It took three years, but Frank Martin finally has the defense he's wanted at South Carolina. With that three-year wait over, the question now becomes: can he also end his wait for a win over USC's in-state rivals?
Clemson comes to Columbia on Friday night with a relatively weak team that the Gamecocks should be able to dispatch. On the line for Carolina are bragging rights, as well as bolstering their chances of putting together a solid resume this season. While that resume didn't seem like it would matter after early-season losses to average outfits like Charlotte and Akron, Carolina's big win over Oklahoma State has some Gamecock fans wondering if this team isn't ready to break the school's NCAA Tournament drought.
|The Four Factors (Pomeroy Rankings)
|When USC has the ball (KP Rk.)
|When Clem has the ball (KP Rk.)
|When USC has the ball
|When Clem has the ball (KP Rk.)
When Clemson has the ball
The battle between the South Carolina defense and the Clemson offense could well dictate the outcome of this game. Clemson hasn't played really good offense all year, and if the Gamecocks can shut them down on that end of the floor, they should be able to do enough when they have the ball to win. Carolina has held seven of its eight opponents to less than one point per possession, and they've won five of those seven games (the aforementioned Charlotte and Akron losses as the exceptions).
As you can see, Clemson doesn't shoot the ball incredibly well on offense, and that's primarily because they don't do a good job of making 3s. Carolina doesn't let you make easy 2s and forces you to rely on 3s - that's a recipe for hammering Clemson. On the other hand, that's also an advantage they'll have to earn, given the Tigers' abilities to makes 2s on the offensive end. And of course, there's always a concern when you let a team jack 3s - while the Gamecock defense has been great this year in part because their opponents have only shot 30% against them from beyond the arc, there's strong evidence that the 3-point line is a lottery.
So how can Clemson win this game? Get hot from outside. Alternatively, they'd better be as good at hitting 2s against USC as they have been against everyone else, or they need to be able to rebound on offense against a pretty strong defensive rebounding team. The Gamecock defense, at its best, moots Clemson's strengths and forces them to rely on its weaknesses. If that's how the game plays out tonight, USC should be in fine shape.
When South Carolina has the ball
On the other end of the floor, there aren't strong advantages to be found for either team. The Gamecocks should be able to find extra shots thanks to their superior turnover and rebounding percentages, but Clemson doesn't allow easy points from the free throw line, and they do that while also blocking a ton of 2s (13% of opponents' 2PAs) and holding teams to a pretty woeful 43.1% 2P% on defense. That's impressive.
But back to those extra shots. If Carolina isn't turning the ball over, and they're grabbing offensive rebounds, they'll have more opportunities than the Tigers to score points. Obviously, it's all for naught if you can't convert those chances into made baskets, but it's certainly the recipe for USC to score enough to win on Friday night.
Who To Watch For
For the Gamecocks, the scoring should come from Sindarius Thornwell and Duane Notice, each of whom are averaging double-digit points per game. Tyrone Johnson still hasn't played his best basketball so far this season, so tonight would be a fine time for him to grab the form he had early on last year. Of course, he'll be spelled at times by freshman Marcus Stroman, who continues to dole out assists at a prodigious rate.
In the frontcourt, the Gamecocks welcome the return of Michael Carrera, who appears to be past his concussion-related problems. He'll join Laimonas Chatkevicius, who has been on a great run in recent games, and now represents one of the best offensive weapons in the Gamecock arsenal. Starting alongside Chatkevicius is most likely Demetrius Henry, who continues to struggle on offense, but makes up for it in part by blocking over 6% of opponents' 2-point attempts. And they'll continue to find help from Mindaugas Kacinas, the Lithuanian forward who still disappears too often on offense, but rebounds ferociously on that end (a 16.8% rate that's 24th in the nation) and plays strong defense to boot.
For the Tigers, senior guard Rod Hall leads Clemson into Colonial Life Arena, with a gaudy shooting percentage coupled with strong assist numbers. He makes the offense go. He's typically dishing the ball to forward Jaron Blossomgame, who honestly doesn't shoot well enough to justify the number of shots he takes for the Tigers, though that's also somewhat symptomatic of the fact that Clemson doesn't have enough offensive weapons.
Joining Blossomgame in the post is Landry Nnoko, a 6'10" junior that typifies what you want from a post player in many respects - he blocks shots, rebounds, and shoots at a high percentage on the inside. Unfortunately for Clemson, he also turns the ball over too much, particularly for someone who doesn't handle the ball except in the post.
Rounding out the Tigers' starting squad is senior Damarcus Harrison at shooting guard and Donte Grantham at forward. The Tigers seldom substitute, with all of their starters playing at least 28 minutes a game, which is one of the reasons they don't foul much - they can't afford to foul with a 7-man rotation. They'll also rotate in junior guard Jordan Roper (from Irmo High, a short drive from Columbia) and forward Austin Ajukwa, but outside of the starters, the rest of the team plays marginal minutes.
The Gamecocks are better than Clemson and playing at home, and thus they should win this basketball game. But there are plenty of routes to victory for the Tigers, perhaps more than Carolina fans would prefer, given how badly the fans want a win to avenge last month's disappointing result in football. They should get it.
Prediction: Gamecocks 63, Clemson 52