What a difference a month makes. At the midway point of December, Frank Martin’s team was in the midst of a four game losing streak and the season seemed lost. His Gamecock squad has hit the reset button as the new year began, and are off to a hot start in SEC play. This young team is starting to figure things out, and they are playing more focused and connected on both ends of the floor. A 75-65 win over the Missouri Tigers on Sunday improved South Carolina to 8-7 overall and 3-0 to begin SEC play. Their next two games are on the road, but Coach Martin’s team will travel with momentum on their side.
Gamecocks Hot to Begin SEC Play
South Carolina struggled to begin the season, in part because their returning players couldn’t get things going. Coach Martin admitted last week that he was putting too much on Chris Silva, the Gamecocks’ ALL-SEC big man. The extra expectations had the senior off his game and not concentrating on the things he does so well. After scoring in double figures twice in the first seven contests, he has scored 11 or more in each of the last eight games. Silva is averaging 15.2 points and 7.8 rebounds during that stretch. Last season’s SEC Defensive Player of the year is also back to being a force on the defensive end of the floor. He has 14 blocks during South Carolina’s current four game winning streak. Silva returning to from has allowed his teammates to thrive as well.
Junior forward Maik Kotsar has been an enigma during his time in Columbia. He has shown flashes of skill and ability, but has often been far too inconsistent with his confidence and aggressiveness. After an uneven start to this season, he has found his form in SEC play. The Estonia native has played with an energy and assertiveness he has rarely shown as a Gamecock. This was highlighted by a career high 25 point performance in an upset over the #14 Mississippi State Bulldogs last week. Kotsar was able to get some shots around the basket to fall, and had his best game in garnet and black. He hasn’t scored as well in the other two conference games, but his activity has been excellent.
Coach Martin has lamented his lack of rebounds often during his time here, and that message has finally gotten through. Kotsar has seven or more boards in each of the last four games. His hustle on the offensive glass has kept possessions alive to the Gamecocks at crucial times in the past few contests.
Balance and Depth
In addition to their two veteran big men finally putting things together, South Carolina has found some depth as well. Senior Hassani Gravett and sophomore Felipe Hasse have both proven they can provide some scoring punch off the bench. Gravett was wildly inconsistent during his first two years in Columbia. He struggled to find his shot, and to find his best role for this team. The senior from Georgia has finally settled in as the sixth man for the Gamecocks. He is having his best season for Coach Martin. Gravett has become a leader on this team, helping to settle the offense and organize the defense when he checks in. He has nine double figure scoring outputs through 15 games, including in all three contests in SEC play.
Hasse looked lost at times as a freshman, but is starting to find his footing this year. The college game was too fast for him last season, and he played cautiously because of it. He has also taken time to adjust to the physicality that Coach Martin expects from his post players. That part of his game is still a work in progress, but he is improving. Hasse’s comfort level on the court is increasing, allowing him to showcase the shooting and passing skills that he was recruited for. He has scored double figures in each of the last two ball games. His shooting touch is sorely needed on this team, and it’s starting to show. The Chilean is hitting 39% of his three point attempts on the season.
Gravett and Hasse have both settled into their roles of the bench, helping give the Gamecocks an added scoring punch and some stability in their rotation. Combined with an improving group of freshmen, Coach Martin now has more options to lean in in tough moments.
With a graduate transfer in Tre Campbell and a host of freshman getting major minutes on this team, it took some time for everyone to learn how Coach Martin wants things done. This is especially true on the defensive end where it usually takes young players a while to adjust. The Gamecocks have looked much more like a Frank Martin defense since SEC play started. They have been more aggressive, better positioned, and more focused on that end. This has led to a more disruptive defensive effort, and the breakdowns have become fewer and father between. Coach Martin wants his teams to play at a fast pace. In order to do so the defense needs to be active and connected. While they are not where their coach wants them to be yet, the improvement is noticeable.
The Gamecocks have also switched up their defense more often this season. Coach Martin prefers to play strictly man defense, but he has shown a willingness to change to a 1-2-2 press and a 3-2 zone during games. The Gamecocks look to wear down opponents with their high pressure man to man. The switch to the zone keeps opposing teams and coaches off guard with their adjustments. The development of the young freshman group has also helped the defense. Keyshawn Bryant and A.J. Lawson are both learning what Coach Martin expects on that end, and how hard they have to work to succeed.
The offense is improving its efficiency game by game, and a continued improvement on defense is expected. The tough slate of non-conference games has also added valuable experience for this young group. They have learned to trust what the coaches want from them, and they are reaping the benefits of that trust. The SEC is one of the best leagues in the country so things wont get any easier. However, this team has a chance to build on the momentum it created with a 3-0 start to SEC play and continue improving game by game.
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