South Carolina hoping for return to NCAA Tournament

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              South Carolina coach Frank Martin speaks during the SEC men's NCAA college basketball media day, Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2018, in Birmingham, Ala. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Maik Kotsar can’t forget South Carolina’s run to the Final Four his freshman season. He believes the Gamecocks are motivated for more March Madness success this year.

Kotsar, the 6-foot-11 junior, played a significant role in driving South Carolina to its first ever national semifinals in 2017. He thought the team would build on that unprecedented run, but instead failed to reach the postseason after a 17-16 season.

Kotsar said the Gamecocks have used last season’s struggles as a rallying cry to return to the NCAA Tournament.

“The Final Four run was spectacular, nothing but good memories from it,” Kotsar said. “Last year didn’t go as we wanted it to. That only motivated us to work harder, to come back this season and try to get to the Final Four again and, why not even further.”

That could be a tall order for South Carolina, which was picked 11th in a stacked Southeastern Conference that features five ranked teams in the preseason AP Top 25.

The Gamecocks, though, appear to more stability entering this season than a year ago. Last season’s team lost the heart of its NCAA Tournament run in SEC player of the year Sindarius Thornwell , Duane Notice and Justin McKie.

Sophomore point guard P.J. Dozier surprised many be opting for the NBA draft. He was not picked by a pro team.

This time around, South Carolina coach Frank Martin held onto a potential pro in senior Chris Silva, the team leader in scoring, rebounding and blocked shots who went through the draft process before opting to return.

Silva, at 6-9, was co-SEC defensive player of the year and made the league’s first team. He averaged 14.3 points and eight rebounds a game.

Martin said Silva’s development has been a steady process of technique catching up to the senior’s relentless nature on the court.

Martin remembered watching tape of a Silva, then a raw freshman, struggling to pick up the finer points of the college game. Martin sat him down and told him, “Don’t worry about it. Just chase the ball. Run as fast as you can and I’ll play you every game,” Martin recalled.

Silva’s form has improved so much he was named an all-SEC first team member at the league’s preseason gathering.

“He comes to the gym and in practices he gives it his all,” Kotsar said of Silva. “He’s only going forward and I expect nothing less.”

Some other things to know about South Carolina this season:

BIG LOSS

The Gamecocks won’t have Brian Bowen Jr., the one-time Louisville recruit who transferred to South Carolina in January. Bowen chose to leave when the NCAA determined he would miss much if not all of this season for he and his family’s role in the college basketball corruption case.

AT THE POINT

Frank Martin took steps to shore up a trouble spot last year with the addition of Georgetown grad transfer Tre Campbell and highly regarded freshman T.J. Moss.

BULKIER MINAYA

Justin Minaya was one of the most pleasant surprises on last year’s team as he started 30 games as a freshman. The 6-6 Minaya said he’s added about 10 pounds and feels he’ll hold up even better in the SEC this season.

THAT’S MY BOY

South Carolina opens the season Nov. 6 at home against USC Upstate, an opponent whose roster includes freshman Brandon Martin, son of Gamecocks coach Frank Martin.

SCHEDULE

The Gamecocks have plenty of big tests early. A November tournament features games with Providence and potentially, one of two against Michigan, where South Carolina will also play Dec. 8. In December, there are also games with Virginia and state rival Clemson before the SEC schedule kicks off.