Gamecocks Open SEC Play With a Bang and Another Pause

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CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA - DECEMBER 22: Head coach Frank Martin of the South Carolina Gamecocks signals to his players during the second half of a college basketball game against the Virginia Cavaliers at the John Paul Jones Arena on December 22, 2019 in Charlottesville, Virginia. (Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)

Frank Martin and South Carolina have taken a long tumultuous road to finally get to their first conference game of the season. A sparse crowd at Colonial Life Arena saw the Gamecocks open SEC play with a resounding 24 point victory. The second half demolition of Texas A&M was one of the best halves of basketball this team has played in recent memory. The display of stingy defense, control of the glass, and balanced offense helped earn Coach Martin his 150th career win in Columbia.

Gamecocks Open SEC Play With a Bang

South Carolina had to pause team activities for a month due to a COVID-19 outbreak that affected multiple players and staffers. They are not at full strength, with veterans Alanzo Frink, Keyshawn Bryant, and T.J. Moss still unavailable as of last week. They scuffled their way to a victory over Florida A&M on Saturday, before finally beginning SEC play. Wednesday night was just their fifth contest of the season because of the pause in activities and subsequent canceling of multiple games. They will now have to find a rhythm and identity while navigating a difficult conference slate. They got off to a good start last week. Unfortunately, they couldn’t ride that momentum because more COVID-19 issues popped up. Their weekend game with Ole Miss was postponed as well as this week’s clash with Tennessee.

Star Turn

A.J. Lawson had perhaps his best game in garnet and black against the Aggies to help the Gamecocks open SEC play strong. The junior scored a career-high 30 points. While this was more than his scoring total, it was his aggression on both ends and his attacking mindset that made the difference. Lawson was on the front foot on offense by driving to the rim and forcing the defense to react to him. On some nights, he settles for taking outside jumpers. While he can get hot from outside, he is much more effective when he attacks first and puts pressure on the opposing defense.

When Lawson decides to be the best player on the floor, which he has the talent to do, South Carolina is a dangerous team. His aggressiveness on Wednesday helped open things up for Jermaine Cousinard. His backcourt mate found his shot and got going in the second half. This perimeter duo can be very good if they stay aggressive and play off of each other’s strengths.

Swiss Army Knife

South Carolina’s starting backcourt pairing is arguably the two most talented players on the roster. However, forward Justin Minaya may be the most important. The junior does a little bit of everything for Coach Martin’s team when he is on the court. He is the team’s best defender and has developed into a reliable spot-up shooter as well. Minaya is a menace on the glass, and that is where he is most valuable. Even though he is only 6-foot-7, he is usually the best rebounder on the floor. His instincts and effort on the offensive glass give his team countless extra possessions. He is also a solid passer when attacking the glass, and can find his fellow Gamecocks open as the defense scrambles to recover. While he may not provide the headlines or highlights for this team, his value cannot be understated.

Strength in Numbers

This Gamecock team’s depth will also play a big role as the season progresses. They need to get the three aforementioned veterans back to bolster that depth. Bryant, especially, brings explosiveness that this squad needs and few in the SEC can match. Young big post players Jalyn McCreary and Wildens Leveque have also begun to grow into their roles in garnet and black. McCreary’s game is a bit unorthodox in terms of technique, but he always seems to be productive when on the court. He brings energy and athleticism to this team.

The Gamecocks open games with Leveque as the lone post player and is improving each time out. He had one of his better games against the Aggies, with 10 points and six boards. If these two can continue to improve on defense and stay out of foul trouble, they can be a real factor for this team.

Stop and Go

Rhythm is a valued commodity in college basketball. The Gamecocks can’t seem to sustain any this season as they now face their second pause of the season due to COVID-19. South Carolina played just three games before their season was interrupted initially, canceling their remaining non-conference games. After finally getting back onto the court for two games, their season is halted again. Coach Martin has spoken about how this not only affects his team’s growth on the court but also their mental state. The timetable for return is still unclear. This group of Gamecocks will have their resolve tested once again in such an unorthodox season. They have shown they can play at a high level. Now, they just need the chance to get back on the court, and hopefully, avoid any more obstacles.

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