Freeze Frame: Just How Good Is South Carolina?Posted by Brian Joyce on December 1st, 2016
South Carolina strung together 15 straight wins to begin the 2015-16 campaign, so forgive us all if we are still a bit skeptical over the Gamecocks’ latest hot start. Last November’s highlights included iffy neutral site wins over Hofstra and Tulsa, leaving some question about just how good Frank Martin’s team really was (it turns out that question was valid). This season, however, the Gamecocks enter December leaving little doubt as to their legitimacy after a pair of impressive KenPom top 25 (Michigan and Syracuse) victories already on their resume.
The hallmark of Martin’s tenure in Columbia has always been his defense. The Gamecocks have boasted the 36th and 21st best defenses, respectively, over the last two seasons, but early indicators suggest that this may be his best defensive team yet. South Carolina held Michigan and Syracuse to just 19.2 percent and 31.8 percent shooting, respectively, from the field. In this edition of Freeze Frame, we will analyze the Gamecocks’ defense to assess the ultimate ceiling for South Carolina this season.
What makes Martin’s team so impressive on the defensive end of the floor? RTC‘s David Changas already bragged on the Gamecocks’ defense, and the key to their success begins with pressuring passing lanes on the perimeter. The South Carolina guards play very aggressive denial defense, as you can see below with Duane Notice and Sindarius Thornwell overplaying the Syracuse wings.
Both Notice and Thornwell are quick enough to push the Orange’s offense well beyond the three-point line. That defense, however, makes the Gamecocks susceptible to the backdoor cut, which Syracuse successfully executed a couple of times on Saturday. Two factors help minimize this threat. First, the Gamecocks’ bigs play off their men to step in front of the ball-handler. Below we see Maik Kotsar and Chris Silva anticipate the drive from the weak side and step into the lane. Kotsar then cuts off the baseline and Silva closes in for the double-team, eliminating the opportunity for a spin move or step back into the paint.
The second factor that enables Martin’s team to overplay the passing lanes is they get excellent rim protection after penetration. Below we see Syracuse drive the baseline, but all five South Carolina defenders close in on the lane to provide ample help from the weak side.
The driver rises, but Silva is there to erase the shot.
Silva’s emergence as a legitimate rim protector makes South Carolina an elite defensive squad because of its combined ability to deny the passing lanes as well as protect the rim from mistakes. The sophomore currently sports a 12.8 percent block rate, a mark that ranks fourth in the SEC and makes him an invaluable component of the Gamecocks’ defense.
South Carolina’s defense could prove to be the catalyst for a successful run through the SEC and into March. Or, this year’s hot start could fade as the Gamecocks enter the throes of conference play and find teams more familiar with their style of play. Only time will tell, but with a pair of defensive performances like those put on Michigan and Syracuse last weekend, the USC from the SEC should be the one getting the call for the NCAA Tournament this year.