Mizzou heads on the road for their first SEC game away from Mizzou Arena and are taking on the surprise team of the season so far.
Get to know the South Carolina Gamecocks
South Carolina came into this season with a strong core group of juniors and seniors, a fiery coach and a non conference schedule that came straight out of the Mike Anderson school of scheduling. Don't challenge yourself too much, get some wins while you're working out the kinks and then head into conference play just brimming with confidence. This plan was similar to last year's and as a result the media and SEC basketball fans were a little bit skeptical about what SC was truly capable of after raring through the first portion of the non con undefeated at 9-0. Then they beat a strong Clemson team (who are blistering hot right now), and took down a decent Memphis team. Lo and behold, SC was 13-0 through the non conference season and sitting in the top 25.
The Cocks continued their strong play in conference by taking out Auburn on the road in their first conference game, and then defeating Vanderbilt at home this past Saturday in a close one. While Vandy has struggled, that's still a top 30 KenPom victory, and on paper, their best win to date. Then Wednesday happened. Wednesday night, SC traveled to Alabama and lost by 23, ending their undefeated season and got shot out of the gym. Looking at the game I do not believe this is indicative of what SC's season will look like, more of a Riley Norris went 8 for 11 from distance and there's really no coming back from that. For their part, SC only shot 17% from distance meaning there was no coming back and a loss was inevitable, sometimes teams just get hot.
BEST WIN(S): Clemson (75) 65-69; Vanderbilt (27) 69-65
WORST LOSS: Alabama (86) 73 - 50
And now time for a chat...
Q&A With Garnet and Black Attack
Chicken Hoops of G&B, and great friend to RMN has been kind enough to share some of his time and wisdom with us to help you, the reader, really get to know South Carolina just a little bit better...
RockMNation: South Carolina is having a tremendous season, to what do you attribute the turnaround?
ChickenHoops: I see four primary reasons the Gamecocks have put together 15 wins in their first 16 outings.
First, the Gamecocks didn't lose anything on defense. This shouldn't totally surprise, given they only lost one senior off last year's team - senior point guard Ty Johnson, who played excellent basketball but also was 6'3", 196 lbs. The Gamecocks replaced him with 6'6", 200 lbs. five-star freshman P.J. Dozier, whose still figuring it out on offense but is a force on defense. He's posting a 2.4% block rate and a 3.0% steal rate this year, both of which best Johnson's production last season. He's committing too many fouls still (4.9 per 40 min.) but he'll figure it out over time. Even with the fouls, he's been excellent.
Aside from that, this is the benefit of returning so many players - Carolina did lose two minor contributors (Demetrius Henry to transfer; walk-on Brian Steele to injury) from last year's squad, but otherwise brings back six contributors to last year's very good defense, all of whom are a year older and better. So it's not a huge surprise to me to see the defense still playing at a top-25 level.
Second, the offense came together more than most expected. Again, six members of Carolina's eight-man rotation returned, and the Gamecocks added a five-star recruit (Dozier) and a four-star recruit (Chris Silva, power forward). Part of the improvement comes from guys getting better - particularly post players Laimonas Chatkevicius and Mindaugas Kacinas.
But the primary uptick has come in 3P%. USC's shooting 36.9% from 3-point range (up from 30.1% last season), again despite only replacing one shooter from that squad - Dozier for Johnson. That obviously raises concerns that the improvement isn't real, but obviously it's held up for 16 games. That said, if Carolina regresses from long range, it's going to move from a top-30ish team back to a top-50ish team.
Two other reasons help explain the hot start - injuries and schedule. As to the first, the Gamecocks have been remarkably healthy this season, which makes life easy. As to the latter, when your toughest game thus far is either home against Vanderbilt or on the road against Clemson (for a total SOS calculated by Pomeroy at 223rd in the nation), you should win a lot of games.
RMN: How hot was Frank Martin's seat coming into this season after a strong nonconference season and not so great SEC season last year?
Hoops: To my mind it wasn't hot at all, though it might have gotten that way had this season fallen apart. People in Columbia seem to realize that Darrin Horn left the cupboard rather bare, and once Frank lost out on keeping Anthony Gil and Damontre Harris to transfers after he got hired, it was clear it'd be a long rebuild. I think the seat stayed cool based on the clear improvement the team put together last year, along with the fact that team returned a ton of talent this year and Frank continues to win recruiting battles that previous Gamecock coaches never got us involved in (Dozier and Thornwell being the two obvious examples).
South Carolina may not be as good a job as others in some senses, but if you're coming into a situation where you'll need time to get players in and implement your schemes, it's a great place to land - we've been patient with our coaches. Since Frank McGuire came on board in 1964, we've only given one coach fewer than four years, the abjectly terrible Steve Newton, who resigned under a cloud of recruiting violations.
RMN: Outside of Sindarious Thornwell, who should Mizzou fans be on the look out for to affect the game?
Hoops: Honestly, that's not the kind of team the Gamecocks are this year. Carolina rolls out five guys that average double-digit points per game (Thornwell, Kacinas, Chatkevicius, along with Michael Carrera and Duane Notice). You don't stop one thing on the offense - you stop the whole offense. They also balance well, as those guys all shoot at least 18% of the team's shots when they're on the floor. You can't stop one guy and stop this team.
That said, if you're looking for one player, I'd focus on Duane Notice, a guard who will come off the bench put play a starter's minutes. He's 26-64 from downtown (41%) and gets to the rim (and thus, the line) regularly. He's not done a great job of converting in the lane this season, but he's the guy who could go for 20 points if he's hot.
RMN: If there is one area where South Carolina appears vulnerable, what would that be?
Hoops: South Carolina lets you shoot 3s. Opponents take 41% of their shots against the Gamecocks from behind the arc, and score 37.1% of their points from that distance, 8th-highest in the nation. It's how we play.
This season, they've conceded over one point per possession just twice - against Hofstra, who went 17-34 from downtown (1.18 ppp), and Wednesday night against Alabama (1.12 ppp) who shot 13-27 from 3. If those teams had shot the NCAA average on those two nights, they each end up scoring less than a point a possession.
That said, there's no requirement that you shoot 34.5% from 3 every night. If I'm Missouri, I let it fire from deep and take my chances. But given Missouri shoots just 31.9% from 3 (260th in NCAA) and only takes 30.8% of their field goals from that distance (267th in NCAA), that may not be a plan they can run. And if they can't, Missouri is in big trouble.
RMN: What's your prediction for the final score and how the game goes?
Hoops: Missouri will struggle to score against the Gamecocks, so this game stays close based on whether its defense can stifle Carolina. South Carolina beats teams the way Frank Martin normally does - they offensive rebound like crazy and get to the free throw line. They've put up at least 1.00 point per possession in every game but three - against Western Carolina (where the starters sat the last 10 minutes of the second half in a 23-point win), Vanderbilt (a top-20 defense), and Wednesday night against Alabama, where threes decided the game.
I don't see Missouri holding Carolina below 1.00ppp or eclipsing that mark itself. Give me the Gamecocks, 79-65.
Thanks to Chicken Hoops for taking the time to respond to my questions, he's a great follow on Twitter, so be sure to check him out and all the good work being done over at Garnet and Black Attack for all your SC needs.
If you're a Mizzou fan, then you know what a Frank Martin team can do when everything is working for them. And right now, South Carolina is doing everything right. Martin likes to run his teams around a strong defense that gets you out of your comfort zone and makes you earn the points they are willing to let you have. Right now, they are 10th in 2 point defense, 46th in block percentage per game and 83rd in Free throw percentage. So if you're not making your shots, you're probably getting the ball swatted out of the paint on a regular basis and you're not going to the line. If that weren't enough the Cocks will turn you over at a regular rate, sitting at 40th in the country and if you do get up a shot there's a strong likelihood that you're going to miss it. If there is one area where South Carolina can be exploited, that would be from deep. This team does not guard the three point line well at all. In that way they're similar to Mizzou.
From the offensive side of the ball, again this being the quintessential Frank Martin team, they rebound their misses better than most teams in the country. And with them not being a great shooting team, this helps a great deal. Typically when teams get a good share of their boards, they're going to get fouled and South Carolina excels in this like no other. The Cocks are third in the country right now in getting to the line and converting their free throws, so if you're going to hack them, they're going to make you pay.
As Chickenhoops noted, South Carolina does not have just one guy that's going to beat you, they're typical starting five is composed of three seniors and two juniors. Guys you probably remember from the past three years, Sindarius Thronwell, Duane Notice and Michael Carrera, throw in freshman phenom PJ Dozier and you've got a team that can compete with anyone in the SEC. South Carolina does not have the deepest bench but it's almost been unnecessary at this point since their core 7 aren't getting into foul trouble, and your team is. Honestly, this team is the epitome of what you want in a team to pull for.
All that said, let's take a look at the three keys to a Mizzou victory:
1) Shoot the Three Ball
As I said above, South Carolina is really only vulnerable to one thing and that's a team getting hot from deep like Alabama did. Looking at all the numbers, it's the best path to a Mizzou victory, so if Namon wants to wake up from his funk and have a Florida type game tomorrow, that would be great. Perhaps if Mizzou can get hot from outside, that rattles the Gamecocks and they start having flashbacks from Wednesday night and they get out of their game plan.
2) Protect the Ball
Against Arkansas on Wednesday night, Mizzou did not do too badly valuing the ball against what you would expect from a Mike Anderson team. They turned the ball over only 14 times which is damn good considering what Arkansas will normally induce. So, if Mizzou can limit their turnovers like they did on Tuesday night, their chances of staying in the game and stealing their first win on the road dramatically increase.
3) Speed the Game Up
South Carolina likes to move at a slower pace than is typical, and they are going to do everything in their power to dictate the way this game flows, so take them out of their comfort zone and try and run with the guards. Send out Phillips and Clark and TI to move quickly up and down the floor, push the pace and perhaps you can get SC in some tough spots.
As it stands, this game does not look all that winnable from a Mizzou side of things, especially with it being on the road, SC coming off an embarrassing loss to Alabama and all the nonsense that's gone on with the NCAA this past week. On top of that, this SC team does not have many weakness that our Tigers are going to be able to exploit, they're not perfect by any means, but from 1 - 5 they're very close. The best way for Mizzou to get through the distractions is just to play and go out there and try to have some fun.
KenPom has this as a 78-64 win for South Carolina, I think that's a bit close actually and see it more like South Carolina 84 - Mizzou 60. I just think Mizzou is too young and still a little too undisciplined to hang with a team who are playing as well as South Carolina is right now.