COLUMBIA, South Carolina — South Carolina coach Frank Martin hopes the new found experience and depth finally brings the Gamecocks some wins.
Martin and the Gamecocks have struggled his first two years in charge, 28-38 overall and 9-27 in the Southeastern Conference. He believes his program is turning the corner, especially with how the Gamecocks finished a year ago with four victories in their final six games — including a 72-67 win over national runner-up Kentucky.
Martin had little choice but rely on untested players these past two season, including eight newcomers a year ago. The changes at practice, are dramatic, Martin said, with 12 of the 14 players on the roster who been through the coach's system.
"I understand our players better. I think they understand us better, and we're excited," Martin said. "We're ready to take on the challenges that the season brings on."
Those challenges have already gotten a bit harder for the Gamecocks, 14-18 last season. Picked 12th in the SEC in the preseason poll, South Carolina lost two reserve guards to season ending injuries in TeMarcus Blanton and Austin Constable. Blanton was a 6-foot-5 freshman — Martin loves tall guards — who the coaches expected to see significant time on the court this fall.
Three of Martin's four-man recruiting class won't play this season. Along with Blanton's hip injury, forward Shamiek Sheppard tore a knee ligament and is out. Forward James Thompson never enrolled because of his arrest on charges of aggravated battery and domestic abuse by battery in his home state of Louisiana.
Martin was disappointed with the season-ending injuries.
"Knock on wood, health is always something you don't see coming and have any control over," he said.
The coach who had taken Kansas State to four NCAA appearances in five years before joining South Carolina couldn't deflect the problems thrown at him last season. Along with melding eight new players into his system, the Gamecocks lost expected point guard starter Bruce Ellington to the NFL draft.
The Gamecocks other point guard, Villanova transfer Ty Johnson, broke his foot when he got stepped on by an official at Texas A&M in mid-January and did not play again.
That meant Martin needed to play freshmen Duane Notice and Sindarius Thornwell as lead guard during stretches of the SEC season. The frustration at times was evident and boiled over for Martin, who had to apologize for harsh language aimed at Brenton Williams then was suspended a game by South Carolina for similar words to Notice in a loss to Florida.
Things to watch this season for South Carolina men's basketball:
THORNWELL TIME: Guard Sindarius Thornwell looked like a polished SEC performer by the end of his freshman season. Martin expects him to take another step forward this fall. Thornwell said he's improved his conditioning and knowledge of the game to improve on his 13.6 per game scoring average.
WHO'S GOING TO GET IT: South Carolina had one player among the top 20 in SEC rebounding in 6-5 Michael Carrera despite having four taller players on the roster who saw regular action. Martin said things must improve under the basket and it must start with 6-11 junior Laimonus Chatkevcius.
BIG 12 TITLE: The Gamecocks schedule includes three teams from the Big 12 in Baylor, Oklahoma State and Iowa State. The games with the Bears and Cowboys are in South Carolina while they play the Cyclones in Brooklyn's Barclays Center.
TOP SHOOTER: South Carolina's biggest loss this year is guard Brenton Williams, who averaged nearly 15 points, led the SEC in foul shooting percentage (.930) and was second in league three-point shooting (.427) in his senior year.
BREAKING THE STREAK: South Carolina hasn't had a winning season since 2008-09 nor been the NCAA tournament since 2004. A year above .500 would be a significant sign of progress.