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Hoops Preview: Missouri returns home for a date with South Carolina

It’s always an ugly outing when Frank Martin comes to town. Can Missouri come out on top before heading back on the road?

NCAA Basketball: Texas A&M at South Carolina Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

Missouri fans are well aware of the delays COVID-19 can inflict upon a college basketball season. After all, the Tigers are only one game removed from their own 11-day pause. But those 11 days must seem like a brief hiccup to South Carolina fans, who have only been witness to six Gamecock outings on the young season, only three of which have come since December 5. And as if that wasn’t enough of a shock to the system, coach Frank Martin has become one of the unfortunate (but rare) people to have been diagnosed with COVID-19 twice.

Even so, the Gamecocks don’t have much reason to hang their heads. When they’ve played, they’ve been decent. They grappled LSU in a five-point road loss this past weekend and played Houston tough when the two teams met in early December. In a sense, it’s a typical Frank Martin team — tough as nails, even if the nails are a bit rusty.

In truth, Tuesday’s match up with Missouri is one of the few times this season when South Carolina has had the opportunity to pick up steam. The Gamecocks played their first game in 10 days this past Saturday, a layoff that mirrored Missouri’s almost to the day. It comes in the middle of a tough three-game stretch for Martin’s outfit, who will follow Tuesday’s game with a trip home to take on a revived Auburn and Sharife Cooper.

But South Carolina, much like Missouri and any other team in Division I hoops, are probably just thankful for the opportunity to play. After all, we know well how these dark days are enhanced by the normalizing presence of sports. Hopefully, both Carolina and Missouri can make it through the rest of the campaign without any more of their own COVID scares.

The Scout

The Starters

Position Missouri (8-2) South Carolina (3-3)
Position Missouri (8-2) South Carolina (3-3)
PG Xavier Pinson (Jr., 6'2", 170) Seventh Woods (Sr., 6'2", 184)
CG Dru Smith (Rs. Sr., 6'3", 203) Jermaine Couisnard (So., 6'4", 216)
WING Mark Smith (Sr., 6'5", 220) AJ Lawson (Jr., 6'6", 177)
PF Kobe Brown (So., 6'7", 240) Justin Minaya (Sr., 6'6", 215)
POST Jeremiah Tilmon (Sr., 6'10", 260) Wildens Leveque (So., 6'10", 242)

Note: These starting lineups are projected.

Here’s a strange fact about South Carolina: there’s only one new face the Gamecocks have added to their regular rotation since the 2020 season, and it’s a senior. South Carolina has only played one freshman on the young season. Isn’t that stran— wait, what’s that? Missouri is in literally the exact same position?

Well, then. It would appear Frank Martin and Cuonzo Martin are even more similar than we thought.

The Gamecocks are definitely buoyed by their large sophomore and junior classes, and they’ve only got one player set to graduate after the season (assuming he doesn’t take the extra eligibility year). That would be UNC transfer Seventh Woods, a plug-in point guard who has provided more defense than anything.

The real meat of the lineup can be found in faces that Missouri fans should be familiar with. Junior Justin Minaya leads the team in minutes played and is having his best season as a Gamecock. He’s a prototypical undersized combo forward, rebounding at a level above his size while providing good interior defense and efficient interior offense. The same could be said about AJ Lawson and Keyshawn Bryant, both of whom play similar roles with slight wrinkles. Bryant is more of a high volume scorer and less of a rebounder, while Lawson offers a more diversified offensive threat. He could also be considered the team’s best three-point shooter (at only 32.5 percent), mostly because he’s best of only three players to shoot more than 10 shots on the season.

Wildens Leveque is the Gamecocks’ biggest (and I mean that literally) interior threat, though he appears to be a player Jeremiah Tilmon could match up well with. He’s foul happy on defense and not spectacular on offense, though he does gobble up offensive boards.

Sophomore Jermaine Couisnard is the Gamecock’s best creator out of the back court and plays pesky on-ball defense. It might be best, however, to let him drive to the rim, where he only shoots 35.1 percent, just two points better than his long-range percentage. Sophomore Trae Hannibal will also get some minutes in the back court as a way of getting Couisnard and Woods a breather. South Carolina doesn’t dabble with too many players below 6’6”,

Given the abbreviated nature of the Gamecocks’ season, it feels unfair to summarily dismiss the rest of South Carolina’s rotation as ineffective, but it’s hard to get a read on their depth with so few games played. Sophomore combo forward Jalyn McCreary has only played in four of the six games, and he’s flashed as an interior threat on both ends... when he’s not fouling at an astronomical rate. Fellow sophomore TJ Moss has been an efficient shooter in limited minutes, but its hard to justify putting the ball in his hands when he turns it over nearly half the time. Alanzo Frink has also struggled to carve out a role in his strange junior season, though he’s worth throwing some defensive minutes down low because of his big frame.

When Missouri has the ball...

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 108.1 (65) 16.6 (126) 49.9 (177) 19.9 (192) 29.6 (123) 39.9 (44) 27.3 (330) 55.4 (34) 73.3 (88) 10.7 (285) 9.4 (207)
South Carolina 93.7 (45) 17.3 (207) 49.1 (146) 22.1 (54) 24.7 (68) 45.5 (329) 30.8 (81) 50.7 (199) 74 (287) 9.5 (130) 10.5 (79)
NCAA Basketball: Missouri at Mississippi State Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

What to Watch | Attack the rim, capitalize at the free throw line

As one would expect from a Frank Martin team, South Carolina is sound defensively, with one glaring weakness, one that befits the name of “Murder Ball” even if South Carolina is much faster than a traditional Frank Martin team. USC is one of the worst teams in the country at limiting fouls and gets killed at the free throw line by its opponents. This should be good news for Xavier Pinson, who will be looking to rebound from a lackluster performance in College Station.

In addition to fouls, however, South Carolina’s two-point defense isn’t particularly strong either. They rank 199th in the country, allowing opponents to shoot 50.7 from close range. This sets up for Missouri to attack the paint with abandon, allowing South Carolina’s inherent aggressiveness to work against them. Look for lots of pick-and-roll and aggressive drives to the rim from Pinson, Dru Smith and Javon Pickett.

When South Carolina has the ball...

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 106.6 (81) 15.9 (56) 49.1 (209) 22.1 (289) 35.1 (21) 29.6 (225) 30.8 (262) 50.9 (137) 63.6 (313) 7.9 (123) 10.5 (284)
Missouri 91.1 (19) 17.4 (230) 43.9 (15) 17.3 (267) 28.9 (204) 34.2 (219) 27.3 (14) 45.5 (52) 69.5 (145) 6.8 (242) 7.7 (262)
NCAA Basketball: South Carolina at Louisiana State Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

What to Watch | Limit free possessions, second chances

South Carolina plays fast, which should benefit Missouri overall. But part of limiting the Gamecock offense actually starts when the Tigers have the ball. South Carolina’s best defensive asset is forcing turnovers and converting them into transition opportunities. If Missouri can take good care of the ball, they’ll force South Carolina into the half-court. It’s a strategy Missouri should be familiar with, as it’s been used on them throughout SEC play.

The Gamecocks do have one strength that keeps their offense above average — offensive rebounding. The Gamecocks are a top 25 team at creating second chances on the glass, and it covers up for a lot of their deficiencies. They turn the ball over quite a bit, they’re not a great jump-shooting team and don’t shoot free throws well. But if Missouri can’t get good positioning below the basket, the Gamecocks could steal some extra possessions.

KenPom predicts...

Missouri 75, South Carolina 70 | Missouri vs. South Carolina games are always a fascinating inflection point, as Cuonzo Martin and Frank Martin have built very similar programs in their respective Columbias. Both teams play hard-nosed, physical basketball that can devolve into something of a rock fight when the shots aren’t falling.

Even though South Carolina isn’t particularly strong this year, they don’t go quietly. Missouri will have to put together a complete game if they want to walk away with a win.