The South Carolina Gamecocks, fresh off a frustratingly close loss to the Baylor Bears on Tuesday afternoon, return to action Sunday evening against the rival Clemson Tigers. The game tips off at 5pm and will be televised on ESPN3.
Clemson enters the game with a 2-0 record, having easily dispatched Stetson 71-51 in their season opener (a game not as close as the score indicates), followed by a routine 58-37 victory over Delaware State on Wednesday evening. The Gamecocks represent the first real test for the Tigers thus far in the 2013-14 season, but thus far, they've looked impressive in their two victories.
While it's too early to look at the season numbers for either squad to get an indication of how they'll play this year, one thing we do know is that Clemson loves to slow the pace of play. An average NCAA game includes 68 possessions for each team - in his first three seasons at the helm in Clemson, Brad Brownell's teams have averaged a mere 64.1. When faced with other slow teams like Delaware State, you end up with scores like 58-37, and a game that included a preposterously low 48 possessions per team. Last season, an average possession against the Clemson defense lasted 19.3 seconds (as compared to the D-1 average of 18.1 seconds). That adds up over the game.
The Tigers focus their efforts primarily on the defensive end, and so while it'll be imperative for the Gamecocks to of course keep their scorers - led by K.J. McDaniels - in check, the more interesting match-up seems to be when Carolina has the ball. One area where the Tigers have to find new production (as compared to last year's team) is in shot blocking - in 2012-13, the Tigers rolled out Devin Booker and Milton Jennings as part of a formidable frontcourt, and those two players each blocked 3.9% of opponents' 2PAs.
Along with McDaniels (who blocked a monstrous 8.2% of opposing 2PAs), Clemson held opponents to 44.4% shooting from inside the arc against a very strong offensive schedule. The 6'6" junior has picked up right back where he left off in the first two games, posting an unsustainable block rate of 16% in the early going.
Joining McDaniels in the frontcourt is Jaron Blossomgame (a 6'7" freshman) who has scored 8.0 points per game early on, and Josh Smith, a 6'8" sophomore who disappears on the offensive end, but thus far has contributed to Clemson's prolific block rate (6.1%).
In the backcourt, the Tigers roll out Irmo graduate Jordan Roper, a 5'11" sophomore who spent last season shooting frequently, if not terribly efficiently. However - you noticing a trend yet? - he did steal the ball on 3.3% of opponents' possessions in 2012-13 (a top 200 rate) and will harass Tyrone Johnson all game. He's joined with Rod Hall, a 6'1" junior who doesn't shoot much offensively but helps the Tigers distribute the basketball to their scorers.
Clemson thus far has played 10 guys at least 8 minutes a contest this year, so expect to see plenty of guys get a shot against the Gamecocks.
Frank broke down the Tigers in his press conference on Thursday afternoon:
Brad [Brownell] doesn’t want to give you anything easy. They don’t play as aggressive on offense because they want to minimize turnovers and shots early in the shot clock, which is intelligent, because shooting early in the shot clock against a set defense is not very intelligent. That’s something that we have to continue to preach to guys. We’ve got a little saying that goes: “shoot it early, shoot it late.” That means attack it early, and if the defense sets then let’s have some patience and attack it late.
But Brad’s teams don’t make mistakes, they don’t turn it over, and they make you play through their defense so you have to be disciplined whenever you go through their defense. The guys have to set screens, the angles have to be the right way, the speed of the cuts have to be the right way, the ball movement has to be good.
And then, whenever you get a crack, you have to figure out a way to take advantage of it. If we get stuck in a slow game against Clemson, which is a possibility because of our youth and the fact that we’re not where we need to be at defensively yet to create a faster game and disrupt as much as we will as the season unfolds, then our offensive execution has to be a lot better than it was against Baylor. We’re getting ready to play a team that’s going to rebound, they’re going to defend, and they’re not going to make mistakes. And we’re going to have to be sharp.
As for those Gamecocks, a lot of fans rightly griped about their inability to finish at the rim against Baylor, and that was certainly one of the main reasons they ultimately came up short in that game - while 50 percent of their FG attempts came at the rim, the Gamecocks only converted on 36 percent of those shots (the D-1 average is 60%). While Baylor certainly left points on the court from the free throw line, the Gamecocks certainly did the same at the rim.
Offensively, the key for Carolina will be to find a way to score on the interior, be it through getting to the foul line (as the team did so successfully against Baylor, but something Brownell teams haven't let the opposition do in his time at Clemson), or by getting two-point buckets. Clemson controlled the paint last year against the Gamecocks, holding them to 37.8% shooting from inside the arc. Against Baylor, not a single Gamecock shot over 50% from 2PA. If that happens again, South Carolina will struggle to win.
As noted above, it'll be critical that Tyrone Johnson has another big game - while he didn't shoot very well against the Bears, he dished out 8 assists with only 1 turnovers. The Gamecocks also need to get back to their strength of offensive rebounding. Against Baylor, Carolina only grabbed 28% of their misses. While a hefty advantage in turnovers gave Carolina about the same amount of scoring opportunities (Carolina took 144 points worth of shots (attempts times value of shot), while Baylor took 158), I'm not so sure turnovers is a place that the Gamecocks will consistently out-play their opponents this year.
Overall, South Carolina has an excellent opportunity to go on the road and get a win against a rival that will be valuable in recruiting, as a boost of confidence for this team, and to get the fans behind them. But it's only one game - it does not make or break the season. Clemson is a good basketball team, and a loss to them in Littlejohn does not portend doom for the season, no matter how frustrating it might be to Gamecock fans.
With that said, for those who want to start thinking about post-season tournaments, it'd be a nice feather in their cap come March. The Tigers go in the slight favorites, but don't be surprised if USC comes out with a great road victory.