Gamecocks stagger into Missouri

The Gamecocks try to re-group on Saturday against Missouri. - Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Frank Martin challenged his team after its rough performance in Athens. How will they respond?

After a bad performance on Wednesday night against Georgia, a night which ended with Frank Martin suggesting some of his players need to change or leave Columbia, the Gamecocks take their 0-5 SEC record to Missouri in search of their first conference win of the season.

The Tigers enter this game with a 14-4 record.  Unlike many of their SEC brethren, Missouri ran up its non-conference record against some capable opponents, scoring home victories over an NCAA-bound UCLA and a decent West Virginia team, while adding a decent away win over NC State.  Their only loss came in St. Louis, a one-point loss to border rival Illinois.

Despite the strong start, the Tigers are only 2-3 early in the SEC season, with two regrettable losses against Vanderbilt in Nashville as well as to Georgia at home (in overtime) and a six-point loss to LSU on Tuesday night.  With the SEC looking more and more like a three-bid league, teams like Missouri can't afford to lose to teams like South Carolina at home if they want to dance in March, so the Tigers have every incentive to come out firing on Saturday afternoon.

The Four Factors (Pomeroy Rankings)
When USC has the ball When MIZ has the ball
USC Off. MIZ Def. Edge MIZ Off. USC Def. Edge
235 24 MIZ BIG eFG% 88 141 MIZ
315 289 PUSH TO% 177 58 USC
20 95 USC OReb% 43 251 MIZ BIG
38 86 USC FTR 29 349 MIZ BIG
Shooting (percentages)
When USC has the ball When MIZ has the ball
USC Off. MIZ Def. MIZ Off. USC Def. NCAA Avg.
68.6% - FT% 72.2% - 69.6%
45.4% 44.4% 2P% 50.7% 50.1% 48.5%
36.9% - 3P% 35.7% - 34.3%
25.7% 37.7% 3PA% 32.4% 35.3% 32.8%

South Carolina has played some decent offensive and some decent defensive games in SEC play so far, but has yet to put an entire performance together - they scored over 1.00 ppp (points per possession) against Texas A&M and Georgia, and held LSU and Mississippi to under 1.00 ppp.  They're average on both sides of the ball, but too variable on each right now, and frankly, too unlucky.

The Gamecocks seem like they can score against Missouri in a similar way that they did against Georgia.  Since the Tigers don't force turnovers, Carolina should get plenty of looks at the basket, and the Tigers aren't tall enough or strong enough on the offensive glass to keep the Gamecocks from finding success there.  However, they do defend two-point shots rather well, while allowing teams to take as many 3s as they like (that 37.7% 3PA defense is 309th in the nation).  And while the Gamecocks do a good job of getting to the line, Missouri avoids fouls relatively well, so twos may not bring points either from field goals or from the free throws that drives to the lane tend to create.

So Carolina may be best served to do what they did last year in Missouri - play the three-point lottery and hope it works out.  With Shaw, Williams, and Thornwell all shooting 38% or higher from long range, it's a plan that could succeed.  Of course, it may be difficult to get open looks against Missouri's guards - Jordan Clarkson and Jabari Brown are both 6'5", compared to the 5'11" Williams and 6'0" Shaw.

On defense, however, it looks like this could be a replay of the Georgia game, with one key difference - it seems unlikely that Missouri will hit 56% of their 3s (on the other hand, Carolina hit 57% of theirs in Athens, a feat similarly unlikely to occur again).  The Tigers get to the line regularly through all five of their starters, each of whom posts an FTR (free throw rate: FTA/FGA) of over 40%.  Expect another game where the opposing team takes a ton of free throws if you're Carolina, who's now giving up almost 30% of the points they concede to teams from the line, the fifth-highest rate in the nation.

The Gamecocks seem stuck between a rock and a hard place defensively - they can't rebound defensively without playing man defense, and they can't stop teams from scoring unless they're in zone (they can't really stop fouling no matter what they do, though fouls are certainly more likely to occur in man).  Since Missouri hammers the offensive glass as well as gets to the line regularly, that leaves the Gamecocks forced to pick their poison.  Martin loves man as a matter of philosophy, but so far, his interior players can't play it without fouling, leaving situations like the one in Athens on Wednesday, where little-used Reggie Theus Jr. and Brian Steele saw 25 combined minutes.

The Gamecocks aren't as bad as they looked on Wednesday night, but without Tyrone Johnson, trips to places like Columbia, Missouri only become more difficult.  South Carolina follows this game with three winnable contests (A&M, at Ole Miss, and hosting Auburn), but they need to stick together through a difficult game so they can head into those with a belief they can find a way to win.  Of course, that belief would certainly be present if they could figure out a way to get a victory over the Tigers on Saturday afternoon.

The game tips off at 4pm ET and can be seen on SEC TV.
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