So, are the Gamecocks for real?
That question won't be answered definitively on Tuesday afternoon in Waco - Baylor's a top 25 team, and you can still be a pretty good ballclub and go in and get thumped in a game like this one, especially early in the season. But if Carolina can hang around, it becomes reasonable to start ratcheting up expectations from "hope we can win enough games to qualify for the NIT" to "hey, the bottom of the SEC is pretty weak, and there's a chance to make a run."
It won't be easy. Baylor comes into this game a legitimate top 25 team, and fresh off an impressive 62-50 victory over the Colorado Buffaloes (who made the NCAA tournament last season) to open their own campaign.
But after an 82-44 decimation of the Longwood Lancers on Sunday, people around the Gamecock basketball program are already starting to wonder just how improved this group can be from last year's squad.
It's too early to read much into the results of games, but coming into the season, Baylor looked poised to build off last year's NIT Championship, and nothing about the win over Colorado disabused anyone of that notion. The Bears return a ferocious frontcourt , as they'll roll out 7'1" sophomore Isaiah Austin at center and 6'9" senior Cory Jefferson at forward.
That duo combined for 26.6 points per game last season and were ferocious at the rim - Jefferson took half his shots there and made them at a horrifying 79.5% clip, while Austin took about the same number of shots at the rim (a lower percentage, however, since he also can step outside and hit 3PAs, because at 7'1", you need to be multi-faceted) and hit them at a 60% rate. If the Gamecocks interior defense isn't for real - and given they've only faced off against USC-Aiken and Longwood thus far, that's entirely possible - then it could be a long afternoon for South Carolina.
Much like Carolina, Baylor also breaks in two new guys in their backcourt - a freshman and a transfer. Impact freshman Ish Wainright jumped straight into the Bears' starting line-up as a fringe top 50 recruit, though in his first outing he failed to score and picked up four fouls in only 13 minutes. JUCO transfer Kenny Chery played 35 minutes versus the Buffaloes and acquitted himself quite well - scoring 14 points on 5-11 shooting from the field and only turning the ball over twice.
Joining them in the backcourt is super senior Gary Franklin, who tries to replace Mr. Do Everything Pierre Jackson from last year's team. Franklin is a steady player for the Bears but doesn't shoot much and doesn't seem to really impact the game much offensively or defensively. While the introduction of Tyrone Johnson to the Gamecock line-up helped enough already, the fact that Baylor doesn't roll out an intimidation backcourt should help Johnson and Thornwell stay relatively comfortable, given that it's their first road game of the season.
Off the bench comes Brad Heslip, a 6'2" senior shooting guard, took 215 3PAs last season and nailed 39% of them, which was a slight disappointment to Baylor fans only because he made 45% the year prior. Since he only turned the ball over on 5.3% of his possessions (tops in the nation), that made him an incredibly valuable piece of Baylor's offense - you have to guard him and keep him from shooting, because he won't stop himself.
Baylor rolls 9 deep so there will be other names to keep an eye on - in the frontcourt, power forward Taurean Prince fills it up offensively when he gets on the court, and Rico Gathers is a rebounding machine (he was in the top 150 in the nation in both offensive and defensive rebounding percentage last year).
Colorado was able to keep Baylor relatively calm on the interior in their match-up, and was felled primarily by their inability to put the ball in the basket - had their 2-19 three-point shooting been a rather pedestrian 6-19, they'd have been headed to overtime with the Bears. That said, the Gamecocks don't seem likely to replicate the Buff's offensive turnover percentage of 9.2%, and so they'll need to hit shots and hit the glass to have a chance offensively.
On the other side of the ball, it comes down to whether two of our four big men - Laimonas Chatkevicius, Mindaugas Kacinas, Demetrius Henry, and Desmond Ringer - can slow down Baylor on the interior. Last season, Carolina let teams shoot 67% at the rim (with an NCAA average of 60%) while also fouling teams at a terrifying rate. If that's the interior defense that shows up on Tuesday afternoon, it'll be a long day for the Gamecocks.
Game info: South Carolina @ Baylor Waco, TX - 3pm Predictions: Vegas: Baylor -14 KenPom: Baylor -13