South Carolina has the most athletic team it has had during the Frank Martin era and has potential to be the quickest team he has had offensively.
The Gamecock head coach, entering his eighth season at the helm of the program, said so himself Wednesday when meeting with reporters at Colonial Life Arena.
“There’s an unbelievable competition to get on the floor, so everyone’s got their pedal to the metal,” Martin said. “And we’re older, so we’ve got guys who understand what we’re doing and they’re playing more aggressively.
“… The athleticism on this team, it’s unique to any team I’ve been around in college basketball. I’ve had teams that are deep. I’ve had teams that are fast. I don’t know if I’ve had as many athletic players on one team as we have right now.”
The Gamecocks feature returners A.J. Lawson, Keyshawn Bryant, Alanzo Frink, Justin Minaya, Maik Kotsar and T.J. Moss as well as newcomers — in terms of game action — Jair Bolden, Micaiah Henry, Jermaine Couisnard, Trae Hannibal, Wildens Leveque and Jalyn McCreary.
“Last year we were down to seven guys. They could have done backflips as they dribbled and I couldn’t take them out,” Martin joked. “But they didn’t. They handled it like champs. … This year we’ve got a bunch of guys.”
Not only does South Carolina have quality depth, Martin has been impressed by the group’s work ethic. He relayed to reporters on Wednesday that, led by strength and conditioning coach Scott Greenwalt, the team has had an encouraging offseason.
“It’s by far the most productive summer we’ve had since we’ve been here,” Martin said. “Our roster was in place. The camaraderie amongst our players, because the majority of them were on the team last year, there’s a respect and a unity there to help the first-year guys.
“But they did it in the weight room. The work ethic of this team is really good. There’s an enthusiasm for work with this team. … They push each other. They’re competitive.”
Martin added that this is the first time in a while he has had a “pretty good feel” for every player on his roster heading into preseason training camp.
“I’ve been excited about this team since last year,” Martin said. “I saw the possibilities, because we had a bunch of these guys in practice, even though they didn’t play in games last year. … This might have been the first summer where our roster was intact, and I wasn’t running around trying to recruit somebody.”
On the topic of athleticism, the coach pointed specifically to how impressed he has been — albeit after only two practices — with the team’s interior defense.
“There are some balls getting beat up when people go to the rim,” Martin said. “We haven’t had that around here. We’ve been a one-man blocking crew with Chris Silva. … [Now] we’ve got guards blocking shots. We’ve got bigs playing over the rim.
“… There’s a competitive fight at the rim every play this year that we haven’t had since I’ve been here. … It’s unbelievable. There’s a physicality at the rim that we haven’t had since I’ve been here. Chris [Silva] had it, but no one else has had it. [Michael] Carrera had it. … Now we’ve got guys who are 240 pounds who are playing with physicality. It’s fun.”
The Gamecocks begin the regular season on Nov. 6 with a game against North Alabama.
Said Martin, “I’m revved up and ready to go.”
Here's a look at some players Martin highlighted Wednesday.
Sophomore guard A.J. Lawson averaged 13.4 points and a team-high 30.5 minutes per game last season but missed the final three games with an ankle injury he suffered against Alabama.
After that Feb. 26 game against the Crimson Tide, Martin drove back to his home with one question on his mind: “Why?”
“We went from extinction to, we win that game and we’re in the NCAA Tournament conversation,” he said. “And then boom.”
Lawson will be expected to be a leader this season.
“He’s a really good player, and after two practices, if you walked into the gym and you’d never seen our team, you would not be able to see who A.J. Lawson is,” Martin said. “That’s how good the other guys are playing. There’s not a huge difference between guys.
“[But] he’s good. … A.J.’s real good at perimeter shooting and at the rim. His growth has to be in that area in-between. And he’s gotten better at that.”
Martin also reiterated something Lawson said earlier the summer, about how the sophomore needed to improve his decision-making and get better on defense. The coach mentioned watching Lawson play this summer for Canada in an international game against Australia.
“He was guarding their best player,” Martin recalled. “I’m sitting there saying, ‘A.J.’s guarding the best player on the other team. Hmm, this is interesting.' And then they went at him and tried to screen him on two different occasions. And he refused to get screened.
“I said, ‘That’s a young man that has gotten better.’”
Maik Kotsar averaged 6.7 points for the Gamecocks last season — a number good for seventh on the team. He was third on the team with 4.7 rebounds per game, after Silva and Minaya, who only played five games.
“He’s in a much better place,” Martin said. “He’s actually — and I’m not going to say it because I’m going to jinx myself and our team — but he’s doing some things on the court that he’s never done since he’s been here.
“And that’s a good thing. That’s a good thing.”
The coach said Kotsar has dealt with confidence issues in the past but should be comfortable and consistent this season because he knows his role.
“Maik has been an unbelievable young man to coach and has been an incredible representative of our program,” Martin said. “Who he is every day in practice and in the community and the classroom, he deserves to have a really good senior year, and I’m excited to help him so it can be the best it could possibly be.”
Minaya played just five games last season with a knee injury and decided to redshirt, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t part of last season’s team.
“I told him he couldn’t be sight unseen, voice unheard and expect players to listen to him when he comes back and tells them what to do,” Martin said.
“His voice never went away.”
Now the versatile wing is back and ready to contribute on the court.
“Now that he’s healthy he’s out there doing what Justin does, taking open 3s, creating havoc with his energy, getting on the glass and rebounding the ball,” Martin said. “He’s trying to become a better player off the dribble, because he wasn’t very good at that his freshman year. He was working at it last year and then he got hurt so it slowed that down.
“… He’s also working on being a better decision-maker. And he’s gotten better at it.”
Martin mentioned Wednesday how pleased he has been with Henry, a 6-9, 235-pound forward who averaged 9.7 points, 4.7 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game (second-best in the Ohio Valley Conference) last season for Tennessee Tech.
“He is who I thought he is,” Martin said. “He’s strong. He plays with aggression. When you throw him the ball, he catches it, which to me is like an epiphany. … He plays strong. He plays like a graduate transfer. He’s strong.”
Jaylyn McCreary and Wildens Leveque
Martin has also been pleased with freshmen forwards McCreary and Leveque.
“Ridiculous. Jaylyn and Wildens, they play with a physicality,” the coach said. “Our guys drive to the basket, Wildens is coming to get it. Wildens doesn’t stand there and watch. He’s coming to get that ball. And when rebounds come off the rim, I’m used to seeing Chris Silva’s hands over the rim. And then it was hoping the ball would land in our hands.
“[Now] there’s multiple hands up there going after the ball.”
Now it’s about those players learning to play within the team structure.
“As they figure out our structure, they’ve got the intangibles, the desire, the competitiveness, the athleticism … they’ve got those things,” Martin said. “As they continue to learn our structure, I actually think they can do a lot of real good things.”