In an otherwise disheartening loss to Texas A&M on Wednesday night, 75-67, the worst news came out after the contest ended, when Frank Martin announced that Tyrone Johnson suffered a broken ankle. The injury likely means Johnson misses most of (if not all of) the rest of South Carolina's season, which puts a dent in the Gamecocks' already fading hopes of playing postseason basketball.
As many of you know, the Gamecocks deliberately scheduled around the possibility of playing games without either Tyrone Johnson or Bruce Ellington available to run the point. In its first month of action, the Gamecocks only played five games, though the NCAA ultimately rendered the plan unnecessary when it declared Johnson eligible for the first semester of Carolina's season. However, with Johnson injured and with Bruce Ellington declaring for the NFL Draft, South Carolina now faces the meat of its SEC schedule without a point guard that played NCAA basketball prior to the 2013-14 season.
Johnson represents a key loss for Carolina. As the Gamecocks leader in minutes played, he spent at least 20 minutes on the court in every game so far this season. His 3.4 assists per game leads the team, and his 11.2 points per game puts him in a three-way tie with Sindarius Thornwell and Brenton Williams for the team lead. He's also the leader among Carolina's major contributors with an assist-turnover ratio of 1.8 (Jaylen Shaw sports a 2.3 ratio, but plays less than 10 minutes a game).
Obviously, most observers expect Duane Notice to continue to receive major minutes in the absence of Tyrone Johnson. Notice has averaged 20.9 minutes this season and started 11 games so far this season. He assists on 28.7% of his teammates' made baskets when he's on the floor, although his turnover rate of 28.6% (the percentage of possessions he individually ends with a turnover) gives cause for concern, especially against some of the more pressure-oriented SEC defenses. Still, he represents the first man up to take on additional responsibilities in Johnson's absence. Since this means fewer minutes for Notice at the two-guard spot, Brenton Williams, Jaylen Shaw, and perhaps even Justin McKie can expect more opportunities in that role going forward.
After that, Jaylen Shaw is the only other true point guard the Gamecocks carry on their roster this season. The freshman from Hartsville averages 9.6 minutes a game so far, a number that has recently increased thanks to at least 7 minutes of playing time in each of the last 7 contests. Shaw looks like Notice in that he assists on a ton of buckets (an assist rate of 29.4%) but also turns the ball over too much given how often he needs to handle it as the point guard (a 23.0% turnover rate). His current shooting percentages look promising - 84.6% from the line, 50% from 2PA, and 47% from 3PA - but given he's not shot more than 17 attempts from any of those areas, Carolina fans should allow the sample size to grow before drawing conclusions.
If either guy gets in foul trouble, or if Martin wants another look, the role may fall to Sindarius Thornwell, a player Carolina asks to do so much in his first season in Columbia. Thornwell doesn't sport a very high assist rate, but that comes in part because the Gamecocks do not ask him to play that role in their current lineup. His relative low turnover rate (19.1%) and ball-handling abilities may allow him to play the role, but if Thornwell moves up to the 1 with Williams at the 2, it leaves Carolina without a natural 3 to put on the floor, given that Michael Carrera's move to that spot on the floor was met with middling results earlier this season.
One thing is clear - the Gamecocks will dearly miss Tyrone Johnson over the next stretch of games, as SEC defenses force turnovers on 19.6% of offensive possessions, the sixth-highest rate in NCAA basketball. Frank Martin tried to schedule in a way that protected his young point guards from the pressures of high-level college basketball without the safety net of upperclassmen Ellington and Johnson. Starting Saturday, the freshmen lose their safety blanket.