Show Me My Opponent, 2021-22: South Carolina, Part One

GAME INFORMATION
OPPONENT South Carolina (10-4, 1-1 SEC, #101 KenPom)
(6-15, 4-12 SEC 2020-21)
LOCATION Thompson-Boling Arena
Knoxville, TN
TIME Tuesday, January 11
6:30 PM ET
CHANNEL SEC Network
ANNOUNCERS Tom Hart (PBP)
Dane Bradshaw (analyst)
SPREAD Sinners: Tennessee -15
KenPom: Tennessee -14

Torvik: Tennessee -13.9

Well, at least this one is an early-ish tip at home. South Carolina has done the thing they always do every single year: produce fragrant garbage in non-conference play (losses to Coastal Carolina, Princeton, blown out by Clemson) to go with one decent win (UAB) before rounding into form in SEC play to somehow scrape to .500 while you attempt to figure out if they’re good or just playing a trick on you. Or at least I’m assuming that’s the case.

In non-COVID times, South Carolina has gone 10-8, 11-7, 7-11, 12-6, and 11-7 in their last five SEC seasons. That’s pretty good! Exactly one of those teams ranked inside the KenPom Top 50 at season’s end: the one that somehow became a good offense for four games in March. This is the exact type of program that you know isn’t a serious threat but you also know will provide you 35 minutes of frustration regardless of how good you are. Hopefully, that isn’t the case this year.

South Carolina’s offense

The nicest thing you can say about the South Carolina offense under Frank Martin is that they’re trying. What it is they’re trying for is completely lost on me, but the effort is certainly there. South Carolina Basketball: We Are Trying, I Think.

I just don’t have much new to say about an offense that’s the exact same slop it’s been for all 9.5 of Frank Martin’s seasons in Columbia. It’s the least-watchable offense in the SEC by miles, which is a remarkable achievement when you share a conference with Texas A&M, Georgia, and Mississippi. Every year, South Carolina finishes somewhere in the 200s in eFG%, somewhere among the bottom 100 in 3PT%, and never above-average in 2PT%. Martin started to push the pace offensively a few years ago, which has led to more points because there’s more possessions, which is not efficient offense. The new plot twist this year is that they’re turning it over on 22.3% of all possessions, which is a hilariously bad matchup for a Tennessee defense that forces turnovers in bunches.

This year’s leading scorer, by way of being the oldest guy on the team, is Erik Stevenson (11.8 PPG). Stevenson is one of three players on the roster with more than seven made threes this season, which is nice. I wouldn’t call Stevenson good at creating his own shot – he’s currently posting a cool 28.1% eFG% on off-the-dribble jumpers and only has 17 rim makes this year – but he can at least shoot, which is something. Most off-ball screens the Gamecocks run are for Stevenson.

Other guys of interest: Jermaine Couisnard is somehow still here. Couisnard comes off the bench, but is second on the team in scoring at 10.8 PPG and is the most efficient three-point shooter at about 38%. That’s useful on a team that doesn’t take or make many threes. The problem is that Couisnard remains a turnover machine, almost touching a 29% TO% as an individual this season. The guy can shoot, but if you ask him to dribble at all, it’s a huge win for your defense.

There are three other players worth noting. Wildens Leveque (10.5 PPG) would be my main reason to watch this team on a nightly basis if I had one. Leveque is very much not a jump shooter and isn’t good at creating his own shot, but he’s been hyper-efficient at the rim (83.7% on 43 attempts) and is really good at knowing when to cut to the basket. James Reese V (9.8 PPG) should probably be Just a Shooter because he’s sitting at 38% from three, and the danger with him is that he’s equally solid in catch-and-shoot and pull-up situations. Devin Carter (8.6 PPG) uses more possessions than anyone not named Stevenson, but is posting a 41.4% eFG% and is 11-for-46 on everything that’s not a layup or dunk.

Allowing anything more than 0.9 points per possession/65 total points to this offense would be genuinely disappointing. They take more midrange twos than any SEC team that isn’t Kentucky, do not shoot particularly well on anything that’s not a layup…get them out of there. Enough. No more.

CHART! “Yes” means “is efficient at doing so”; “somewhat” means “can, but not efficiently”; “no” means you can be mad. SPECIAL NOTE: I’ve included free throw percentages here upon request. The numbers used are a player’s career FT%, not 2021-22.

South Carolina’s defense

Unfortunately, this unit appears to be very good. South Carolina kind of took a year off of playing their usual hard-nosed defense a year ago due to COVID, but this year, it’s back in full force. Like the offense, the patterns are pretty much always the same: a healthy amount of blocked shots, lots of forced turnovers, but little in the way of defensive rebounding and an insane amount of fouling.

Starting down low and working our way out: the rim. Synergy ranks the South Carolina defense in the 98th-percentile in around-the-basket defense, and play-by-play stats have them 32nd-best nationally, precisely one spot behind Tennessee. Carolina has a somewhat-swap-heavy defense that spends most of its time in man but can bust its way to a 2-3 zone look at times:

I wouldn’t be shocked to see this simply because we already saw it for about 10-15 possessions last year when the two played. Anyway, the rim protection is pretty legitimate. Carolina’s best shot-blocker is Keyshawn Bryant, who comes off the bench, but they play a wide variety of guys at the 4 and 5 (literally nine different guys have logged significant time in the last five games in the frontcourt), all of whom seem fairly capable at making life difficult. The most fearful, by my standards, is Leveque.

The problem is that Leveque, Bryant, and nearly everyone in the frontcourt foul like crazy. The Gamecocks commit more fouls than all but nine teams in college basketball. The odds of you getting to the free throw line increase immensely if you get an offensive rebound, post up any of their bigs, or produce a well-timed basket cut.

So yeah, no wonder they play a billion guys down low. South Carolina’s been excellent at stuffing twos, but when you foul as often as they do, the risk/reward of this gets a little fuzzy. Frank Martin’s defense is hyper-aggressive for 40 minutes every single night. This produces a ton of turnovers, particularly in ball-screens and in isolation, but it leads to a lot of reaching, jumping, overexcitement, etc.

This is why they should build a Mike Schwartz statue at Thompson-Boling Arena. Tennessee is also hyper-aggressive, but they foul half as often. South Carolina is a whirling dervish of feast-or-famine. When it works, great; when it doesn’t, well, you’ll be pleased to know they have a poor Guarded/Unguarded rate (51/49) and have gotten torched from three by a few teams.

This is a defense that wants to produce variance. Whether or not this is upsetting to you probably depends on whether you’ve watched the last three Tennessee basketball games.

How Tennessee matches up

Well, it’s an offense predicated on generating open threes that does seem to generate them well but is doing a poor job of hitting them. Tennessee is shooting just 33.1% on Unguarded catch-and-shoot threes, per Synergy; the national average is generally anywhere from 36% to 38% depending on the season. Tennessee is going to get a lot of chances to take them in this game. Here is my proposal: start giving the right players the right shots.

As of now, here’s how Tennessee’s players rank in catch-and-shoot attempts this season, per Synergy:

  • Santiago Vescovi: 89 attempts
  • Josiah-Jordan James: 61
  • Zakai Zeigler & Victor Bailey, Jr.: 48
  • Justin Powell: 39
  • Kennedy Chandler: 33

So: 109 of Tennessee’s catch-and-shoot attempts have gone to three guys. Those three guys have combined to convert all of 23 of those, or 21.1%. Stop giving Bailey and James chances to take these shots. Instead, why not feed Powell, Chandler, or even Olivier Nkamhoua? Heck, I’d hear out Zeigler, who’s at least 15-for-48. This, more than anything else, would seem to keep the games from being quite as frustrating.

Tennessee will also have to score at the rim this game, and while I’m fine with post-ups against this team, it would be useful to just keep accumulating drives and cuts. Get the experience now, worry about other stuff later. This should theoretically serve as a get-right game. Maybe I’m being too hopeful, but hey, it’s all I can do at this point. In particular, I would get Chandler rolling downhill as frequently as possible in this game. It worked to open up the offense against Ole Miss, and I think it could do similar work here. Plus, with how foul-happy Carolina is, it could serve as a chance for Chandler to rack up easy points.

Defensively…I mean, let South Carolina take any and all of the mid-range jumpers they want to take. That should just be it: run them off the three-point line, ice them before they get to the paint. They’ll take shots at the rim and from three because literally everyone does, but as long as you limit the easy attempts, this really shouldn’t be a difficult job.

The more exciting part of this: the turnovers. No one left on Tennessee’s schedule is anywhere close to South Carolina in terms of how many turnovers they commit on a per-possession basis. Tennessee forces a ton of turnovers in isolation and in ball-screens; South Carolina turns it over a lot in those same situations. I’ve already mentioned Chandler on offense, but this seems like a great chance for him to show out defensively. I’d personally be quite disappointed if Chandler couldn’t find his way to at least two steals in this one. Really, three or four could be on the table.

Get right, get back on track, get out alive.

Starters + rotations

Metric explanations: MPG is minutes per game. PPG/RPG/APG/Fouls/Twos/Threes are what you’d guess. USG% is the percentage of possessions a player uses on the court. OREB%/DREB% are your available rebounds usurped. Finally, PRPG! is Bart Torvik’s Points Over Replacement metric; the higher the better. If you’re on mobile, zoom in; if on desktop, right click -> Open Image in New Tab.

Three things to watch for

  • Can Tennessee own this game in the first ten minutes? Tennessee, per Synergy, is shooting a disgusting 27% from three in the first ten minutes of games this season. They’ve lost the theoretical first quarter seven times in 14 games. They’ve outscored opponents by just 2.2 PPG in the first 10 minutes of games while beating them by 12 PPG in the final three quarters. Enough. Show up and play like you want to be there.
  • Can South Carolina win a Four Factor? Tennessee is superior in all four: eFG%, TO%, OREB%, and even FT Rate. If Tennessee doesn’t win TOs + OREBs by 7 or more, I’ll be surprised.
  • Who are Leeds signing in the January transfer market? I would like Nico Dominguez from Bologna or similar. Whatever it takes to stay up and keep the PL money coming.

Key matchups

Wildens Leveque vs. either Olivier Nkamhoua or John Fulkerson. I would not be shocked to see Fulkerson on the bench to start this one, frankly. Nkamhoua is a better strength matchup, but Fulkerson will be better at forcing Leveque to the bench with foul trouble. Either way, this is a guy that won’t take up many possessions but will post a few dunks. You can’t let him scare you at the rim on the other end, either.

Erik Stevenson vs. … uhhh…someone at the 3? Tennessee’s starting spot also seems unsettled here, and again, I would rather see Justin Powell get minutes than Josiah-Jordan James right now. Regardless of who gets the nod, Stevenson is SoCar’s main driver of possessions and Tennessee cannot let the guy get loose from three.

Three predictions

  1. Tennessee adds to The Discourse™ by attempting 25+ three-pointers;
  2. Tennessee and South Carolina combine for 35+ free throw attempts;
  3. Tennessee 76, South Carolina 60.

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