Jermaine Couisnard

Jermaine Couisnard

When South Carolina tips off its men’s basketball season Wednesday night, at least seven players will hit the floor for the first time in a Gamecock uniform.

None of them will be more excited than redshirt freshman Jermaine Couisnard. And there might not be a player Gamecocks fans are more excited to see than the 6-4 guard who wowed fans and teammates with his play during the offseason and enters the season with big expectations.

Couisnard, a 6-4 guard from East Chicago, Ind., had to sit out last season while the university resolved an academic issue. He practiced all season, mimicking the opposition’s best player on the scout team before lighting it up during a local pro-am tournament this summer, scoring more than 40 points in back-to-back games.

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Now he is part of a strong backcourt for Frank Martin’s 2019-20 team that opens Wednesday against North Alabama at Colonia Life Arena (7 p.m., SEC Network+).

Martin knows his young guard, who missed last week’s exhibition game with an illness, will be ecstatic and likely a bit nervous in his first game.

“I’m sure there is some excitement for him,” he said. “He’s such a competitor, he loves to play. It’s been a while since he’s done this. We can all play pickup and practice as much as we want, there’s nothing like a game day, and it’s been a while since he’s had a game day.”

Martin believes Couisnard will quickly get over any pregame jitters over making his Gamecock debut.

“He’s a very intellectual basketball player. He comprehends what you want and comprehends where things are at,” he said. “I think the way he is built, I don’t think it will be a big negative for him. I think he will understand how to put the nerves aside and go out there and play. I’m excited for him. He deserved to play last year and I’m excited that he is going to get that opportunity.”

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The Gamecocks will open the season without forward Keyshawn Bryant, who started 26 games last year. Bryant had surgery last week to repair cartilege in his knee and is expected to be out at least six weeks.

“We are crossing our fingers and hoping he heals the right way,” Martin said.

Though South Carolina dealt with a cold sweeping through the team last week, Martin said everyone else should be healthy and ready to play. With Bryant out, young forward Alanzo Frink, a sophomore, and Jalyn McCreary, a freshman, saw extensive playing time at forward in South Carolina’s exhibition win.

Martin has been experimenting with a three-guard lineup in practice with AJ Lawson, Jair Bolden and Couisnard. Lawson, who made the SEC All-Freshman team last year, led the Gamecocks with 23 points and seven assists last week while Bolden, a transfer from George Washington, had 12 points and six assists.

Couisnard, a sharp-shooting guard, is expected to add to an already deep backcourt.

“He’s a strong guard that can shoot the ball and drive,” Lawson said. “He plays defense. He’s got that dog in him.”

The season opener is a big game for South Carolina, which got off to a slow start last season and struggled in non-conference play. The Gamecocks lost early-season games to Stony Brook, Wofford and Wyoming during a 5-7 non-conference slate before starting 5-1 in SEC play. Though they finished 11-7 in conference play, they were 16-16 overall and missed the NCAA Tournament.

Martin has leaned on his returning players to emphasize the importance of playing well early and winning non-conference games.

“They were honest in telling me they didn’t really mentally prepare to play some of these teams because they were schools they had never heard of, and that’s the biggest mistake young players make,” he said. “They take the game for granted because it’s a school that maybe they have never heard of, and that’s how you learn. That’s why it’s so hard to win with freshmen.

“… I’ve tried to make them understand not to slight the opponent but to make them understand that if we had approached things this time of year with the same sense of urgency we did once we got to conference play, we would have been in postseason play last year.”

Lawson says the players have talked about the importance of taking care of business early in the season.

“After last year, the two games at the beginning hurt us and now we are already [talking about that] so we can get ready and be prepared,” he said.