What was assumed for weeks now, by most people who follow SEC basketball, was confirmed on Tuesday. South Carolina Gamecocks senior guard Sindarius Thornwell was named SEC Player of the Year. He is the embodiment of the program, as he has improved in each of his four years in Columbia and is now being rewarded for his hard work.
South Carolina Gamecocks Preparing for Postseason
Gamecocks Accomplished but Flawed
This was just the boost of good energy that Frank Martin’s team needed heading into the postseason. After starting league play 9-1, the Gamecocks stumbled a bit during the last few weeks. They finished SEC play with a 12-6 conference record, their second-most wins since joining the league in 1992. They also earned a second consecutive 20-plus win season for the first time since the late ’90s.
Despite what the Gamecocks have accomplished this year, this team is not without its flaws. South Carolina has struggled recently in a few different areas but needs to find a way to get back on track before the postseason begins. The Gamecocks have long looked to find consistent scoring options to pair with their Player of the Year.
Fellow senior Duane Notice has seen his outside shot go missing at times this year, and those games usually result in losses for South Carolina. His 34 percent shooting from beyond the arc is the lowest during his time in Columbia. The Gamecocks are 14-2 this season when Notice hits two or more three-pointers, but just 8-7 when he doesn’t. His shot-making can stretch the defense and give more room for the young post players to operate. It also opens driving lanes for Thornwell and P.J. Dozier.
A sophomore guard from Columbia, Dozier showed flashes of brilliance early in the year. He had a nine-game stretch in the non-conference slate during which he averaged 19.6 points per game and shot 48 percent from the field. Since sitting out against Kentucky due to back issues, Dozier has only shot 34 percent from the field, including 2-20 from three in the last four games. Fortunately, Dozier has stayed aggressive and has not shied away from taking shots during this slump. He needs to keep attacking and work on getting to the rim, where he can use his skill and length to create easy shots.
Growing Pains in the Post
Frank Martin’s team has solid experience in the backcourt, but its interior presence is learning on the job. Sophomore forward Chris Silva was the only returning post player for South Carolina this year, and he has only been playing basketball for five or six years. Silva has great potential and has been very productive at times. He has scored in double figures 17 times this season and has impressed with a developing offensive game.
Silva’s main issue is foul trouble. He has spent too many minutes this year on the bench because of fouls. As SEC Network announcer Mike Morgan phrased it, Silva is a foul magnet at times. It is an unfortunate combination of being called for some cheap fouls based on reputation, but also just committing unexplainable fouls that should be avoided. Either way, the Gamecocks need Silva on the court.
Maik Kotsar, a 6’10” freshman from Estonia, is the only other post player to see significant minutes for Coach Martin. The Gamecocks often play the versatile Thornwell at the forward spot, utilizing his ability to guard multiple positions and rebound so well at 6’5”. Kotsar has had some good moments this season but seemed to wear down, like freshman often do, during the SEC grind. Martin moved Kotsar to the bench a few games ago, as the Gamecocks went with a smaller starting five, and Kotsar has responded well.
Early in the season, opposing coaches raved about the South Carolina defense. It was suffocating at times. While the Gamecocks still rank in the top ten nationally in most categories, teams have found ways to score more efficiently lately. Despite a couple of losses and a bad first half at Ole Miss, Martin’s bunch has gotten back its defensive swagger in the last few games.
Duane Notice spearheads the pressure defense with his harassment of opposing teams’ main ball handler. When operating at its peak, South Carolina’s defense forces teams to abandon their set offense. Thornwell is also a major key to the defense as he is usually tasked with guarding the opponent’s top scorer.
With the inconsistencies of the offense, South Carolina will need to get back to the type of defense that had opposing coaches equal parts frustrated and impressed. Keeping the foul-prone Silva in the game is a must; he not only provides an offensive option in the post but also a rim protecting presence on defense. That is key for when the opposition breaks past the initial pressure put on by the guards.
To Sin is to Win
Back to where we started. Sindarius Thornwell is the man in the SEC this year. The Gamecocks will go as far as his shoulders can carry them. He has put this team on his back over and over again this year. He tries his best to pick up the slack when offensive struggles hit the team. Thornwell is the type of player who can take over a game.
Sometimes in basketball, having the best player on the court can be enough on any given night. His variety of scoring abilities makes him tough to stop. Thornwell can hit from the outside, get to the rim, and make a living at the free-throw line, as well. He must continue to be at his best as the SEC and NCAA tournaments approach.
Ending the Drought
The Gamecocks have taken a step forward in each season under Frank Martin. They have improved their win total both overall and in SEC play each year. While this team has some flaws and can be frustrating at times, it has done some very good things recently. That is evident when looking back at where this program was just four or five years ago.
Now it appears that the Gamecocks will get their payoff, albeit a year late, in the form of a NCAA tournament bid. South Carolina hasn’t been to the tournament since 2004, and the school hasn’t won a tournament game since 1973. The program is growing and getting better each year. The Gamecocks will try to end both of those droughts in a few weeks.
This team could make some noise in March. South Carolina’s defensive prowess, combined with high-level players like Thornwell and Dozier, makes it a tough match-up for whoever the team draws. However, the Gamecocks will need to be at their best, because when they are not clicking, it shows.
South Carolina could be an enigma for bracket predictors. At its peak, the team can win against almost anyone it faces. However, if the offensive inconsistencies continue, it could be a short trip to the Big Dance.
The hope is the extended rest before postseason play starts will allow the Gamecocks to refocus and refresh. Then, maybe they can do something that hasn’t been done in a long time.