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Gamecocks v. FIU: Better Know the Panthers

After two tough road losses, the Gamecocks return to Colonial Life Arena to take on the FIU Panthers.

Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

After two difficult losses on the road against Baylor and Clemson, the Gamecocks come back to Columbia on Sunday to face off against the 6-2 FIU Panthers.  Those six wins are the most of any team in the country, but given the schedule they've been acquired against, the Gamecocks should be heavy favorites to even up their season record at .500 on Sunday.

The Panthers are a program in transition in a number of ways.  Last season, they went 18-14, led by first-year coach Richard Pitino, and finished third in the East division of the Sun Belt Conference.  Pitino parlayed that  one season into the Minnesota job (how, I have no idea) and the Panthers moved from the Sun Belt to the dramatically expanded Conference USA.

This season, FIU has taken a very different scheduling tack as compared to South Carolina.  While the Gamecocks backloaded their schedule to ensure that Tyrone Johnson and Bruce Ellington would be available for as many games as possible, FIU has already played eight games, compiling a 6-2 record against lackluster competition (which includes two non-Division I teams).

The Panthers rely heavily on their starters, each of whom averages over 24 minutes a game.  Their best player is Rakeem Buckles, a 6'7" senior who began his career at Louisville before his career was ravaged by knee injuries.  He's the clear leader of this team and an excellent player in nearly every aspect - he shoots 28% of FIU's shots while on the court at a 57.9% eFG, grabs 17.5% of ORebs and 21.8% of DRebs (top 200 in each), only turns the ball over on 8.9% of possessions (a very impressive number given how many he uses).  And instead of taking plays off defensively, he blocks 7.5% of 2PAs other teams take while he's on the court, to go with grabbing steals on 3.2% of possessions.  FIU has played a terrible schedule, but these are video game numbers.  He'll be the guy to watch out for on Sunday.

FIU received a huge blow earlier this week when Raymond Taylor was pulled from FIU's game against Stetson - literally, like in the middle of the damn game - for potential NCAA eligibility issues.  Without him, FIU is down to a seven-man rotation and without one of their best players, a 5'6" point guard who assists on over one-third of the baskets his teammates score when he's on the court.  No one else on FIU clears one-sixth.

FIU doesn't do anything amazing offensively, with the possible exception of getting after offensive rebounds.  Defensively, they've similarly not been great in any particular area.  Frankly, FIU's been good at scheduling.  Without Taylor - who played exactly 36 minutes for them in each of the the four games they've played where the outcome was remotely in doubt - the Panthers simply shouldn't have the depth to make a real run at Carolina, despite the greatness of Buckles.

It will be interesting to see if Carolina keeps up its offensive profile that it's developed thus far.  Despite not being the greatest team in the world on the interior, the Gamecocks have focused on getting the ball inside irrespective of how well it's worked.  Albeit against two good opponents, Carolina's only shooting 44% from 2 (275th in D-I) while taking 77.9% of their shots from the interior (23rd).  Scoring against good teams has been Carolina's issue, and you'd think that's something they can fix, especially against weaker opponents.  The rest of the core is strong - we've avoided turnovers much better than we did last season, while continuing to pound the glass, though we get to the line a little less often.  But part of this is simply playing two very strong teams out of our only three games thus far.  FIU's a chance to get right.

In doing so, the Gamecocks are likely to continue implementing their nine-man rotation, with Johnson and Thornwell starting out games with Henry, Kacinas, and most likely Carrera or Notice as the fifth man.  Along with Brenton Williams, these seven players are all playing between 50-75% of the minutes, so this is the core of our rotation, with Chatkevicius and Ringer contributing about 10 minutes a game each down low off the bench.  Given how unwieldy out rotations were last season, having a sensible set up of the roles each player is meant to play this early in the season has been nice to see.  Of course part of that may be based on the inability of the other players to provide value from the bench, but let's count it as a strength for now.

It'll be interesting to see what Bruce's return in a few weeks does to impact this rhythm, but it should allow him to ease into basketball, whereas last year he was immediately thrust into playing over 30 minutes a night for a team desperate for talent anywhere it could find it.  I would not be surprised to see him take nearly all of Duane Notice's 16 minutes a game, but Frank likes what he brings enough to have started him twice, so it's too early yet to lose total faith in the Canadian freshman.

I remained surprised that Carrera and Williams aren't starting consistently, as they remain the two best offensive forces for the Gamecocks, somewhat on the strength of their unwillingness to turn the ball over (each is under 1% so far, both top 75 marks).  It'll be interesting to see if Brenton can get his shot going against the Panthers, as he's looked ready to break out for a big game, but just can't seem to find his shot yet.  It's a little concerning he's gone back to focusing on shooting only 3PAs (14 compared to 9 2PAs) after showing an ability to get to the rim and the line last season.  Again, something to watch for in our only upcoming game in the next month that will be against truly overmatched competition.

After the Baylor near-win, people wanted to believe this team had the ability to make a run for the NCAA tournament.  After the Clemson loss, a number of people ratcheted their expectations back quite severely.  This team still may struggle to get to the NIT, but it'll be based in large part on the fact it faces a very difficult schedule (one of the reasons we're going to Stillwater is no one else in the SEC was interested in doing so).  Still, if you hold out hope for this team making a postseason tournament, this will be a game where it can show how good it can be this year.  Hopefully, the continued strong defensive performances (in limited games thus far, every opponents' worst offensive game has come against us) can be paired with an improved offensive performance.

The Gamecocks return home after two difficult road games with the chance to run out with a big win.  Let's hope they take it.

Game time is 1pm, and the game can be viewed either on Fox SportsSouth, on in person.