As South Carolina prepares for the NCAA tournament, it relies on the versatility of junior
Duane Notice is a proud Canadian, he tells everyone, and to prove it, the Toronto native likes to keep a mental list of all his favorite Canadian things and people. He has favorite Canadian entertainers (Drake and Justin Bieber), favorite Canadian food (poutine), favorite Canadian athlete (there's an unofficial law that he must say Steve Nash, he jokes) and favorite Canadian actor (tie between Ryan Reynolds and Jim Carrey) So naturally, when the South Carolina junior guard was told that after two years of starting for the Gamecocks he'd need to spend most the 2015–16 season coming off the bench, he channeled his favorite Canadian sixth man.
Cory Joseph is also from Toronto, and is "living every Canadian [basketball player's] dream," according to Notice, playing for the NBA's Toronto Raptors. He has come off the bench this year for the 43–20 Raptors (first place in the Atlantic Division), excelling in the sixth man role, averaging nine 8.9 points and 3.1 assists in 25.6 minutes a night.
"When coach [Frank Martin] told me I was going to come off the bench, being like Cory Joseph definitely came to mind," says Notice, who has chipped in 11.2 points, 2.4 rebounds and 2.1 assists per game this year and earlier this week was named the SEC Sixth Man of the Year. "I thought about how unselfish he is, how hard he plays."
Notice started 55 of 67 games his first two years in Columbia and led the team in scoring last season with 11.7 points per game. But South Carolina struggled in a loaded SEC, finishing 17–16 overall and 6–12 in the SEC, ending their season in the quarterfinals of the conference tournament to Georgia.
Now, in Frank Martin's fourth season, South Carolina has taken a leap forward and even spent six weeks in the AP top 25 poll this season, partially because of a combination of seasoned veterans and rookies who can contribute. Notice and his teammates own a 24–7 (11–7 SEC) record and the No. 3 seed in the SEC tournament, where they meet Georgia on Friday in a rematch of last season's quarterfinals.
Martin could have started an upperclassmen-only lineup this season, but decided instead that Notice would lead the second group so McDonald's All-American and highly touted freshman forward P.J. Dozier could start.
"I didn't think it would be very healthy or fair to our young bench guys, to ask them to come in and perform," Martin says. "Duane has the ability to defend and impact the game at both ends. He's consistent in those two areas, so I thought him coming off the bench would be good for us."
Notice accepted the move without argument—"I was surprised coach thought I could be a spark for the second group," he says—but acknowledges the first few weeks were rough. Notice considers himself a two-guard but has to play everything from point guard to small forward in practice and is responsible for making sure the big men are running plays correctly.
"I was overwhelmed at first," he says. "Coach was putting in two or three new plays every practice and I had to know everything. It takes so much wisdom to do all that!" Martin jokes that making Notice the leader of underclassmen has tricked him into being more vocal, something Martin had harped on Notice's first two years.
It would be easy for any veteran to get upset about what could appear to be a diminished role. But Notice actually likes coming off the bench, because it gives him an opportunity to study how defenders guard on-ball screens, which allows him to have a plan for getting shots. At first though, not being on the floor for tip was "just weird." When the Gamecocks hosted Oral Roberts on Nov. 16, 2015 to open the season, Notice says "the ball felt foreign" when he subbed in. Not breaking a sweat in the games opening minutes, because sitting on the bench isn't exactly taxing, "that was nerve-wracking for me."
Clearly, Notice has settled in. Junior guard Sidarius Thornwell, one of Notice's closest friends, says there are days when the starters are "just bad," but know they'll get a boost from Notice. Thornwell points to South Carolina's 75–61 win over St. John's on Dec. 22 at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn., as proof. A sluggish start from USC was erased when Notice entered with 16:39 minutes left in the first half and USC trailing 6–4. He proceeded to shoot 7-of-10 from the floor—including two made three-pointes—and finished with 20 points in 28 minutes.
Notice says he felt a special dose of energy that day because it was the first time his 3-year-old sister, Mia, got to watch him in person. "She wore a South Carolina cheerleading outfit," Notice says, "and she definitely didn't care that I came off the bench."
Notice has excelled as USC's first sub so much, in fact, that Martin has inserted him into the starting lineup. After South Carolina's 72–67 loss to Missouri on Feb. 16 (a game in which Notice scored 21 points as the sixth man), Martin wanted to shake up the starting five—and practice. Notice spends most practices going back and forth between starters and subs, switching between a role player and an aggressive leader. Martin says South Carolina's success is a direct result of Notice's tenacity in practice.
"Having someone who could be a starter (and be a sub in practice) is no different than growing up with an older brother or cousin—it just challenges you and teaches you how to grow," Martin says. "And that's the type of competition that you have to have internally. Duane practicing with the second group, it's forced us to continue to battle and stay sharp down the stretch."
The Gamecocks have lost two of their last three going into SEC tournament play, but Notice has plans for a deep NCAA tournament run. And while he's happy to start, of course, he has his eyes set on another sixth man role going forward. He'd like to take Cory Joseph's job.