Oct. 28, 2014
By Brad Muller | More Features
Mindaugas Kacinas and Laimonas Chatkevicius have come a long way. Not only do the Lithuanian natives have a friendship that spans two continents, but they have taken a lot of calculated steps to get them where they are today and are looking forward to taking another step forward for Coach Frank Martin's men's basketball program at South Carolina.
"He's a good coach," Kacinas said. "Our coach in Lithuania told us if we do well over the next four years with Frank Martin, then we can go anywhere we want because it's a good school."
Kacinas and Chatkevicius, now juniors in their third year with the Gamecocks, grew up in Klaipeda, Lithuania. They played on teams against and with each other for several years and later decided to play for Martin because of his reputation as a coach and also knowing they could trade basketball for an education that would last a lifetime.
"He told me he would toughen me up, so I thought that would be great," Chatkevicius said. "I've improved a lot, but I've got a long way to go with mental toughness. I need to push myself harder."
The 6'7" Kacinas and the 6'11" Chatkevicius can certainly make an impression on the basketball floor. Both feel that the other has improved his game since coming to South Carolina.
"He got a lot stronger," Chatkevicius said of Kacinas. "He was always able to push himself."
"Mean," Kacinas said of Chatkevicius' evolution. "He's slimmer and stronger. He can get up the court faster. He's come a long way with mental toughness, so that's what I like to see."
"Our coach in Lithuania told us if we do well over the next four years with Frank Martin, then we can go anywhere we want because it's a good school."
Both Kacinas and Chatkevicius came to the United States to finish their high school careers with the specific goal of giving themselves a better chance of obtaining a scholarship to play basketball in college. Chatkevicius attended South Kent School in Connecticut, while Kacinas went to Word of Life Fire Traditional School in Wichita, Kansas.
The duo was certainly happy to be reunited in Columbia when Martin became South Carolina's head coach. They already knew basketball, but now they had to adjust to life in the South.
"We don't have a lot of fried food and fast food restaurants where we are from," Kacinas said. "That's why we're so fit. We eat a lot of mashed potatoes."
Kacinas says his favorite thing to eat back home is his mom's salads, but he only smiles and laughs rather than give away any secrets as to what is in those salads that makes them so great.
"It has special ingredients," Kacinas laughed. "I can't tell you." For Chatkevicius, the biggest cultural difference between Lithuania and South Carolina is the people.
"Lithuanian people are not friendly," Chatkevicius said with a hint of a smile. "They're mean, and I'm used to that. I'm not used to always answering when people you don't know come up and say `hey, how are you?' It's hard, but I'm getting used to it."
Kacinas believes history has a lot to do with the everyday seriousness back home.
"When you look back in history, the Soviet Union used to control everyone in Eastern Europe," Kacinas said. "We're strong as a country, so we don't want anyone else to tell us what to do now. The best part about growing up there is that Lithuania is known as a basketball country. We're a small country, but we're ranked very high in the world for the basketball."
"Through basketball, you find your best friends," Chatkevicius said. "You travel a lot. You meet a lot of people. The hardest part was school. It's much harder than it is here. I went to German school, so I had to start learning to speak German in the first grade."
The two friends are quick to point out that having the other here on the team has made it easier to adjust to life far away from home. "Sometimes you just miss your family and your friends," Kacinas said. "Having someone to talk with that's from your hometown that you've known for a long time helps a lot."
"Sometimes when I get sad, I don't want to talk to anyone," Chatkevicius added. "So it helps to have someone that speaks the same language. It reminds you of home."
Both Chatkevicius and Kacinas are studying hotel, restaurant and tourism management and are thankful to be able to trade basketball for a college degree.
"After I'm done playing basketball, I want to own a hotel somewhere in Europe and go from there," Kacinas said. "I haven't been in Spain yet. I've been to a lot of other places in Europe. So I'd like to go there and have a business."
"I'm not sure what I want to do yet, but I thought this major would be great," Chatkevicius said. "I'll learn something to manage in hospitality, like restaurants or hotels. My eyes are still open though."
Before any of that happens, they're both excited about the upcoming basketball season. Chatkevicius averaged 4.8 points per game last year, but played his best ball in the final six games, averaging 7.7 points and 6.7 rebounds during that stretch, including 10.7 points and 7.0 rebounds in three games at the SEC Tournament. He says the way he and his teammates played gives him more confidence going into this season.
"It was like being at the bottom and there was nowhere else to go but up," Chatkevicius said. "There was no pressure. You either win or go home. This year, I want to play as well as we did at the Tournament."
Kacinas averaged 5.6 points and 5.1 rebounds per game last year, and also picked up the pace at the end of the year with 13 points and nine rebounds in the regular-season finale win at Mississippi State and back-to-back double-digit rebound performances in a pair of SEC Tournament victories. He hopes to take the team further this year and win the SEC Tournament.
It's been a long journey for both, and they're excited about the road ahead. They both agree that even though they're far from home, they're happy to be Gamecocks.
"The best part about being here is that we're part of a big family," Kacinas said.
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