COLUMBIA — Frank Martin’s second season as South Carolina’s basketball coach will actually be more of a fresh start than his first.
Last season, Martin welcomed four newcomers to his roster. But he lost one of his two most important newcomers when senior transfer guard LaShay Page was declared academically ineligible after the first semester. Even as freshman wing player Michael Carrera thrived at times during the season’s second half, USC still finished 14-18, 4-14 in the Southeastern Conference.
Next season, USC will try to avoid its fifth straight losing overall record — something that has happened just once in program history, and not since 1918-19 to 1922-23, when the Gamecocks never played more than 19 games in a season. Martin understands that the road to relevance will not be easy for a team that went 17-53 against league competition during the past four seasons.
But if there is to be a transformation of USC basketball under Martin, it will begin in earnest next season. USC announced Friday that four underclassmen from last year’s team have requested releases from their scholarships and will not return: point guard Eric Smith, shooting guard Brian Richardson, shooting guard Damien Leonard and forward RJ Slawson, a Fort Dorchester High graduate.
Their departures clear the way for Martin to add eight newcomers next season, including seven freshmen. Of USC’s 14 scholarship players — a group that includes point guard Bruce Ellington even though he is on a football scholarship — just six will ever have played for the Gamecocks. Those returners include junior power forward Carlton Geathers, who has been with the team for three seasons, but played just one, 2011-12, when he averaged one point and 7.8 minutes.
Among the departing players, Smith, Richardson and Slawson were going to be seniors, Leonard a junior. Of these four, Smith was the biggest factor last season, when he averaged 27.7 minutes and 5.7 points and started 27 of 32 games. Richardson, Slawson and Leonard averaged 18.3, 15.8 and 14.8 minutes and 7.5, 4.2 and four points. None of the four were ever stars at USC.
Even during last season, Martin was already making over his backcourt. Midway through the year, he brought in point guard Tyrone Johnson, a Villanova transfer who will be eligible as a junior after next season’s first semester. In November, Martin signed shooting guards Sindarius Thornwell and Justin McKie, and power forward Desmond Ringer. On Friday, USC announced the signing of point guard Duane Notice, small forward Reggie Theus Jr. and power forward Demetrius Henry. The eighth new player, point guard Jaylen Shaw, is expected to sign soon.
Johnson, Thornwell and Henry are the three biggest additions. Coming out of high school, Johnson was rated the No. 52 player in his class by Rivals, and the No. 11 point guard. Thornwell is rated No. 43 overall and No. 11 among shooting guards. Henry is rated No. 100 overall and No. 17 among centers.
Henry picked USC over Miami on Wednesday and gives the Gamecocks much-needed length, with his 6-9, 210-pound frame. His arrival means Carrera, who is 6-5, might not have to battle as often against bigger players in the post. Martin has said that part of Carrera’s progression in college will involve him developing a mid-range game and playing farther from the basket.
Despite the exodus of players who were eligible to return, the Gamecocks still bring back their three leading scorers from last season — senior shooting guard Brenton Williams (11 points per game), Carrera (9.9) and Ellington (9.9), a Berkeley High graduate who will be a senior. The other two returning players, in addition to Geathers, are small forward Mindaugas Kacinas and power forward Laimonas Chatkevicius, who had up-and-down seasons in Martin’s first year.
Martin has said that, most of the time, he doesn’t like leaning on freshmen, because the college game often overwhelms them. With freshmen comprising half of his roster next season, Martin will have to catch them up as quickly as he can.