When the Gamecocks headed to Hawaii, they were reeling from back-to-back non-conference losses to Manhattan (an 86-68 drubbing) and USC Upstate (a disappointing 74-68 defeat). A game against previously unbeaten St. Mary's was the last thing they wanted to see, especially staring down the barrel of a second game against either a Boise St. team that was in the NCAAs last season or the host Warriors, who've quietly put together a strong first two months.
Instead, South Carolina came out firing against the Gaels, sending them to their first of three defeats on the islands with a 78-71 win. After a bad outing against Boise State that culminated in an 80-54 blowout, the Gamecocks re-grouped to earn a nice 69-59 victory over Akron away from home before putting together their best performance of the season on Saturday against the Zips, a 78-45 pasting of their MAC foes.
With the three wins, the Gamecocks pivoted from a team that appeared to be on its way to what we described as the worst-case scenario in our season preview to a group capable of reaching our expectations - a tough non-conference schedule that gives them a chance to make a run at the NIT with a 9-9 conference record (though the latter may be asking just a bit too much against this year's SEC). How did Carolina turn it around?
1. The offense can be pretty good when it avoids turnovers.
Putting aside the Boise game (and we'll assume most Carolina fans wish to put aside the Boise game), Carolina protected the basketball quite well last week, never eclipsing 17.5% except for the putrid 26.9% mark posted against the Broncos. Given the way the Gamecocks rebound offensively - more on that in a second - that means possessions end with made baskets or, in many cases, two or three looks at the basket. You don't have to shoot particularly well (and the Gamecocks don't) to effectively play offense under those circumstances.
One area that Carolina needs to continue working on is getting to the rim. Right now, Carolina's a little below the national average in shots at the rim and a good deal behind the pace in three pointers, which means we're taking a lot of two-point jumpers. That's not the way to build an offense, and while opposing defenses caused some of that imbalance (the better the defense, the more difficult it becomes to get shots at the rim), its an area the Gamecocks will want to improve on heading into SEC play.
2. Our offensive rebounding is back in a big way.
Not that it ever really went away, but offensive rebounding showed up for Carolina last week. Again, setting aside the mess that was the game against the Broncos (and given how out of reach that game was the final 15 minutes, there's not much to take from its final numbers anyway), the Gamecocks rebounded over 40% of their misses in each of the three victories. While Carolina needed to couple that with sound shooting to outlast St. Mary's, against the Zips, Carolina simply combined its rebounding with turnover avoidance.
Desmond Ringer stepped into his role as a post player on the glass in those last two games, grabbing six offensive rebounds in those two contests. Coming into those games, he had five offensive rebounds on the season.
3. The defense looks great whenever they force turnovers (i.e., please let us play Akron again).
In its last two outings versus the Zips, the Gamecocks posted their two best defensive outings of the season, allowing 0.894 points per possession (ppp) to Akron in Hawaii and then bettering that mark by holding the Zips to 0.720 ppp in Columbia (the only better mark all season was against a very weak Longwood squad in the opener). Turnovers helped drive those numbers (at least 24% in each game), along with holding the Zips to under 43% eFG from the field.
The defense also played relatively well against an excellent St. Mary's offense, mostly by forcing them into a lot of two-point jump shots (which is optimal strategy, and Frank's preferred shot to see the opposing team get). When a team takes nearly half its shots as two-point jumpers, it's going to be awful hard for them to be efficient on offense. It also keeps them off the foul line by taking jumpers, which given the way Carolina fouls, will remain an important part of its defense.
4. Duane Notice can fill the role we need him to fill (but only if he can continue to avoid turnovers).
Notice really improved over the last few games, productively contributing to the effort in each of the three games in Hawaii as well as in the Gamecocks' win over the Zips in the Colonial Life Arena. Most importantly for his game, he doled out 11 assists against only 6 turnovers over the four-game stretch in 112 minutes. Given his propensity for turnovers in the early going (13 in his first 75 minutes this season), his newfound ball security allows the Gamecocks to play him productively in the absence of Bruce Ellington, an absence which may become permanent if he decides to enter the NFL Draft.
Notice shot the ball relatively well on the islands, increasing his scoring from 11 to 13 to 15 points over the three-game period. While he only scored three points in the game in Columbia, his six assists kept him involved in the offense. If he stays productive, it allows South Carolina to bear the loss of its senior point guard, an absence that entering the season seemed as if it could doom the season at times, especially when Frank Martin expected Tyrone Johnson to miss the first five games.
5. This team has all its goals in front of it.
While the early-season losses to Manhattan and Upstate will continue to frustrate fans that look back on missed opportunities, this team can't say it deserved to win either of those games looking back. Even with those disheartening defeats on the resume, South Carolina can still accomplish what seemed to be the best-case scenario walking into this year - making a post-season tournament for the first time since 2010.
With a win over the Marshall Thundering Heard and the S.C. State Bulldogs this week, the Gamecocks would enter conference play at 7-6, with a 9-9 record likely enough to secure a trip to the NIT (or one of the lower-tier post-season tournaments - bring in the CBI), given the team's challenging schedule and the eyeballs and ticket sales that Frank Martin brings to those type of events. Such a trip would provide this team with a springboard into the 2014-15 season, where the right schedule and player development could lead to a chance to return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in over a decade.
Realistically, the Gamecocks need to win both games this week if they want a chance at accomplishing those goals, as a 10-8 record in the SEC (which Carolina would have to earn in order to post a winning record this season were they to lose a game this week) seems too much to ask of this group against a conference with two power teams (Kentucky, Florida) as well as five others with realistic NCAA prospects (LSU, Missouri, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Alabama). While 9-9 likely also represents too high a hill to climb, it seems achievable with a little improvement and a fortunate bounce or so along the way in conference play.
Marshall enters the game tonight with numerous personnel issues. Leading scorer Elijah Pittman (a 6'9" senior averaging 21.4 ppg) continues to sit out an indefinite suspension. That's bad enough for the Herd, but the likely absence of starting center Cheikh Sane and back-up guard Tamron Manning with injuries leaves the Herd with only six major contributors left to run out against the Gamecocks on Monday night.
And run they will. Marshall's average possession on offense lasts only 15.3 seconds (19th fastest in the nation), primarily because they take over 30% of their shots in transition (the first 10 seconds of a possession) and just over 3% in the final five seconds of the shot clock. That pace leads to gaudy offensive numbers not necessarily reflective of their ability - a game with more possessions obviously contains more points. But that doesn't make the offense "good" - it just makes it fast.
The Herd may struggle with that pace against Carolina on Monday, for two reasons: one, the Gamecocks normally only allow transition baskets on around 20% of their defensive possessions, and more troublingly for Marshall, they bring to Columbia only six healthy regular players with which to run the system.
One thing Marshall will do is attack the rim ferociously. Three of the five players likely to start against Carolina - small forward Chris Thomas, power forward Ryan Taylor, and 6'7" "center" TyQuane Goard - take well over 50% of their shots at the rim, and starting shooting guard Devince Boykins takes almost as many as well. Point guard Kareem Canty, who plays over 35 minutes a game, represents the only regular three-point threat on the Herd roster that seems likely to play Monday night. The Gamecocks must focus on avoiding turnovers (easy transition buckets) and continuing to play tough defense on the interior in order to stop Marshall.
Carolina will likely struggle stopping the Herd get to the rim at times, but one area that Marshall shouldn't beat the Gamecocks where they've been beaten in past games is at the free throw line. While Marshall gets their regularly (and as Carolina fans all know, the Gamecocks do not mind sending their opponents to the stripe), the Herd make only 59.1% of their FTAs, ranking in the bottom 10 in the country. If Marshall can't press that key advantage against Carolina - and it doesn't seem they can - then it's hard to see how they can come away with a win in the Colonial Life Arena.
On the other side of the ball, Goard and Taylor both represent rim defenders, each blocking 4% of interior attempts by their opponents. But without Sane and Pittman around to help them defend (let alone rest and stay out of foul trouble), the interior defense for Marshall may crumble against the Gamecocks' attack. With the return of Michael Carrera to the forward position, along with the dribble-drive capabilities of Tyrone Johnson and Sindarius Thornwell - the Herd should struggle to keep Carolina from getting easy baskets, staying out of foul trouble, or both. And without the depth they'd normally bring on this trip, I don't see how Marshall can hang with the Gamecocks for 40 minutes.
The game tips off at 7pm from Columbia and can be watched on SportsSouth. If you're in the area, plenty of tickets remain available for the Gamecocks' last outing of 2013.