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SEC Basketball Preview: #14 South Carolina Gamecocks

Previewing the No. 14 team in the SEC, the South Carolina Gamecocks.

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

A year ago we collectively looked at South Carolina’s roster and thought it was going to be a bit of a bumpy start to the Lamont Paris era in Columbia East. And I’m not going to take undue credit since that prognostication was widely shared by many.

We, and many others, weren’t wrong. South Carolina had the dubious claim to being the worst team in the SEC by KenPom (and any other ratings system, to be fair). They did win 4 SEC games, which landed them 12th, but none of the wins — outside of a shocking win at Kentucky — were over teams inside the top 100 in KenPom. To state things plainly, the season was sour.

Going in there was a moderate amount of excitement amongst the fanbase since the Gamecocks signed in-state 5-star freshman G.G. Jackson, but the learning curve for Jackson was steep and he struggled with consistency. And a soft non-conference schedule couldn’t save South Carolina from losing six games before the SEC slate heated up. They endured their first 20-loss season since Frank Martin’s second season, and their third since 2012.

Now the onus is on Paris to right the ship this season.


USC Preview

#14 South Carolina Gamecocks

Last Season: 11 - 21 (4-14 in conference) No. 221 KenPom

My Prediction: 13 - 18 (3-15, 14th in conference)

The Masses Prediction: 2.8 - 15.2 (14th in conference)

SEC Media Prediction: 14th in conference

KenPom Projection: 16 - 14 (7-11 in conference) No. 66

Syndication: The Knoxville News-Sentinel Caitie McMekin/News Sentinel / USA TODAY NETWORK

HEAD COACH: Lamont Paris | 2nd Season, 11-21

Lamont Paris is a good basketball coach faced with a difficult situation. Frank Martin is a good basketball coach who did well at South Carolina, but could prop up just one visit to the NCAA Tournament in 10 years. Paris’ move is to be better than Frank Martin. In Martin’s first season he also went 4-14 in the conference and ended up in the 200s in KenPom. Then in year 2, he jumped the program to 112 in KenPom and 5-13 in the league. But that SEC was much different than the one we see today.

In 2013 and 2014, the SEC sent just three teams to the NCAA tournament while last year the league sent 8 teams.

Moving up in a deep league that’s getting deeper is an uphill battle. But Paris has been faced with an uphill battle before at Chattanooga. It took him three years to hit his first 20-win season and by year five they were conference champions.

South Carolina fans are looking for a similar swing. This season looks like it could be a rough one. Paris comes from the Wisconsin and Bo Ryan tree and he has adopted some of Ryan’s coaching principles.

Seat Temp: COOL-ISH

south carolina 10 year look

It’s only year two, so any heat on Paris is largely up to him not taking this team down the drain this year. You want to see progress, but the Gamecocks gave Frank Martin a long leash, and had he been able to scrape together a second tournament appearance, he’s probably still around. For Paris, you hope last season was rock bottom and it’s all up from here.

The only thing working against him is once Martin got his first few ugly years out of the way was this— he never hit bottom. The Gamecocks struggled in the midst of the pandemic season, but aside from that they were always competitive in the league even if they hit some bumps during the nonconference portion of the schedule.

SO, WHO’S GONE?

name reason GP %min %pts %ov %poss
name reason GP %min %pts %ov %poss
GG Jackson professional 32 78.54% 23.94% 20.01% 23.26%
Hayden Brown graduation 31 71.77% 17.19% 16.15% 16.44%
Chico Carter Jr transfer 25 59.15% 11.85% 11.53% 9.40%
Daniel Hankins-Sanford transfer 22 13.54% 2.48% 2.16% 3.17%
Ford Cooper Jr transfer 18 10.08% 0.78% 0.12% 1.05%
Ja'Von Benson transfer 6 1.38% 0.15% -0.23% 0.39%
Tre'Vaughn Minott transfer 7 1.46% 0.15% 0.27% 0.10%
47.18% 56.54% 50.01% 53.81%

The most notable name here is clearly G.G. Jackson. Many in Columbia hoped Jackson would spend a second season there to help give the program an extra boost early in Paris’ tenure. Especially considering he soldiered through an up-and-down freshman season and hurt his draft stock more than anything. But Jackson was young for his class and the NBA can be forgiving for young and talented players. So he jumped into and stayed in the draft and was selected 45th overall by Memphis. The highest-rated recruit in program history and a hometown kid and barely has an impact... Such a shame.

Hayden Brown came in from the Citadel as one of the least heralded transfers and left as an integral glue guy. Maybe on a better team Brown would not have had to do as much offensively. But because his defense and toughness were a welcome addition to the lineup he ended up playing a valuable role. Of the remaining losses only Chico Carter had much of an impact, and he started every game until getting hurt late in the season. Then transferred to DePaul.

Daniel Hankins-Sanford transferred to UMass (Frank Martin’s new home), Tre-Vaughn Minott transferred to Portland State, Ford Cooper transferred to Hampton, and Ja’Von Benson was still unsigned from what I could find.

THEN, WHO’S BACK?

player year pos gp %min %pts ts% %ov
player year pos gp %min %pts ts% %ov
Meechie Johnson JR PG 30 76.92% 18.46% 49.68% 17.61%
Jacobi Wright JR CG 32 72.38% 11.36% 50.41% 11.34%
Josh Gray SR POST 32 41.31% 6.70% 51.54% 11.13%
Zachary Davis SO WING 30 32.15% 3.21% 45.03% 4.91%
Benjamin Bosmans-Verdonk R-SR POST 31 35.62% 2.91% 44.20% 3.75%
Eli Sparkman SO CG 12 5.69% 0.83% 78.13% 1.25%
Ebrima Dibba R-SR CG REDSHIRT -% -% -% -%
52.81% 43.47% 49.99%
NCAA Basketball: Mississippi State at South Carolina Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

Meechie Johnson | JUNIOR | POINT GUARD

When Meechie Johnson arrived in South Carolina, there wasn’t a lot of fanfare. Johnson was a former 4-star point guard out of the Cleveland area who reclassified up so he could enroll early at Ohio State. This was all during the COVID pandemic, and Johnson struggled to develop into the type of player many thought he could based upon his recruiting ranking. A change of scenery was something he needed, and Lamont Paris hitting reset on the South Carolina program offered the right remedy.

Johnson had a good year. He was the second leading scorer, but as things often happen on bad teams someone had to score the ball. But when Johnson was really good, he could provide the right gravity to the SC offense and drew defenses away from G.G. Jackson. When Johnson was efficient on offense SC was a better team.

He played in 30 of 32 games, missing one win and one loss. That meant when Johnson played, SC was 10-20 in those games. If he hit 100 or better on his efficiency rating (17 games) South Carolina was 9-8 in those games. When he didn’t they were 1-12. In 4 of those wins he was the KenPom MVP. When Meechie Johnson is on one he makes South Carolina dangerous.

Jacobi Wright was an important under-the-radar player for the Gamecocks. He only averaged around 7 points per game but made 35% of his three-point attempts. His offensive rating jumped from 81.5 to 105.1 from his freshman to his sophomore season. Another jump and he could be a key player this season.

Josh Gray made his presence known on the interior but was mostly relied upon as a rim protector than any offensive possessions. Zachary Davis had a bumpy freshman season but is a sleeper for a breakout as a sophomore. He’s a big guard with the ability to stretch the floor and defends well. Benjamin Bosmans-Verdonk transferred in from Illinois and played largely the same role for the Gamecocks as a backup post. Ebrima Dibba is someone to keep an eye on, he sat out last season with an achilles injury but transferred in from Coastal Carolina and was thought to have been an impact player before the injury.

AND, WHO’S NEW?

class player ht wt rating ranking pos
class player ht wt rating ranking pos
FR Collin Murray-Boyles 6'7 231 ★★★★ 108 CF
FR Arden Conyers 6'7 204 ★★★ 235 WING
FR Morris Ugusuk 6'4 190 NR NA CG
G-SR Ta'Lon Cooper 6'4 200 TRANSFER Minnesota PG
G-SR Myles Stute 6'6 209 TRANSFER Vanderbilt WING
G-SR Stephen Clark 6'8 208 TRANSFER The Citadel CF
G-SR B.J. Mack 6'8 270 TRANSFER Wofford POST
NCAA Basketball: Wofford at Texas A&M Maria Lysaker-USA TODAY Sports

B.J. Mack | SENIOR | POST

When B.J. Mack entered the transfer portal after averaging 16.6 points and 5.6 rebounds at Wofford during the 2022-23 season, there were many high majors who jumped into the mix. But Lamont Paris and the Gamecocks won the battle for the Charlotte, NC native. Mack is a wide body and a load on the low block. He’s 6’8 and 270 pounds, and Wofford made him a fixture around the basket. 92% of his shot attempts happened in a half court set, and more than one quarter of those were off post ups. Another quarter of his shots were on catch and shoots, where Mack attempted 147 threes on the year.

Transitioning his style and play to the SEC from the Southern Conference will be the question, but with his combination of size and skill it should work. If Mack can produce 75% of the points he did last year at Wofford he could be the interior offense the Gamecocks need.

One of the more puzzling moves this offseason was when Vanderbilt wing Miles Stute entered the transfer portal in order to play with the ball in his hands more. Stute was turned into a three point sniper at Vanderbilt, and for most players looking to jump to the next level that’s not a bad place to be. But he chose South Carolina, and it’s hard to see him taking on the kind of role where he’ll have the ball in his hands more with Meechie Johnson, Jacobi Wright, and Ta’Lon Cooper manning the ball-handling duties.

Cooper comes over from Minnesota after taking over the starting point guard duties at Minnesota for a season after three years at Morehead State. He’s a South Carolina native, a consistent three-point shooter, and a terrific passer. The Gamecocks also added another Citadel transfer hoping to strike gold twice with 6’8 combo forward Stephen Clark. Clark is a similar player to Hayden Brown in that he’s not known as a shooter but better around the basket. Though Clark isn’t as physical but has better length at 6’8 and 205.

Collin Murray-Boyles is the exact type of player South Carolina needs to start landing with more consistency if Lamont Paris is going to be the answer in Columbia East. Murray-Boyles is a big physical, top 100 level post who has the ability to grow into an All-Conference level player if he develops. He’ll have the opportunity to play understudy to Mack this season, though. He’s joined in the freshman class by 3-star wing Arden Conyers, and by Finnish point guard Morris Ugusuk.

DEPTH CHART

position starter backup third
position starter backup third
(1) Point Guard Ta'Lon Cooper Jacobi Wright
(2) Combo Guard Meechie Johnson Ebrima Dibba Morris Ugusuk
(3) Wing Myles Stute Collin Murray-Boyles Zachary Davis
(4) Combo Forward B.J. Mack Stephen Clark Arden Conyers
(5) Post Josh Gray Benjamin Bosmans-Verdonk

The lineup could go a few different ways but I think the starting five at the beginning of the season is what’s above. Cooper has experience at point guard, which would give South Carolina two ball handlers with Meechie Johnson. Stute then provides the shooting, Gray the rim protection, and Mack the offensive punch on the inside. It’s not a bad starting group; the problem is the depth. Jacobi Wright is a very good player in the rotation, and the ceiling on Murray-Boyles is enticing. But the rest of the roster is a bit of a question mark. Bosmans-Verdonk has yet to prove he’s more than just a bottom-of-the-rotation level player, and Dibba didn’t provide much scoring at Coastal Carolina. It’s going to put a lot of pressure on the top 6.

SCHEDULE

My Projected Record: 13-18 | KenPom Projected Record: 16-14

NCAA Basketball: Virginia Tech at Louisville Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

NON-CONFERENCE

Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Nov 6 Home USC Upstate 280 W
Nov 10 Home Virginia Tech 65 L
Nov 13 Home Viriginia Military Institute 349 W
Nov 17 Neutral DePaul 110 W
Nov 19 Neutral Grand Canyon / San Francisco 83 / 93 L
Nov 28 Home Notre Dame 165 W
Dec 1 Home George Washington 217 W
Dec 6 Away Clemson 51 L
Dec 9 Away East Carolina 130 W
Dec 16 Home Charleston Southern 315 W
Dec 19 Home Winthrop 161 W
Dec 22 Home Elon 330 W
Dec 30 Home Florida A&M 344 W
209.75 10-3

This is a smart, manageable schedule. There are solid regional programs but none that are an automatic loss. Both Virginia Tech and Clemson are good ACC programs but Tech was 80th in KenPom last year, and Clemson was 68th. They also entered the Arizona Tip-Off MTE with DePaul, San Francisco, and Grand Canyon, all winnable games. In the ACC-SEC Challenge they get a Notre Dame team in the first year of a complete rebuild, and the rest of the schedule is full of buy games.

The buy games have tripped up South Carolina in prior years, but if Paris can navigate this non-con with just a couple losses it could set the Gamecocks up to surprise in conference play.

CONFERENCE

Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Jan 6 Home Mississippi State 27 L
Jan 9 Away Alabama 10 L
Jan 13 Away Missouri 55 L
Jan 16 Home Georgia 57 W
Jan 20 Away Arkansas 14 L
Jan 23 Home Kentucky 18 L
Jan 27 Home Missouri 55 L
Jan 30 Away Tennessee 8 L
Feb 3 Away Georgia 57 L
Feb 6 Home Ole Miss 82 W
Feb 10 Home Vanderbilt 79 L
Feb 14 Away Auburn 15 L
Feb 17 Home LSU 47 W
Feb 24 Away Ole Miss 82 L
Feb 28 Away Texas A&M 24 L
Mar 2 Home Florida 39 L
Mar 6 Home Tennessee 8 L
Mar 9 Away Mississippi State 27 L
avg 39.11 3-15

The SEC didn’t do South Carolina any favors with an opening three games against Mississippi State (a tournament team last year who returns nearly everyone), then at Alabama (the Conference champions last year) and at Missouri. Most of the conference schedule is when and where as much as who you play. Opening with a team like MSU at home and then going on the road for two games isn’t the opening set you’d hope for. It makes the return trip home against Georgia an important game. On the other hand, catching an early and unexpected win is the kind of thing that propels an unexpected team up the standings a bit.

OVERVIEW

Expectations can be a dangerous thing. Expectations are what put South Carolina in the hole they were in last year. They ran off Frank Martin because the University and Athletic Department wanted more, and expected more. In their defense, Martin had been there long enough to prove they could make the NCAA tournament with a little more frequency. Had he registered two trips, that likely buys him more time. But constantly falling shy led to the change.

And any time you change coaches it’s a crap shoot. You know Lamont Paris is a good basketball coach, as you don’t win a conference championship without being a good coach. But is Paris a “good at South Carolina” good coach?

The early returns aren’t good. In the modern era of the transfer portal, there’s so much expectation that a build can be short-term. So your first effort lands you solidly in the Wednesday play-in round of the conference tournament and a sub-200 KenPom rating, you might want to have a strong recovery in year 2.

NCAA Basketball: Vanderbilt at Kentucky Jordan Prather-USA TODAY Sports

There’s enough here at the top of the roster for South Carolina to move up out of the basement of the league. This isn’t a hopeless program in any way. The depth could be better, and maybe there’s an over-reliance on players doing something they’ve yet to do at the highest level so far, but it’s far from hopeless.

One of the reasons the Gamecocks were so awful last year was the offense struggled far too much. G.G. Jackson is a great talent but his best basketball is ahead of him, not behind him in Columbia. He struggled in the primary role and was woefully inefficient too often. So moving away from a focus on an inefficient wing forward and into a focus on multiple ball handlers, multiple shooters, and some backline defense could be enough to move up significantly.

How much of a move is possible when last season you finished no. 221 in KenPom?

It’s reasonable to see Meechie Johnson take a step forward with his consistency, and being surrounded by Ta’Lon Cooper and Jacobi Wright can help him by alleviating the ball-handling pressure. It’s also reasonable to see B.J. Mack stepping into the right role as a secondary scorer after Johnson. Then, if Cooper, Wright, and Mile Stute can keep the floor spaced it makes it reasonable to think the Gamecocks could take a significant step offensively.

They’ll also need to get much better defensively, which technically they were worse at than offense.

For sure, Lamont Paris has a tall task on his hands. I don’t think a bad season forces any decisions from the administration, Paris is a good coach and he should get the time to do it right. If he can find a way to take this roster and get it off the Wednesday SEC Tournament play-in game, that should be enough reason to believe he’s got things on the right path.

Reasons to be OPTIMISTIC

When the Gamecocks key players were consistent, they were a tough team to beat. Building that consistency is possible in one offseason, and with the addition of some outside shooting should open up the floor for a trio of skilled guards to operate. Then if BJ Mack makes the transition, South Carolina has the makings of a very good offensive team. And in a league where offense can be sometimes hard to come by, that might be enough to jump them up into the middle of the pack.

Reasons to be PESSIMISTIC

Last year, South Carolina was far and away the worst team in the league. Sure, LSU finished lower in the conference, but the Gamecocks only had one win over a top-100 team all season. When you look at the roster, there is only one player who played meaningful minutes on a top 100 KenPom team and that was Miles Stute. A collection of players from teams without a lot of success is rarely how you fix a situation that could spiral for a second year in a row.


About the preview: a number of respected basketball bloggers were asked to submit one pick for the entire league schedule game by game. Because these are game-by-game picks, they often tend to be a bit of a rosier picture of each team's potential. Each rep’s picks are reflected in “the Masses” picks. Included in “the Masses” are various SEC media members who made picks at my request as well.

If you’d like to submit your picks, click here for the Google Form we used.


GLOSSARY

* - an asterisk denotes a walk-on player

GP - Games Played

%min - percentage of total available minutes played, does not account for time missed due to injury

%ov - offensive team value, simple formula of (%points + %rebounds) - %turnovers/*100, similar to Offensive Rating but places more value on performance to the team

%poss - percentage of team possessions the player is responsible for ending a possession, whether by making a shot, missing a shot not rebounded by the offense or committing a turnover.

%pts - percentage of teams points scored

ts% - true shooting percentage, basically points scored divided by 2x fga +0.44*fta.