COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) Fourth-year basketball coach Frank Martin believes he has finally reached a key milestone at South Carolina.
''I don't have to play the guys I get mad at anymore,'' he said. ''We've got enough people.''
Martin said he has depth and a group of upperclassmen, including guards Sindarius Thornwell and Duane Notice and forwards Laimonas Chatkevicius and Michael Carrera, who can take ownership of the program and mentor young players like McDonald's All-American P.J. Dozier.
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Martin and the Gamecocks are looking to build off last year's 17-16 mark, South Carolina's first winning record since the 2008-09 team went 21-10.
''They're out there teaching the freshmen. They're out there talking. They're out there helping the next guy,'' Martin said. ''They understand what they're doing which then allows me to be more creative''
The Gamecocks could surely use some creativity. The team won just 14 games in each of Martin's first two years, the first two seasons of his career he finished with losing records. South Carolina looked ready to make a splash last season when it entered Southeastern Conference play at 10-3 and fresh off a victory over then-No. 9 Iowa State.
But the Gamecocks lost 11 of their next 14 games and were filled with problems. Thornwell, an SEC all-freshman a year earlier, played on two bad knees and Martin suspended forwards Demetrius Henry and Shamiek Sheppard were suspended for the rest of the season for violating team rules.
The two later transferred.
Still, South Carolina rebounded to win four of its last six games (including two in the SEC tournament) to ensure a winning mark.
Martin said his newcomers, which include 6-foot-9 forwards Eric Cobb and Chris Silva, are the kind who can compete in the rugged SEC.
Thornwell had injections during the offseason to fight off tendinitis in his knees, which he played with all last year. His numbers showed that. A season after averaging 15.6 points and 4.9 rebounds against SEC opponents, Thornwell had just 10.6 points and 4.2 rebounds this past year. Even worse for the Gamecocks, Thornwell has little of the high-flying spring he showed as a freshman.
The other day, though, Thornwell dunked to the delight of himself, his teammates and coaches.
''I told him, `I hadn't seen that since the third grade,''' Martin joked.
Thornwell, the 6-5 junior, hopes to show more of that this year.
''Physically, I feel good,'' he said. ''I can walk better, run better, cut better, move better. That was first time dunking since freshman year. It felt going being able to touch the rim again.''
Guard Duane Notice, the team's leading scorer last year at 11.7 points a game, went through a midseason drought last year and coincided with South Carolina's SEC struggles. Martin said Notice has worked to make sure he's prepared for a full season.
It helps to have Dozier, the 6-5 son of former South Carolina player Perry Dozier and sister of Asia Dozier, a starter on the Gamecocks' Final Four women's basketball team. The newest Dozier turned down Louisville, Michigan and North Carolina to stay near home in Columbia.
Martin said Dozier has worked at the point guard spot because he thinks and plays that way.
The biggest impact for South Carolina could be along the front line.
Chatkevicius, Carrera and Mindaugas Kacinas have handled much of the work underneath the past three seasons. Martin believes Cobb and Silva will do their share, despite their youth.
''I think we have too many guys now,'' Chatkevicius said. ''I'm not used to that. Glad to see so many faces here.''
The depth gives Martin hope these Gamecocks can get back to the NCAA Tournament, someplace they have not been since 2004.