The college basketball off-season is long and largely lacking in major news developments. Programs are still finalizing their 2017 recruiting classes and sorting out which of their players will return for another season or jump to the professional ranks. We’ve got a long way to go until Midnight Madness. To help pass the time, SI.com is asking and answering three key questions about each of the teams in our Way-Too-Early Top 25. Here’s No. 16, South Carolina.
1. How do you replace Sindarius Thornwell?
The short answer is really that you don’t. Thornwell’s impact on coach Frank Martin’s program is hard to overstate: a top-50 recruit who could have gone somewhere with a much higher likelihood of success, Thornwell stayed home and helped get Martin’s tenure off the ground with a slow four-year build culminating in this season’s wildly improbable Final Four run. Along the way he blossomed into the SEC Player of the Year by doing just about everything, averaging team highs in points (21.4), rebounds (7.1), and steals (2.1) per game while narrowly missing leading the Gamecocks in assists per game (2.8) as well and ranking second in blocks (1.0). (His 39.2% three-point shooting wasn’t too shabby either.) The 6’5” Thornwell could also match up with opposing bigs, making him a valuable piece of the nation’s third-most efficient defense. That’s an awful lot of production to lose as you try to maintain momentum from the most successful stretch in school history. Players of Thornwell’s quality, versatility, and import are few and far between, and the flip side of riding one to new highs is filling the void when their time is up.
2. How much more will the frontcourt improve?
One of the most overlooked reasons for South Carolina’s late-season emergence was the play of its two underclassman forwards, Chris Silva and Maik Kotsar. Both contributed strongly on the defensive end (particularly against Baylor and its imposing post presence), while the little-shooting Kotsar came alive for 12 points in the Elite Eight win over Florida and Silva scored in double figures in each of the Gamecocks’ five games. Silva was dogged by foul issues during his freshman season, but cut his number of fouls committed per 40 minutes from 9.4 to 7.2 last season, helping him stay on the floor much more as a sophomore. He still racked up four-plus whistles in three of his team’s four NCAA tournament wins, however, and in 26 of his 36 games overall, an indication of how much more room he has to grow. With such uncertainty in the backcourt, Silva may be leaned on as more of a featured contributor, while another step forward on offense from Kotsar—not to mention a sophomore leap from former four-star recruit Sedee Keita (who battled a hand injury as a freshman) and early production from incoming recruit Ibrahim Doumbia—could prove very valuable.
3. How do you follow that?
This is a more of a big-picture question, but one of the most important things for a program coming off the sort of aberrant, historic run that the Gamecocks just made is converting the burst of momentum into something more lasting. South Carolina is not the kind of program that can just reload and carry on; the losses of Thornwell and NBA-bound PJ Dozier will certainly result in a significant step back. The key, then, will be to avoid any kind of true hangover and put together the sort of solid season that at least shows March was no fluke and that there are better things to come. In addition to the frontcourt, that will most immediately look like rising sophomore Rakym Felder, who scored a combined 24 points in the NCAA tournament wins over Duke and Baylor, taking quickly to a newfound starting spot, and Delaware transfer Kory Holden providing some approximation of the scoring punch he contributed as a Blue Hen (17.7 ppg, 38.8% from three in 2015-16). And perhaps equally important will be what Martin & Co. are able to do on the recruiting trail. This year’s class, with Doumbia and top-150 guard David Beatty, is a strong one, and Martin was able to lure the highly-touted Thornwell and Dozier without being able to point to any on-court success in Columbia. With a Final Four appearance on his resume and the attention the team received this postseason, Martin should be able to keep attracting talent to his rising program.