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.

Coach Frank Martin and his Gamecocks are defensive stalwarts.

Frank Martin’s Gamecocks are defensive stalwarts.

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.
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Stifling Defense Leads South Carolina to Hot Start

Posted by David Changas on November 30th, 2016

South Carolina was bitterly disappointed to not make the NCAA Tournament last season after posting a 23-8 overall record, and given the departures of three key contributors from that squad — Michael Carrera, Laimonas Chatkevicius and Mindaugas Kacinas — not much was expected this season. Based upon last week’s thrashing of two Top 25 teams, however, expectations in Columbia have quickly recalibrated. On Thanksgiving Eve, the Gamecocks allowed Michigan to make only eight two-point field goals on their way to a 61-46 trouncing of the Wolverines. For anyone who may have thought that home win was a fluke, South Carolina then waltzed into the Barclays Center on Saturday afternoon and similarly throttled previously-undefeated Syracuse — again giving up only eight two-point field goals — on its way to a 64-50 manhandling of the Orange.

Sindarius Thornwell will continue to be a key piece for Frank Martin in 2016-17 (heraldonline.com).

Sindarius Thornwell is has been a breakout player for South Carolina. (heraldonline.com)

Frank Martin clubs define themselves on the defensive end, and this team’s success in that regard has been staggering. The Gamecocks currently rank 11th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, per KenPom, and have had only one game — a season-opening 85-76 win over Louisiana Tech — in which they have given up more than a point per possession (PPP). In contrast, Michigan garnered only 0.74 points per possession while Syracuse’s output at 0.77 points per possession was only slightly less dreadful. The Gamecocks have routinely been one of the SEC’s most efficient defensive teams since Martin’s arrival four years ago, but given his roster’s attrition, no one saw this level of production coming. An overtime one-point win over Monmouth may have initially indicated that the Gamecocks could be in for a long year, but last week’s resume-boosters should serve them well on Selection Sunday. December games with Seton Hall, Clemson and Memphis should also help. Read the rest of this entry »

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SEC Team Capsules: Bottom Tier (#14-#10)

Posted by Brian Joyce on November 4th, 2016

With Halloween still fresh on our minds, there is nothing scarier than the bottom tier of the SEC. There are tigers, tigers, even more tigers, and there is nothing more frightening than a grumpy Frank Martin or a Johnny Jones-led offense without the services of Ben Simmons. If none of that sends chills up your spine, just think about Missouri basketball. If you were lucky enough to get through Halloween night with some leftover candy, the days that follow usually involve filtering through your stash to devour the best of the rest. Sometimes you are lucky enough to find a full size candy bar or those Halloween Kit-Kats (which are the best, by the way) hiding near the bottom. But more often than not, you end up with a skeleton pencil or those disgusting brown globs of goo wrapped in black and orange wrappers. This post is less of the delicious Kit-Kats that disappeared within seconds of returning back home, and more of the box of raisins that sat in the old lady down the street’s pantry for a decade. Let’s unveil our series of team previews beginning with the bottom tier of the SEC (#14-#10).

AT A GLANCE

#14 Missouri Tigers

Kim Anderson Has a Lot of Work Still Ahead in Columbia (USA Today Images)

Kim Anderson Has a Lot of Work Still Ahead in Columbia (USA Today Images)

  • 2015-16 overall record (SEC) – 10-21 (3-15)
  • Key Returnee – Kevin Puryear, 11.5 PPG, 4.6 RPG
  • Key Newcomer – Willie Jackson, 6’6” freshman forward
  • Team Analysis: Wes Clark was dismissed; Namon Wright, Tramaine Isabell and Jakeenan Gant transferred; and Ryan Rosburg graduated, pretty much leaving the cupboard bare for Kim Anderson’s third year. Missouri’s defense was bad and its offense was even worse. There is nothing to suggest that this year will be any better in Columbia.
  • Burning Question: Can Missouri protect its home floor in non-conference games? Last season, the Tigers won seven of their eight non-conference games at Mizzou Arena (losing only to NC State). The home slate wasn’t exactly a murderer’s row of college basketball powerhouses (with Wofford, Maryland-Eastern Shore, Arkansas State, Northern Illinois, Nebraska-Omaha, Arkansas-Pine Bluff, and Savannah State making the trip), but neither is the 2016-17 schedule. Missouri welcomes Alabama A&M, Northwestern State, North Carolina Central, Western Kentucky, Miami (OH), Arizona (well, they can’t all be cupcakes), Eastern Illinois, and Lipscomb to Columbia, meaning that if Anderson’s squad has any hopes of getting to double-figure wins this season it has to enter January without any embarrassing losses. Something about this team suggests that won’t happen.

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64 Thoughts on the 2016-17 SEC Season: Part I

Posted by Brian Joyce on October 26th, 2016

The beginning of another college basketball season is already in progress, and with it an opportunity to start talking about SEC hoops again. The SEC last season managed just three bids to the NCAA Tournament, but with a new year brings optimism that more teams can break into the First Round field of 64. To tip off the SEC microsite, here are 64 musings, opinions, thoughts, predictions, questions, and observations about the 2016-17 season [Ed. Note: Technically, 32 since this is part one of two with the second part coming tomorrow]:

John Calipari is confident once again as Kentucky shapes up to be the head of the SEC in 2016-17 (AP).

John Calipari is confident once again as Kentucky shapes up to be the head of the SEC in 2016-17. (AP)

  1. Kentucky is the clear favorite to win the SEC this year, but the big question mark about the Wildcats in the preseason revolves around their three-point accuracy. It says here that this will be the best perimeter shooting squad John Calipari has put on the court in Lexington since his 2011 Final Four team.
  2. Wildcat sophomore guard Isaiah Briscoe shot just 13.5 percent from beyond the arc last year, allowing opposing defenses to sag to the middle on him. But the limited sample of shooting we have seen so far suggests that he will no longer be an offensive liability shooting the ball this season.
  3. Briscoe was also 9-of-12 from the free throw line in Friday night’s Blue-White game, indicating that his 46 percent accuracy from the stripe last season could also be a thing of the past. Read the rest of this entry »
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Despite Disappointment, South Carolina’s Arrow Still Pointing Up

Posted by Greg Mitchell on March 23rd, 2016

South Carolina‘s season came to an end on Monday night with a loss in the NIT. For a program that has been to a national postseason tournament only 18 other times, playing in a March event of any kind is a success on its own. Last week Frank Martin called missing out on the NCAA Tournament a “tough pill to swallow” for a team that put together an undefeated non-conference season, won a school record 24 regular season games, and went 11-7 in the SEC. That disappointment may have carried over into the NIT, as the Gamecocks beat overmatched High Point last week before sleepwalking through a 17-point second round home loss to Georgia Tech.

Sindarius Thornwell will continue to be a key piece for Frank Martin in 2016-17 (heraldonline.com).

Sindarius Thornwell will continue to be a key piece for Frank Martin in 2016-17 (heraldonline.com).

The Selection Committee’s snub wasn’t a happy day for South Carolina basketball. “It was hurtful; it was disappointing,” senior Laimonas Chatkevicius said at the time. The governing body’s decision represented the first time that a power conference team had been left out of the Dance after winning at least 24 games, but the sting of that disappointment shouldn’t mitigate the positive momentum the Gamecocks built this season. Martin’s team nearly doubled its conference win total from six to 11 and has posted top-40 KenPom defenses in each of the last two years. Being a regularly competitive SEC team (including a win over co-champion Texas A&M) is just not something this program typically does.

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Handing Out the SEC Awards

Posted by David Changas on March 9th, 2016

Unlike the coaches, the SEC microsite writers stick to a rule of putting only five members on their all-conference team. Clearly, making our group should mean more to those selected than having the coaches pick them.

All-SEC Team

Tyler Ulis is playing at an MVP level (Getty)

Tyler Ulis is the hands-down choice for SEC Player of the Year. (Getty)

  • Tyler Ulis, Kentucky (SEC Player of the Year)
  • Jamal Murray, Kentucky
  • Ben Simmons, LSU
  • Jalen Jones, Texas A&M
  • Stefan Moody, Ole Miss

Credible cases could be made for Damian Jones, Kevin Punter, Retin Obasohan, and Michael Carrera, among others, but the five selected stood out as the five best.

SEC Player of the Year

Tyler Ulis, Kentucky. The diminutive Kentucky point guard successfully made the leap from role player on a 38-win team of all-stars to the leader of one of the nation’s best backcourts. Playing almost every important minute of every contest, Ulis averaged 16.6 points and a league-leading 7.4 assists per game. But it was the way in which he could dominate a game at only 5’9″ that separates him from the pack. If the Wildcats are going to make their usual run later this month, Ulis will be the catalyst that make it happen.

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SEC Saturday Storylines: Is Alabama Really On The Bubble?

Posted by Greg Mitchell on February 12th, 2016

This Saturday will contain more conference title drama in the span of just a few hours than the SEC has had over the past two seasons. The top four teams play each other on a day that could go a long way toward determining which squad arrives in Nashville as the SEC regular season champion. Here are three stories to keep track of with a lot at stake this weekend.

P.J. Dozier and South Carolina downed LSU to set up a crucial match up with Kentucky (thestate.com).

P.J. Dozier and South Carolina downed LSU to set up a crucial matchup with Kentucky (thestate.com).

  1. Which team will have a leg up in the title race on Sunday morning? With the top of the SEC standings muddled as we enter mid-February, the schedule-makers have smiled on us this weekend. KentuckySouth Carolina and LSU all sit at 8-3 with Texas A&M and Florida right behind that trio at 7-4. The Wildcats and Gamecocks will meet in Columbia while the Tigers and Aggies face off in Baton Rouge. The most pressure of the weekend might be on Billy Kennedy’s club, since a fifth straight SEC loss — a situation nobody would have thought possible just a few weeks ago — could put an end to the Aggies’ championship hopes. South Carolina might have the most to gain, however. A win for the Gamecocks could put Frank Martin’s team in a commanding position since its remaining schedule is the most manageable. South Carolina’s remaining road games? At Missouri, Mississippi State and Arkansas. That’s hardly a murderer’s row, even with the trip to Bud Walton thrown in there. There’s a lot of basketball still to come this season, but we may look back on this Saturday as the most pivotal day in the SEC race. Read the rest of this entry »
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Is It Time to Worry About South Carolina?

Posted by Greg Mitchell on February 4th, 2016

In a cramped spare room somewhere in Stegeman Coliseum, Frank Martin was asked about whether a loss to Georgia concerned him. “We’re 22 games into this. Who we are as a team has already been formed.” So, 22 games in, who are the Gamecocks? If you’re playing word association for this season, you might think “South Carolina, success.” That wouldn’t be wrong. The Gamecocks had an undefeated non-conference season, are in the SEC race, have been in and out of the polls and are easily Martin’s best team at South Carolina. But even at 19-3, there are reasons to be concerned about the Gamecocks going forward. 

Are the Gamecocks in trouble despite their great record? (rantsports.com).

Are Frank Martin’s Gamecocks in trouble, despite their great record? (rantsports.com).

In isolation, Tuesday night’s loss in Athens is not that big of a deal. The Bulldogs were desperate for a good win and the Gamecocks presented a rare opportunity to get that. Yet South Carolina was beginning a brutal four-game stretch – at least for SEC standards – against Georgia, Texas A&M (road), LSU (home) and Kentucky (home). With no marquee non-conference wins and an uneven 1-2 road SEC record going into the game, the Gamecocks were out to prove their lofty record had some substance behind it. The loss to the Bulldogs didn’t get this crucial stretch started on a good note, and also raised concerns about how the South Carolina offense will hold up against better defenses.

The Gamecock defense, like that of many Martin-coached teams, has been predictably excellent (KenPom #27). South Carolina’s offense has lagged behind, however – particularly against the better defenses it has played. The chart below shows that the Gamecocks worst shooting nights have come against some of the better defenses that they’ve faced. This may not be a groundbreaking discovery; after all, most teams don’t as well against good defenses because those defenses are, well, good. But the concern is that South Carolina hasn’t been able to do enough against the better defenses it has faced to take advantage of its great defense. That’s what makes its admittedly lackluster offensive effort against the Bulldogs puzzling. The plan against Georgia was simple: attack the middle of the Bulldogs’ zone and make Yante Maten defend the ball handler to try to get him in foul trouble. Somehow though, the Gamecocks generated their third fewest free throw attempts of the year (19) and struggled mightily to score from anywhere in the first half. “We came out lazy and chillin’, and it got us beat,” Sindarius Thornwell told The State after the game. A similar effort in College Station on Saturday against an elite, long Texas A&M that forces plenty of mistakes will not get the Gamecocks the statement win they may desperately need.

Screenshot 2016-02-03 at 10.34.52 PM

South Carolina’s offense depends heavily on getting to the line (third highest point distribution from free throws in the NCAA) and creating offense off of turnovers. Whether or not this formula is sustainable is a debatable point, but it goes without saying that the Gamecocks need to be constantly looking to drive off screens and create contact near the basket, especially against better competition. Laimonas Chatkevicius and Mindaugas Kacinas have been less effective offensively in conference play, and Chris Silva hasn’t shown much on offense yet. One solution could be going to more three-guard lineups that feature some combination of Thornwell, P.J. DozierDuane Notice and Marcus Stroman. This could also require more minutes from freshman guard Jamall Gregory, who Martin has not shown much confidence in yet. The downside of getting more shooting and slashing on the court is that it takes away the Gamecocks’ size, which has been such an asset to them this season (ninth best offensive rebounding rate in the country).

Being able to find this balance is going to be crucial for Martin. Between its great defense and experienced core, South Carolina has a lot going for it. Conventional wisdom says a team that has reached 19-3 at this point in the season in a power conference is a lock for the NCAA tournament, but what if the Gamecocks drop the next three games? They don’t have any great non-conference wins to fall back on and have the weakest in-league strength of schedule in the SEC to this point. Legitimate questions could be asked about whether they are truly worthy of a bid. To this point, this season has been a validation tour for the ground level rebuild Martin had to put together in Columbia. It would be a shame for him, the program and seniors that have been there from the start – like Michael Carrera, Chatkevicius and Kacinas, if the season didn’t end with a trip to the tournament.

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SEC Week That Was: Volume VII

Posted by Greg Mitchell on January 12th, 2016

The SEC began last week with the long-awaited Ben Simmons against Kentucky showcase and ended with the annual reappearance of John Calipari to the Nets rumors. Here’s what happened in between.

Team of the Week

It was an exciting first week for Andy Kennedy and Ole Miss in the Pavilion (uga.rivals.com).

It was an exciting first week for Andy Kennedy and Ole Miss in the Pavilion (uga.rivals.com).

Sign Andy Kennedy up for a few more weeks like that. The Rebels had loud, capacity crowds for their first two games in the Pavilion and the players on the floor didn’t disappoint. Ole Miss first overcame an eight-point halftime deficit to down Alabama, and then erased Georgia’s four-point lead with less than a minute to eke by the Bulldogs. As usual, Stefan Moody played a starring role in both wins, including a whirlwind game-winning layup against Georgia. The contributions of Sebastian Saiz shouldn’t be overlooked either, as he continued to be an active force in the paint with a pair of double-doubles. The Ole Miss program has some serious energy surrounding it right now.

Player of the Week

You could hand this to a number of guys — Moody, Saiz and (as always) Simmons come to mind. But this week’s honor goes to Anthlon Bell whose torrid three-point shooting and 51 points over two games led Arkansas to home wins over Vanderbilt and Mississippi State. Bell spent his first three seasons in Fayetteville as a solid but unspectacular option that Mike Anderson utilized in short bursts. With increased playing time during his senior season, he’s exploded in production. Bell leads the SEC in three-point percentage (47.1%) despite taking the third most three-point shots (104) in the conference.

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Don’t Look Now But The Gamecocks Are Rolling

Posted by Andrew Gripshover on December 28th, 2015

It sounded like he was chewing on some kind of hard candy as he ripped his team apart. You might remember the press conference if you read or heard the words. One line stood out: “I’ve been doing this for 28 years — nine of which was a junior varsity high school coach. That means I dealt with 14-year olds. I’ve never been more embarrassed to call myself a basketball coach than I am today.” That was South Carolina coach Frank Martin on Valentine’s Day in 2013 after a humiliating 64-46 home loss to LSU, a fifth consecutive defeat that dropped his first team of Gamecocks to .500 overall (12-12) and an embarrassing 2-9 in the SEC. Fast forward almost three years to today, and you might find a kinder, happier Martin. At least a little bit. South Carolina is one of five unbeatens left in Division 1 college basketball, as they head into the final week of 2015 at 11-0 after a 75-61 pre-Christmas win over St. John’s in Uncasville, CT. So how did we get from there to here in just two and a half years? And can these Gamecocks survive the rigors of conference play?

Frank Martin is extremely hard on his players, but for good reason. South Carolina, a program that was not in good shape when Martin took over, is currently one of only a handful of unbeaten teams left in college basketball. (Getty)

Frank Martin has things humming in Columbia. (Photo: Getty)

South Carolina finished Martin’s first season 14-18 and 4-14 in the SEC. It was almost exactly the same the second season; the 2013-2014 Gamecocks won the exact same number of games overall (14) and just one more in SEC play (five). But last season, while the SEC win total again only went up by one, South Carolina finished 17-16; its first record over .500 since 2009 and only its second in nine years. Last year’s team also finally won games against quality opposition, beating Oklahoma State and Iowa State in the non-conference and sweeping Georgia (an NCAA Tournament team) in league play. This year’s team should be 12-0 (D-3 Francis Marion is the Gamecocks’ only remaining 2015 opponent) when Memphis comes to town on Jan. 2. Back in that angry 2013 press conference, Martin most notably called out his team’s effort and toughness. He said they weren’t working hard enough to make shots (that 2013-2014 team finished 248th in 3-point percentage and 244th in 2-point percentage) and even compared everyone except Bruce Ellington to zombies. In short, he was extremely frustrated that they weren’t playing like a Frank Martin basketball team.

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