COLUMBIA — He said it with a caveat. Yes, he loves his team, but it’s June and many college basketball coaches love their teams in June.
Yet Frank Martin could be feeling much worse about his eighth team at South Carolina, which will try to get over the hump that’s stood in front of the postseason the past two years.
“I think we have a lot of talented pieces,” Martin said. “I think top to bottom, one through (16), it’s as talented a team as I’ve been a part of as people, work ethic, talent level, experience, when you put it all together.”
There’s so much known and unknown about the 2019-20 Gamecocks, Martin signing seven recruits (one walk-on Mike Green of Myrtle Beach, another North Carolina transfer Seventh Woods, who will sit out this season) to a stable core of returning players. By the numbers, the Gamecocks return nine, led by sophomore guard A.J. Lawson, considered a potential first-round NBA draft pick next June.
But there’s much unknown about the returnees as well, due to the numerous injuries that rocked the squad last year. That gives USC an advantage, since it knows exactly what it has for the new class to augment while the opponents won’t.
“Probably the best I’ve had since I’ve been here,” Martin said, quickly following with another point that it’s still summertime and that his best team, the 2016-17 squad that featured SEC Player of the Year Sindarius Thornwell and ended in the Final Four, was good in summer but kicked it up a notch during the season. “They’re fun to be around.”
USC returns Justin Minaya, a leadership-savvy guard who was limited to five games last year, and T.J. Moss, whose freshman season running the point was short-circuited after seven games. USC still hasn’t seen what Jermaine Couisnard (sat due to academics) and Jair Bolden (sat after transferring from George Washington) can do in a real game.
Those players can join the returnees that, along with departed seniors Chris Silva and Hassani Gravett, carried the team last year. Maik Kotsar brings three years’ worth of experience while Keyshawn Bryant, who never met a first-possession ball he wouldn’t try to dunk, teams with Lawson as a high-flying offensive sophomore showcase.
Outside of Green and Woods, Martin added one graduate transfer and four high school prospects. Micaiah Henry from Tennessee Tech filled the Gamecocks’ wish for a big man after Felipe Haase transferred. Trey Anderson, Trae Hannibal, Wildens Leveque and Jalyn McCreary bring two guards and two forwards to the roster.
All but McCreary and Henry are already enrolled and working out. Martin only has sporadic chances to see them but he’s already pleased with what he’s seen.
“New guys don’t get me excited for the upcoming year, the old guys do,” he said. “The returning guys give me an enthusiasm that they’re going to be so good as players and people that they’re going to help the new guys, so the new guys are better prepared to move forward.”
Recruits are recruits, rankings are rankings. As Martin said, every coach likes his team in the summer because if they didn’t, they’d be calling their athletics directors to talk about a buyout.
But going into his eighth season as USC’s third winningest coach, owner of three of USC’s only six winning SEC seasons and a Final Four, Martin has a similar mix of young and old as he did when his program reached its greatest height.