standings, finishing as the third-worst team in the SEC.

The three victories came over fellow conference basement dwellers Georgia, Ole Miss and LSU, who all finished in the bottom four of the conference. But even in its losses, the team still showed improvements. 

South Carolina even managed to go wire-to-wire with the then-ranked No. 2 team in the nation Alabama. The Gamecocks fought but failed to survive freshman forward Brandon Miller’s career-high 41 points, losing 78-76 in overtime. 

The season officially ended with a 67-61 loss to Ole Miss in the first round of the SEC tournament. 

"Down the stretch, we had a chance, and then just fell short, didn't make some plays down towards the very end," Paris said. "But I'm thankful for our guys and what they've been all season, who they've been ... I was really happy with their effort."

Next season, the team is expected to look very different.

Johnson also declared for the draft, but like Jackson, the door is open for a return. Brown exhausted his athletic eligibility after six seasons of college basketball.

Senior guard Chico Carter Jr., junior forward Ja’Von Benson, junior center Tre-Vaughn Minott, freshman forward Daniel Hankins-Sanford and senior guard Ford Cooper have all entered the transfer portal. 

The team has started searching for new talent to improve the roster. Paris said this year was a good start, but every team is looking to add more talent.

The team's 2023 incoming freshman class features two three-star Columbia natives, Arden Conyers from Westwood High School and Collin Murray-Boyles from Wasatch Academy. The team has also picked up two transfers — senior forward Stephen Clark from the Citadel and junior guard Ta'Lon Cooper from Minnesota.

“I think plugging and improving your overall talent level, whether that's physically, whether that’s from a skill standpoint … getting that all put together,” Paris said. “Almost all of our time will be involved in that.”