Dave Odom's third South Carolina team fooled everyone last season. Picked to finish near the bottom of the SEC in nearly every preseason poll, the surprisingly athletic Gamecocks rallied around that perceived snub.
Using trapping defenses to stun its early foes, South Carolina began the season 19-3, stumbled down the stretch when SEC teams adjusted to the defense but still made the school's first NCAA appearance since 1998.
This season, the Gamecocks don't figure to sneak up on anyone as they attempt to build on their 23-11 record and one-and-done NCAA appearance. But that doesn't mean Odom plans to change his team's aggressive approach.
"We've tried to recruit kids that would come in and allow us to try to continue that style," said Odom, voted the SEC Coach of the Year last season. "We do want to continue that and we want to get better at it, if we possibly can. And we should be able to."
FRONTCOURTSouth Carolina returns its leading scorer and rebounder, 6-foot-7 senior Carlos Powell, and added more athleticism in the paint when 6-8 Antoine Tisby signed in May. They'll team with 6-9 sophomore Brandon Wallace to give the Gamecocks a solid nucleus up front.
Powell must become a more consistent scorer if the Gamecocks are to surpass last season's success. In South Carolina's final 10 games, he failed to reach double figures six times.
The wiry Wallace, an effective shot-blocker despite playing at 190 pounds as a freshman, worked to add bulk to his athletic frame in the offseason. He gained valuable experience late last season after senior Rolando Howell was lost for the year with a broken wrist. "I think you'll see some added weight and strength on him," Odom said. "And I think he'll be a better player as a result of it."
Another 6-7 player, sophomore forward Renaldo Balkman, has the potential to add punch at both ends. He is a solid rebounder (4.6 rpg) and shot-blocker with a developing perimeter game.
A pair of 6-10 centers, senior John Chappell and sophomore Paulius Joneliunas, are unspectacular, but they provide depth. Chappell should play 10-15 minutes per game to aid with rebounding and add toughness in the paint.
BACKCOURTSouth Carolina loses Mike Boynton, its emotional leader and starting point guard. But Odom likes the explosiveness and playmaking ability the team will gain as Tre Kelley takes over. Kelley, a tough, confident former Washington, D.C., prep standout, struggled with his shooting (39.7 percent) as a freshman. But he dazzled at times with slick passes and slashing moves. In part-time duty, he had 69 assists and only 48 turnovers.
South Carolina will count on perimeter scoring from senior Josh Gonner, a streaky 3-point shooter who averaged 11.8 points last season. Junior college transfer Roderick Trice brings a solid reputation as a defensive stopper, but he is also a capable outside shooter.
Junior Tarence Kinsey showed flashes of being a perimeter scoring threat, but he must improve his consistency after averaging 4.6 points against SEC competition.
Freshmen Dwayne Day, another 6-7 swing player, and Stephen McDowell give South Carolina more athleticism off the bench.
FINAL ANALYSISOdom plans to use high-pressure defense with full-court and half-court traps to take advantage of his team's athleticism and convert turnovers into easy baskets. South Carolina will need those easy baskets unless Gonner and Trice emerge as consistent 3-point threats.
Without a dominant interior scorer, any success the Gamecocks have this season will be determined by how they play defense and how they take care of the ball on offense.
Don't expect another 13-1 start. Odom has beefed up the schedule this season with road games at Kansas and Pittsburgh, plus a November game with Temple in Columbia.
South Carolina, a No. 10 seed in the NCAA tournament last season, should once again be a bubble team. Few teams in the SEC can match the Gamecocks' athleticism and defensive prowess, but Gonner and Powell need to emerge as consistent offensive threats for USC to break into the upper echelon of the brutal SEC East.