USC’s perfect start was made in Lithuania

Lithuanians Mindaugas Kacinas (25) and Laimonas Chatkevicius have emerged as the leading scorers on a South Carolina team off to its best start in over a decade. (AP/File)

COLUMBIA — Frank Martin will admit, Mindaugas Kacinas wasn’t prepared to play SEC basketball when the 6-7 Lithuanian arrived at South Carolina by way of a Kansas prep school.

“And we didn’t have much help for him,” USC’s head coach remembered.

Time and patience have made a difference. South Carolina’s best start in over a decade has been powered by the development of Kacinas and his fellow countryman Laimonas Chatkevicius, who have emerged as legitimate scoring threats on a team that suffered through far too many offensive lapses a season ago.

Kacinas, who averaged 6.1 points per game as a junior, is now USC’s leading scorer at 15.3 ppg entering Saturday’s 4 p.m. game against South Florida (2-5), in which the Gamecocks (7-0) will attempt to tie the program’s best start of the post-ACC era. Chatkevicius, who averaged 8.6 ppg last season, is now the team’s second-leading scorer at 14.9 ppg.

Getting points from those two sources eases the scoring burden on USC’s guards, particularly given that Sindarius Thornwell indicated in a Twitter post Thursday night that his knees — the source of patella tendinitis which hampered him last season — were once again hurting. The development of the Lithuanians has also allowed Martin to continue to bring Duane Notice, last year’s leading scorer, off the bench.

To Kacinas, the difference is experience. “We’ve been through the grind,” he said. “... We know how hard it is. The younger guys are just taking an example from us, and working, pushing each other. So when it comes to the games, we just feel each other. We know when there are going to be open shots, we know when to throw it in the post, kick it out. Players, just from the feel, they know.”

There’s more to it than that. The Lithuanians, who normally return home over the summer to play internationally, this year remained on campus for the first time since they were freshmen. In the case of the 6-11 Chatkevicius, that afforded time for more lower-body conditioning which helps stabilize him around the basket, and makes him more of a force inside.

“He’s worked real hard with (strength coach) Scott Greenawalt in the weight room to improve his balance and his bottom-half strength to hold his ground in there. To remember where he was as a freshman, allergic to contact ... and to see him battle with a low-post guy, it’s fun,” Martin said.

“He’s got to rebound better for us, he’s got to protect the rim a little better for us. ... Those are some things with him that we have to continue to get better at. But he’s been awesome. I’ve been hard on him, and I’m really proud of him that he stayed the course.”

Kacinas, meanwhile, has benefitted from USC’s deeper roster, which allows him to play more on the perimeter where he often has a size advantage over defenders. “You don’t see him trying to take on size at the basket anymore. That’s something he used to do,” Martin said.

“When there’s a smaller player on him, if he’s posting and he’s got the angle, we make the pass. He’s learned to do that. But what he’s doing more is, he’s playing on the perimeter. I think you’re seeing him play facing up, and driving the basketball a lot more than he ever has. And I hope it’s something that continues, because I know how hard he’s worked at becoming better.”

For the time being, it’s working. Chatkevicius scored a career-high 27 earlier this season, Kacinas is the SEC Player of the Week, and the Gamecocks are one win from tying the start recorded by the 2003-04 team, also the program’s last to reach the NCAA Tournament. Not that Martin is mentioning the record to his players.

“I didn’t speak to them about it when we were 1-7 in league play two years in a row, or whatever we were,” he said. “I’m not going to speak about it when it’s the other way. I’m about today.”