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.
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.
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. Dozier, Duane 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.