A lot can happen in a month’s time. On January 11th, South Carolina had just lost its third straight game and had opened SEC play at 0-2. Now a mere 32 days later, Frank Martin’s team has won seven of nine contests and is fourth in the SEC standings. The Gamecocks improvement as the season progresses has become a staple of this program under Coach Martin.
South Carolina Gamecocks Improvement Bolsters Postseason Outlook
South Carolina struggled in November and December as this group of mostly freshmen and sophomores was still learning about each other. Coach Martin lamented his team’s immaturity and lack of leadership after a bad loss in the non-conference portion of the schedule. In the last few weeks, this team has grown up in a big way. They are playing their best basketball, at a time where consistency is most important. This young team is learning what Coach Martin wants from them, and he is figuring out how to put them in the best positions.
The turning point in this season was the insertion of Jermaine Couisnard into the starting lineup after the 0-2 start to league play. The freshman scored 27 points in his first start. That included the buzzer beating three that sent the Kentucky Wildcats home unhappy. The Gamecocks improvement since he took over the point guard role has been across the board. He spearheads the defense, and they are now atop the league in terms of efficiency on that end of the floor. On offense, he has sparked the team with his scoring and his playmaking ability.
Coach Martin has been consistent with his praise of Couisnard, always mentioning the attitude and confidence he brings to the table. The native of East Chicago, IN has scored in double figures in eight of the last ten ball games. His vision and court awareness has also led to his teammates getting easier buckets. He leads the team in assists, and is second in scoring.
That’s More Like It
A.J. Lawson was supposed to carry the load for South Carolina this season. The sophomore from Canada was solid through most of the non-conference slate, but struggled mightily as December turned to January. In the four game stretch surrounding the New Year, he went just 7-38 from the field. It is no surprise that since Couisnard was inserted into the starting lineup, Lawson has begun to play much better. The pair has an excellent chemistry together, and gives the Gamecocks one of the better back courts in the SEC.
Over the last eight games, Lawson has been back to the All-SEC freshman player he was a season ago. He has scored in double figures in seven of those contests, and is shooting 43 percent from three. The 6’6 guard has been playing much more off the ball lately, and he has been more comfortable because of it. His aggression on offense and intensity on defense have been at very high levels as of late.
Just as Coach Martin’s teams always seem to get better as the season progresses, so do the players who buy in and learn from him. There is no better example of that than senior Maik Kotsar. The 6’11 forward is having his best season in Columbia, and has been excellent in SEC play. He is finally playing with confidence on the offensive end, and things are beginning to fall his way. The senior from Estonia has scored in double figures each of the last five games.
His increased production and efficiency on offense, has allowed the rest of his game to get noticed. Kotsar has developed into one heck of a defensive player, both individually and within the team concept. Coach Martin made a pitch in his weekly press conference about his big man’s SEC’s Defensive Player of the Year credentials. If you spend some time watching him battle with big men in the paint, or move his feet to stick with perimeter players, its hard to argue with his coach’s assessment. Kotsar has gotten better each of his four seasons in garnet and black. The only remaining player from the Final Four run in 2017 is doing his best to get back to the big dance in his final season.
It Takes a Village
The other key to the Gamecocks improvement is their depth. Coach Martin plays eight to ten players a night. The multitude of guys contributing has allowed this team to withstand injuries to multiple guys. They are currently without their stat stuffing forward Justin Minaya, who is out with an injured wrist. That means more minutes for Jayln McCreary and Alanzo Frink. Keyshawn Bryant will also need to increase his impact on a nightly basis. Guards Trae Hannibal and Jair Bolden have both proven they can make an impact off the bench.
In terms of the numbers, South Carolina is still playing catch up. They were 75th in the NCAA’s NET rankings before Wednesday’s dominant 75-59 victory on the road over the Georgia Bulldogs. The Gamecocks improvement since the early season has them trending upwards. They are one of the hottest teams in the SEC. All they can do is keep growing and winning, and Coach Martin has them doing both.
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