Better Know An Opponent: Oklahoma State

Sindarius Thornwell and the young Gamecock team take to the road to face off against top-rated Oklahoma State. - Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

The Gamecocks travel to Stillwater to take on Marcus Smart and the excellent Oklahoma State Cowboys on Friday.

What does all this mean?  Start here, or ask in the comments

Make no mistake - this may be the most difficult game on the schedule.  South Carolina will have to be both good and lucky to have a chance of entering the last five minutes with a chance to win in Stillwater, let alone with a victory.

But this team has come a long way in twelve months, and while the team has come up short in its two challenging road games thus far (losses at Baylor and Clemson), they look far different than the team that mustered only one road victory in each of its last two seasons (at Clemson in 2012; at LSU in overtime last year), and only six total in their 43 opportunities over the last four years (a .140 winning percentage).

As we told you yesterday, Bruce Ellington returns to the line-up for Frank Martin on Friday night, which adds bench depth to a team that eschewed it in its most recent outing, an 84-72 win over FIU where Martin only used seven players to defeat the Panthers.  One of those players was Jaylen Shaw, who saw his first significant minutes of the year, but that may change based on the addition of Ellington and some recent comments from Martin.

"I'm disappointed in how he's practiced the last two days.  He's the one guy that I think took the four-day break and has not gotten out of vacation mode yet.  But he's young, he'll learn.  That's the great thing about having Bruce at practice now, is that guys like him understand the speed that opposition guards play at."

Oklahoma State enters this game in a somewhat similar posture as FIU, with only seven real contributors based on a suspension of one of their guards, Stevie Clark.  Of course, in the case of FIU, suspended Raymond Taylor was one of the best players on a bad team.  Here, Clark was an important but not essential contributor on one of the best teams in the nation.

The guy you'll hear all about - and rightly so - from Oklahoma State's side is Marcus Smart.  Smart's amazing no matter how you look at him -  his 20.5 points per game are amazing before you factor in State's relatively challenging slate so far. When on the court, he shoots 31.8% of their shots (68th in the nation) and assists on 22.3% of his teammates' buckets, which means if Oklahoma State is scoring from the open floor, odds are Marcus Smart was involved.

He's a nightmare match-up defensively as well, stealing the ball on 1 of every 18 defensive possessions (that's 18th best in the nation, and against a schedule where over half of the opposition has come from a power conference).

There's really only one way to stop Marcus Smart, but good luck with it, and that's forcing two-point jumpers.  Smart hits 70.5% of his shots at the rim and 34% of his shots from downtown, both of which are plenty good enough to be a major scorer, especially given his usage.  Oh, and you can't foul him either, which is pretty hard to do given that his free throw rate is 59.3 (again, top 250 in the nation).

But if you can get all that done, you can beat him.  Smart only takes 19.5% of his shots as two-point jumpers this year, and is hitting a woeful 22.7% of them.  Both those numbers are down (fewer jumpers is good; missing more is bad) from last year, where he took 36.3% of his shots as two-point jumpers but made 33.2%.

Basically, if Carolina wants half a chance, they need the Smart who Memphis saw the second time, not the first.

But wait, does Oklahoma State have other players?  Yes!  While Smart makes this elite offense go, the rest of the team fills it up from everywhere on the floor - State shoots 55% from 2PA (31st in NCAA), 43.6% from 3PA (12th), and a respectable 72% from FTA (104th, but an FTR of 51.5% (44th) means they get to take a lot of these shots).

Markel Brown will be the other main offensive contributor.  Also a guard, he's deadly from both 2PA (31-57) and 3PA (16-34), and sports a turnover rate of under ten percent.  And he blocks a terrifying (especially for a guard) 4.6 percent of opponents' 2PAs while committing 3.4 fouls a game, so our guards will need to be especially cautious when trying to drive against him.

In the post, junior Le'Bryan Nash is a moose of a man that gets to the free throw line (a 65.6 FTR) and drains 2PAs at a 54 percent clip, while defensively grabbing the lion's share of rebounds and adding almost a block a game.

State's other two starters have more limited offensive roles, as Brown, Nash and Smith suck up a lot of the oxygen (and over three-quarters of the shots).  Michael Cobbins contributes offensive rebounding (his 9.1% is top 500, though the Cowboys generally do not hammer the offensive glass) and a ton of blocks (5.6%, top 200).  On the wing is Brian Williams, who doesn't shoot often (14.3%) but is deadly when he does, shooting 29-40 from 2PA and posting an FTR of 45.8 (again, top 500).

Off the bench, Phil Forte is an absolute monster thus far this year from downtown, shooting 56.1% from 3PA (where he takes almost four of every five shots) and being assisted on 22 of his 23 makes.  So if State is moving the ball around the perimeter towards Forte, close your eyes and hope.  The only other main contributor off State's relatively short bench is Kamari Murphy, who'll take up some post minutes.  He's currently grabbing an astonishing 17.2% of offensive rebounds available to him, which would be top 30 if he played enough minutes to qualify for a ranking in Ken Pomeroy's system.

State's a nightmare offensively - they've posted a low this season of 1.055 points per trip (that low is still above the national average of 1.035) against a difficult schedule.  Not to mention, although we've touched on some of the individual defensive numbers above, they play pretty great defense as well, with no real weaknesses to exploit in their primarily man defense.  They block 15.4% of your 2s and end over one in five of your possessions on turnovers.  So you'd better make those other 65% of your possessions count, and it's hard to do that against this team.

Normally this is where I try to turn the discussion back to our guys, and how they can rise to the challenge they face.  But this is Oklahoma State, in Gallagher-Iba Arena, a place only Gonzaga and Kansas escaped from last year with a win.  It's not  negative to say we'll need a minor miracle to win - it's facing up to the fact that top ten teams seldom lose at home, and certainly not to young teams struggling to figure out who they are at this point in the season.

Nevertheless, it'll be exciting to see how much progress the Gamecocks have made in their twelve days away from action.  And there's always a chance.  If Tyrone Jackson and Sindairius Thornwell can keep getting to the line and get the Oklahoma State frontcourt in foul trouble, that may ease some of the pressure on our interior defense.  Someone will have to step up and play the defensive game of their life against Smart.  And frankly, we'll need some luck - something high-variance like a run of 3PAs and an ice-cold night from the Cowboys will probably be required.

Hey, we're 20-point underdogs in a season where we're one of the youngest teams in the country.  You don't give any away, but let's keep this in proper perspective - tonight's probably not going to a win for our guys, but it's a chance to play on national television against a great team and take another step in figuring out just how good we can be, if not this year, going forward.  It's the kind of game you want to play if you're a competitor, and I'm looking forward to seeing how they meet the challenge.

Tip-off from Gallagher-Iba Arena in Stillwater, Oklahoma is at 9:30pm.  The game is televised on ESPNU.

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