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Hoops Preview: Mizzou faces a tussle at South Carolina

The Gamecocks brand of basketball under Frank Martin is defined by defensive tenacity, toughness on the glass and just enough offense to get over the hump. If Missouri wants a road win, they’ll have to wrestle it away.

NCAA Basketball: Clemson at South Carolina Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

After eleven years of encountering Frank Martin’s teams, there’s comfort in knowing what’s entailed in each meeting.

By now, we take it as a given that his teams are defined by toughness, tenacity on the defensive end, physicality on the glass and, at least since he arrived at South Carolina, scattershot offense.

Now, that might read like less-than-veiled criticism, but it shouldn’t be taken that way. The 52-year-old Martin’s brand has yielded a 118-97 record and a Final Four run two years ago. If Martin stepped aside, his tenure would likely rank just behind Frank McGuire’s run in Columbia, which ended in 1980 and when the program was still an independent.

The task is the other Columbia is not for the faint of heart, either, and at times the culture around the program has appeared to rankle the seemingly irascible Martin. At times, he’s vented to reporters and to fans via Twitter about attendance issues, especially in the wake of the program reaching its pinnacle. This past spring, a report surfaced that Martin was interested in UConn’s vacancy, which Martin vehemently denied.

On the court, the past two seasons have been marked by the kind of roster churn that makes consistency tough to achieve at a place like Carolina. This season, the Gamecocks rank 219th in nationally in experience and 140th in continuity of minutes, per KenPom. Chris Silva, Maik Kotsar and Hassani Gravett are veteran anchors, but Martin imported Tre Campbell as a graduate transfer from Georgetown and fed early minutes to freshmen Keyshawn Bryant, T.J. Moss and A.J. Lawson.

Since arriving from Kansas State, seasoning a roster’s been an elusive goal. In only one season has Carolina ranked better than 200th in experience, while continuity was only stable in his third and fourth seasons on the job. Yet there were still core pieces in Duane Notice, Mindaugas Kacinas, Michael Carrera and, without a doubt, Sindarius Thornwell, who was the SEC’s Player of the Year in 2017.

Finally, there’s the fact that Martin’s offenses have left something to be desired in the way of productivity.

South Carolina | Half Court Efficiency

Season Halfcourt PPP NCAA Rank P5 Rank SEC rank
Season Halfcourt PPP NCAA Rank P5 Rank SEC rank
2019 0.814 300 64 14
2018 0.831 304 63 14
2017 0.833 283 58 12
2016 0.862 219 53 9
2015 0.79 309 59 12
2014 0.819 298 62 14
2013 0.795 270 59 12
Synergy Sports

Taken together, Martin’s teams have skewed young, relied on a clutch of crucial veterans and leaned heavily on muddying games up with defense to offset stilted execution on the other end of the floor. After a 5-7 stretch in non-conference, the sustainability of that style looked perilous — until the Gamecocks rallied from 14 points down at Florida and upset 14th-ranked Mississippi State in overtime last week.

No doubt, the Gamecocks have their flaws, but if the start of SEC play teaches us anything, it’s that aesthetics don’t have any bearing on the outcome. South Carolina and Martin embrace who they are and how they approach each game. Both sides know what will unfold over 40 minutes once the ball is tipped.

The only question is whether you survive the grappling match when it’s over.

The Scout

NCAA Basketball: South Carolina at Florida Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Starters

Position Missouri (9-4, 0-1 SEC) South Carolina (7-7, 2-0)
Position Missouri (9-4, 0-1 SEC) South Carolina (7-7, 2-0)
PG Jordan Geist (Sr., 6-2, 180) Tre Campbell (Sr., 6-0, 185)
CG Mark Smith (So., 6-4, 220) Hassani Gravett (Sr., 6-2, 188)
WING Javon Pickett (Fr., 6-4, 207) Keyshawn Bryant (Fr., 6-6, 190)
CF Kevin Puryear (Sr., 6-7, 238) Chris Silva (Sr., 6-9, 234)
POST Jeremiah Tilmon (So., 6-10, 250) Maik Kotsar (Jr., 6-11, 264)

Note: These starting lineups are projected.

When Missouri has the ball...

Missouri Offense | The Tigers are constrained. South Carolina is among the nation’s best, ranking in the 97th percentile, for defending pick-and-rolls, and they have three sturdy bigs who can jostle and tussle on the low block. So Mizzou’s best option is to punish the Gamecocks from long distance — a decision that’s justified by the fact Campbell, Gravett, Bryant and Lawson all struggle to close down space on spot-up shooters.

For Missouri, setting ball screens or feeding the post may not be geared toward generating shots around the rim. Instead, those actions force the Gamecocks to rotate and, potentially, put their guards in a bind. If they do put those wings in scramble mode, the Tigers have a couple passers capable of exploiting disarray.

First, there’s Jordan Geist, who ranks second among high-usage SEC guards for passing out of pick-and-rolls (1.175 PPP), all while valuing the ball (10.0 turnover percentage) as a distributor. Just last year, the guard doled out six assists and put up a 138.0 offensive rating in the Tigers’ 11-point triumph against the Gamecocks.

Yet the more surprising option is Jeremiah Tilmon. Quietly, the sophomore’s become one the nation’s better passers out of the low block, ranking 19th nationally — in the same company as Ethan Happ, Bruno Fernando and Kaleb Wesson — when feeding spot-up shooters. And after struggling to handle the pressure teams ran at him early in the second, Tilmon now leads the country — when you account for possessions and efficiency — passing out hard-double teams.

Seriously, take a gander.

Steady Under Pressure

Player Team Poss PPP FG% aFG% %TO %Score
Player Team Poss PPP FG% aFG% %TO %Score
Jeremiah Tilmon Missouri 23 1.522 65% 87.50% 8.70% 56.50%
Jessie Govan Georgetown 23 1.522 63.20% 81.60% 4.30% 65.20%
Emmanuel Nzekwesi Oral Roberts 33 1.515 60% 80% 6.10% 57.60%
Matt Rafferty Furman 30 1.467 55.20% 74.10% 0% 56.70%
Eric Carter Delaware 28 1.321 50% 66.10% 0% 50%
Ethan Happ Wisconsin 41 1.293 48.70% 62.80% 0% 51.20%
Bruno Fernando Maryland 37 1.216 48.50% 63.60% 10.80% 43.20%
Jordon Varnado Troy 22 1.182 45% 60% 4.50% 45.50%
Nick Ward Michigan State 24 1.125 52.40% 64.30% 12.50% 45.80%
Andrew Fleming Maine 26 1.115 47.80% 58.70% 11.50% 42.30%

You’ve likely heard us beat on the same idea over and over again: Tilmon’s presence alone alters the geometry and intentions of opposing defenses.

Even if Tilmon doesn’t dominate solo matchups against Silva, Kotsar or Felipe Haase, the ability to force help defenders to respond to his post touches makes his floor presence vital. Racking up early fouls may hurt MU’s ball movement and spacing, making uncontested looks from the 3-point harder to come by.

South Carolina Defense | What keeps Martin’s teams afloat is hard-nosed on-ball defense and wiping the glass. This year’s iteration is respectable but not of the same caliber Martin’s had over the past several seasons. To be sure, they do a phenomenal job covering pick-and-rolls, they don’t break down in isolations and they have an elite rim protector in Silva.

Yet they also allow nine unguarded jumpers per game, which ranks 308th nationally, per Synergy Sports, which partially explains how opponents are shooting drilling 35.7 percent of their 3-point attempts. And if those shots don’t drop, there’s a decent chance you can collect the miss and get a stickback.

Campbell, Gravett and Bryant hem in dribblers in high ball screens and force tough pull-ups, but the question — raised above — is whether the Tigers are looking to score or have a shooter fill in behind the driver while another relocates on a wing.

K.J. Santos’ role bears watching, too. Silva, the reigning SEC Defensive Player of the Year, can stick with dribblers in isolation, recover to contest pick-and-pops and wall up on the block, but one slight weakness is closing out. Does Missouri utilize him more than Kevin Puryear to space the floor and try to exploit Silva when he’s in recovery mode? And does Santos pose enough of a threat to pull the SEC’s best shot-blocker away from the rim?

Of course, this all assumes Missouri holds on to the ball. No, the Gamecocks’ transition game isn’t elite, but they’ll be happy to use takeaways to bleed away valuable possessions slowly.

Missouri offense vs. South Carolina defense

Team Adj. Eff. Poss Length eFG% TO% OR% FTA/FGA 3P% 2P% FT% Blk% Stl%
Team Adj. Eff. Poss Length eFG% TO% OR% FTA/FGA 3P% 2P% FT% Blk% Stl%
Missouri 105.8 (120) 18.8 (326) 51.4 (158) 20.7 (275) 30.9 (99) 32.2 (215) 39.1 (23) 46.3 (290) 68.7 (218) 8.9 (154) 8.0 (8.4)
South Carolina 97.6 (77) 17.8 (292) 49.5 (135) 21.0 (178) 28.0 (159) 38.4 (276) 37.7 (308) 44.6 (23) 72.2 (279) 13.1 (43) 8.9 (162)

When South Carolina has the ball...

South Carolina Offense | As the backcourt goes, so go the Gamecocks, and Martin’s rotation is limited now that Moss has undergone season-ending ankle surgery and Justin Minaya works back from a knee injury.

Campbell, a graduate transfer from Georgetown, is the lone option at lead guard, and he’s struggled mightily against quality opponents, posting a 76.2 offensive rating in games versus Tier A and Tier B teams, per KenPom. Bryant is a long, athletic and at his best when sprinting the wings in transition, but his inability to knock down jumpers results in defenders sinking and playing him as a driver. Lastly, freshman Lawson’s usage is high, but he’s only hitting jumpers at a 29.2-percent clip and isn’t much better when he gets to the rim.

About the only reliable cog is Gravett, who’s 3-point stroke has been on target against top-100 foes (42.9 percent) and early in SEC play (46.2 percent). He can also rely on a runner when he blows by a defender rushing to contest those shots.

The lesson we can draw from South Carolina’s fast start is that average outside shooting (35.7 3FG%), steady production from Silva and Kotsar and stingy defense will keep them in games.

Inside, Kotsar makes a living setting up shop on the left block and looking to work over his left shoulder for a soft hook shot. Yet he can also step out to the perimeter and occasionally drive the ball or, if he’s so inclined, a wide-open spot-up 3-ball. Like Silva, the Estonian’s game isn’t flashy, but he’s strong enough and possesses poise to finish tough plays.

Missouri Defense | Twelve months ago, the Tigers were outscored by 16 points inside the arc, but a blistering night from behind the arc masked the disparity. Oh, and Jontay Porter assembled one of his better outings to offset a foul-plagued night from Tilmon.

On paper, Missouri owns a slight edge. They’re among the best in the country guarding spot-ups, which is ideal when trying to blot out Gravett’s influence. And Tilmon’s presence on the post in a pairing means the Tigers own reliable rim protection — even if their block percentage doesn’t reflect it.

Sitting down and guarding isn’t the issue, but limiting Carolina’s second-chance points and free-throws are two areas to keep an eye on in the stat column. While his free-throw rate is down, Silva still earns plenty of trips to the line and Haase is able to draw contact, too. Together, they average about nine attempts per game and sink 74 percent of them. Meantime, Carolina’s currently fourth in offensive rebound percentage (36.2) during SEC play.

South Carolina offense vs. Missouri defense

Team Adj. Eff. Poss Length eFG% TO% OR% FTA/FGA 3P% 2P% FT% Blk% Stl%
Team Adj. Eff. Poss Length eFG% TO% OR% FTA/FGA 3P% 2P% FT% Blk% Stl%
South Carolina 103.5 (163) 15.4 (23) 46.9 (291) 19.8 (219) 31.7 (80) 34.7 (131) 31.0 (285) 47.1 (266) 70.2 (167) 8.6 (135) 8.9 (195)
Missouri 97.9 (81) 18.1 (318) 49.4 (134) 19.6 (141) 26.9 (108) 31.8 (131) 33.0 (130) 49.4 (151) 64.4 (20) 6.1 (310) 7.8 (249)

The Match-Up

NCAA Basketball: South Carolina at Florida Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Chris Silva | Forward

Year Ht./Wt. Pts. Reb. Ast. FG% 3FG% FT% ORTG eFG% TS%
Year Ht./Wt. Pts. Reb. Ast. FG% 3FG% FT% ORTG eFG% TS%
Sr. 6-0/234 12.8 7.1 1.4 46.7 35.7 72.9 99.7 46.0 52.8
ESPN, KenPom

When Chris Silva explored the possibility of jumping to the NBA, one comp popped up early on: Pascal Siakam.

“(Siakam) is just one example of someone in that mold, someone who can help himself with his sheer energy,” ESPN draft analyst Jonathan Givony said at the time.

Before his break out this season with the Toronto Raptors, Siakam was an intriguing component of a young bench mob backing up a veteran roster, biding his time after going off the board 27th overall in the 2016 NBA draft. Three years ago, though, he was an under-the-radar prospect who gained buzz after a stellar senior campaign at New Mexico.

Today, Siakam’s become a reliable spot-up shooter, who can put the ball on the deck and morph into a crafty driver. Working off the ball, he’s savvy about when to cut and sprints the floor in transition. Yet, his game once bore a striking resemblance to Silva.

Nearing the midway point of his senior campaign, Silva’s scoring and rebounding have dipped, but he’s still swatting shots at a rate that helped him earn postseason honors. And while his overall efficiency has slipped, he’s actually converting more attempts around the rim.

However, his game still remains mostly dependent on operating around the low block. Posting up on the left side of the line, Silva often pounds out a dribble and makes a move over his left shoulder. On the opposite side, he faces up his defender for a jumper or drives the baseline. The only time you have to account for him as a shooter is when he trails the play for a spot-up 3-pointer. As a defender, he’s still phenomenal. He can defend the post, contest pick-and-pops and hold his own when playing in space during isolation.

It’s unclear, though, whether Silva can take the next step. It would mean adding a proven perimeter stroke and showcasing the ability to create offense for himself. And as a passer, Synergy grades him out as average at best.

Yet those questions aren’t of pressing importance in the here and now. For Martin and the Gamecocks, the critiques are few and far between.

KenPom predicts...

South Carolina 71, Missouri 69 | We know what we’re getting in this one — two hours of body blows and offensive execution that’s not always easy on the eyes. Last season, Missouri won by 11 but only made one more shot from the floor, which is what happens when you knock down nine more 3-pointers than your opponent. As often as we say it, the mantra bears repeating: If Missouri defends with consistency, values the ball and shoots an average clip from deep, they’ll jet back home with a road win.