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Hoops Preview: Can Missouri build momentum against a hot South Carolina?

South Carolina is doing well in conference play, but could have a major weakness the Tigers can exploit.

NCAA Basketball: South Carolina at Arkansas Brett Rojo-USA TODAY Sports

When you’re trying to regain momentum in what feels like a lost season, the first step is simple: just win. The Tigers took care of business in the most literal of ways on Tuesday, storming back to avoid getting pancaked on their home floor against a bad Georgia team. Sometimes you don’t need to know more than the final result — a win is a win, isn’t that what they say?

The next step is actually putting together a solid performance. You’d be hard-pressed to apply that moniker to Tuesday’s night victory, especially outside of the last 13 minutes. But the Tigers aren’t allergic to good overall performances. It was just a few weeks ago that they ran Florida out of their gym. The place the Tigers haven’t shown the same fight, though, is on the road. Missouri hasn’t won a true road game in almost two months when they knocked off Temple, who is 4-8 since that game.

South Carolina presents a different challenge, albeit one that isn’t insurmountable.

In true Frank Martin fashion, the Gamecocks are an ugly team that seems to be finding its stride at the right time. South Carolina isn’t that far ahead of Missouri in terms of efficiency (they’re only five spots ahead in KenPom), but the Gamecocks have already stacked two impressive SEC wins, beating Kentucky at home and knocking off upstart Arkansas in Fayetteville. There’s nothing particularly notable about the way South Carolina wins games. They push the pace more than a typical Martin-led team would, but everything else seems to be in line. They’re a bit chaotic, pretty athletic and oh-so-very tall.

They’re also — and here’s the narrative kicker — very foul prone. While this isn’t usually of much concern against borderline Top 100 KP teams like Missouri, the Gamecocks appear to have caught the Tigers at a curious time. Despite their overall struggles, Missouri has been an elite free-throw shooting team in SEC play. Their conference percentage would rank as the best in the nation if stretched out over the course of the season.

And that’s not the only reason to believe in a potential upset. There are several ways that the Tigers could conceivably exploit South Carolina’s weaknesses in the other Columbia. The trouble comes down to the actual execution, something Missouri hasn’t done on the road in quite some time.

The Scout

The Starters

Position Missouri (10-10) South Carolina (12-8)
Position Missouri (10-10) South Carolina (12-8)
PG Dru Smith (Rs. Jr., 6'3", 203) Jermaine Couisnard (Fr., 6'4", 211)
CG Mark Smith (Jr., 6'5", 220) A.J. Lawson (So., 6'6", 178)
WING Javon Pickett (So., 6'5", 220) Keyshawn Bryant (So., 6'5", 197)
PF Mitchell Smith (Jr., 6'10", 221) Justin Minaya (So. 6'6", 215)
POST Reed Nikko (Sr., 6'10", 240) Maik Kotsar (Sr., 6'11", 270)

Note: These starting lineups are projected.

We’ve described a lot of teams this year as, “young,” or, “inexperienced,” but few teams are as much of both as South Carolina. Of the 11 Gamecocks to get significant rotation minutes, 9 are underclassmen, including four of the five starters. The only senior — 6’11” Maik Kotsar — is a house, though he’s more of a Reed Nikko type post man. Kotsar doesn’t rebound as well as you’d expect of someone his size, but he’s efficient and sturdy and does a fair job holding down the fort on the defensive end. The only other upperclassmen is junior Jair Bolden, aka the team’s best shooter. Bolden shoots 42.5 percent from deep and rarely ever gives up the ball when it’s in his hands.

As for the youngins: AJ Lawson has been the team’s heartbeat so far, most recently carrying them to a win over Arkansas. Lawson is more of a slashing wing than a guard, and loves to draw fouls. He’s one of only two Gamecocks to shoot over 70 percent from the line (more on that below) and hits at a respectable 34 percent from deep. Freshman Jermaine Couisnard has been a go-to scorer as well, though he’s far less efficient. Couisnard is far more comfortable in a play-making role and boasts a team-high 22.2 assist rate. Keyshawn Bryant doesn’t get the minutes as the above players, but is dangerous when activated. His high level of athleticism allows him ample room for highlight reel dunks and blocks. Alanzo Frink plays a similar athletic game, and he’s arguably the team’s secret weapon. He’s the most efficient offensive player (though primarily from two-point range) while posting big-time offensive rebounding and block numbers for a 6’7” forward. Starter Justin Minaya has the highest minutes percentage on the team, and while he’s not that efficient of a shooter, he takes care of the ball and is yet another big wing who has positional versatility.

Frank Martin also has a cavalry of freshmen he can deploy off of the bench. TJ Moss is a sort of chaos agent who has a high assist rate, but turns the ball over with ease while failing to do much offensively. Jalyn McCreary is probably the most useful of the freshmen — he shoots 62 percent from two and rebounds incredibly well, but also averages more than 11 fouls per 40 minutes, a troublesome stat against a team like Missouri. Wildens Leveque is yet another 6’11” oak that Martin has in his pocket, and the block and rebounding numbers bear out his size. He too struggles with fouls, averaging eight per 40. Trae Hannibal is the least used of the frosh, mostly because of his team-high turnover rate (28.8).

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 104.6 (136) 17.7 (216) 47.9 (236) 21.2 (299) 30.1 (105) 33.5 (149) 31.1 (272) 48.9 (174) 77.3 (19) 11.2 (314) 8.8 (136)
South Carolina 96.6 (76) 18.1 (309) 44.8 (29) 21.1 (72) 27.6 (149) 51.5 (352) 29.6 (27) 45.1 (57) 71.7 (231) 13.2 (29) 10.5 (83)
NCAA Basketball: Chicago State at Missouri
Dru Smith leads the Tigers in FT percentage at 91.2. Can he lead the charge in getting Missouri to the line?
Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

What to Watch | Get. To. The. Rim.

They don’t call Frank Martin’s style “Murder Ball” for no reason. The Gamecocks are worse than anyone in the SEC — and third worst in the entire country — at putting their opponents on the charity stripe. Missouri, on the other hand, is the conference’s best free throw shooting team. This will be a tough line to walk — the Tigers can become a bit single-minded when it comes to their offensive game plan, and they can’t just barrel to the cup at will. But if the Tigers are able to scheme ways to get shots at the rim (and possibly open up their three-point shooters in the process), there’s a way the Tigers can bank easy points all day long.

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 105.3 (115) 15.5 (18) 48.7 (209) 19.1 (171) 32.7 (47) 34.1 (126) 31.1 (275) 49.6 (147) 60.4 (348) 8.2 (112) 8.0 (64)
Missouri 97.1 (84) 18.2 (320) 45.7 (43) 22.7 (34) 28 (168) 40 (308) 29.8 (32) 46.3 (81) 75.2 (339) 9.1 (153) 11 (57)
NCAA Basketball: Georgia at Missouri
South Carolina struggles mightily from everywhere but two-point range. If the Tigers play aggressive defense, they can force the Gamecocks into bad shots.
Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

What to Watch | Don’t be afraid to play aggressive

This seems like a counter intuitive note considering the Tigers’ foul troubles this year. But much like on defense, look at where South Carolina struggles — at the charity stripe. The Gamecocks are one of the country’s worst free throw shooting teams. Missouri puts teams on the line quite a bit, but that might not be the worst thing in the world this time around. If the Tigers can play aggressive man defense (a Cuonzo specialty!), they can force the Gamecocks to win the game at the line. And that’s a match up they’ll take 10 out of 10 times. And don’t be fooled by their low three-point ranking — the Gamecocks are third in 3P% since the beginning of conference play.

KenPom predicts...

South Carolina 72, Missouri 67 | Are y’all ready for a slug fest? Because that’s what this is going to be. Lots of free throws. Lots of fouls. Probably lots of bricks, too, but that may work to the Tigers’ advantage. South Carolina is playing well in the SEC, and won’t be an easy out at home. But this isn’t the worst match up for Missouri, who would cherish any road win it can get at this point in the season.