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

EDITOR’S NOTE: Tennessee played this team just over three weeks ago and little about them has changed. Most of what’s written here is from the first preview

OPPONENT South Carolina (13-8, 4-5 SEC, #100 KenPom)
(6-14, 4-12 SEC, #124 KenPom 2020-21)
LOCATION Colonial Life Arena
Columbia, SC
TIME Saturday, February 5
Jim Spanarkel (analyst)
SPREAD KenPom: Tennessee -8
Torvik: Tennessee -7.1

Tennessee is looking to build off of a surprising shootout win over Texas A&M and has quietly looked better offensively the last couple of weeks outside of a Texas horror show. South Carolina is…just looking, I think. This is typically the time of the year the Gamecocks pull off a variety of College Crap wins over teams that are much better than them, but I don’t know that they’ve got that same juice this year; they enter at 4-5 with about a 65% shot at entering next Saturday 4-7 and are projected to finish 7-11 in SEC play.

For some reason this game is on CBS, which is amazing news because you get Kevin Harlan and Jim Spanarkel on the call, two of the best.

South Carolina’s offense

A little worse than last time out, when they were at least a top-200 unit. All of my complaints about this being a truly unwatchable offense have been amplified as of late. Hooray! Tennessee held this offense to 0.657 PPP in the first meeting in part because the Gamecocks turned it over on 33% of possessions and took tons of awful shots. The best South Carolina offensive performance in SEC play was against Georgia at 1.125 PPP; Georgia gave up 1.21 PPP at home to ETSU. If you think Tennessee is hard to watch, South Carolina is torturous. The funniest thing about it is that CBS knew before the season began that South Carolina’s offense has been terrible for a decade and still picked this game!


Oof. Carolina hasn’t even played Kentucky or LSU yet.

This year’s leading scorer, by way of being the oldest guy on the team, is Erik Stevenson (11.2 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 31.4% eFG% on off-the-dribble jumpers and only has 23 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 third on the team in scoring at 10.1 PPG and is an efficient three-point shooter at about 36%. 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 27% 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 (7.9 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 (76.9% on 52 attempts) and is really good at knowing when to cut to the basket. One change worth noting: Leveque has been kind of terrible since he first played Tennessee, scoring a total of 25 points in SoCar’s last seven games.

James Reese V (10.9 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. He’s South Carolina’s new #2 scorer after being #4 in the first game and has started hitting lots of mid-range twos. Devin Carter (8.3 PPG) uses more possessions than anyone not named Stevenson, but is posting a 43.1% eFG% and is 21-for-73 on everything that’s not a layup or dunk.

CHART! The official Chart Guide is now as follows (and yes, South Carolina plays 12 guys):

Yes: “Be afraid.” 😬
Somewhat: “They can hit this but not very efficiently.” 🤔
No: “Either never attempts this shot or is atrocious at making it.” 🥳

South Carolina’s defense

A little bit better than last time out, in that they’re now a top-30 unit. South Carolina, as a concept, is in a loose group of teams I’m calling the Cringe Posters. To qualify, your offense must rank 200th or worse while your defense must be a top-30 unit. Congrats to South Carolina, San Diego State, and VCU for Cringe Posting.

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 93rd-percentile in around-the-basket defense, and play-by-play stats have them 66th-best nationally, now a bit ahead of Tennessee. Carolina has a switch-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 eight 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 this season of Tennessee basketball.

How Tennessee matches up

The last time Tennessee played South Carolina, I noted that I was pretty annoyed by who Tennessee was letting take catch-and-shoot threes and begged for Josiah-Jordan James to find a different shot he might like more. Since that game, Josiah-Jordan James is 8-for-15 from three, so please note that you should not listen to anything I do or say.

In the first game between these two, Tennessee found most of its offensive success inside the perimeter, whether it was guards running off of screens or John Fulkerson wobbling about in the post. Tennessee’s rotational shifts since then could complicate the latter, but the former is still a pretty reasonable ask. In particular, Zakai Zeigler was the best player on the court in the first battle these two had. Zeigler seems to improve every week; asking him to continue attacking the rim like his hair is on fire makes for a very fun viewing experience.

The other thing: you’ll have to create open threes, which I think Tennessee is reasonably good at against teams that are not coached by Chris Beard or Chris Beard’s right-hand man. Tennessee went 7-for-21 from deep in the first meeting but frankly got pretty unlucky; 14 of their 16 catch-and-shoot attempts didn’t have a defender within four feet of the shooter. Tennessee did go 6-for-16 on these, and it gives me confidence that even if South Carolina adjusts their coverage Tennessee could still exploit it pretty well. So: why not feed your hottest three-point shooter in Josiah-Jordan James? (Or a variety of other options.)

Defensively, Tennessee forced a very even shot split in the first game: 16 rim, 14 mid-range, 19 threes. South Carolina couldn’t even hit 50% of their attempts at the rim and were fairly hopeless everywhere else, but the fear of game-to-game variance is always going to be there. To their credit, the Gamecocks did just shoot 9-for-19 against a top-40 Texas A&M defense. I think Tennessee’s a lot better on defense, obviously, but it’s not crazy to imagine a scenario where South Carolina hangs around for long enough to annoy you.

I would be surprised if Tennessee forces quite as many turnovers as they did in the first game simply because Carolina hasn’t topped 24% TO% in a game since. So: you have to play quality shot defense and rebound. My honest first thought with the Gamecocks is “let them shoot” because they’re in the 11th-percentile in America in half-court jumper efficiency. Let them shoot. Guard it, obviously, but I’m not gonna sweat if they’re taking guarded threes or long twos.

This could very easily turn itself into a game where neither side touches 70, but I thought that about the A&M game, too. Let’s see what happens.

Starters + rotations

Metric explanations: Role is algorithmically-determined by Bart Torvik. 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

  • Threes. Threes! Tennessee made 11 against Texas A&M, and quietly, it seems like they’re making a resurgence. In the last six games, Tennessee has made 10+ threes in four. The positive regression everyone’s been begging for seems to be here; if Tennessee makes 11 in this one I’m not sure what Carolina’s path to an upset is.
  • Who wins the shot volume battle? This is #6 at #30 in defensive TO%, #35 at #26 in OREB%. The path to a Carolina win involves them having at least a 4-5 possession edge in TO + OREB margin.
  • Do we get an explanation why this is on CBS? It’s very strange that they picked this one for CBS distribution back in August and not…you know, Tennessee vs. An NCAA Tournament Team. Excited to hear Harlan’s voice, though.

Key matchups

James Reese V vs. Santiago Vescovi. Reese has become South Carolina’s most reliable player in the last month; Vescovi has done the same for the Vols. Reese was the difference-maker in the Texas A&M + Vandy wins, as those are the only games this year he’s gone for more than 15 points. Keep him under 15 and limit his impact.

Erik Stevenson vs. Three Players. Stevenson will get covered by a lot of guys because Tennessee gives all of Powell/JJJ/Vescovi serious time at the 3, but also because Stevenson spends a lot of on-court time flying around off-ball screens. I’d prefer to not let him get loose.

Wildens Leveque vs. Uros Plavsic. I guess Plavsic is still starting, but this is probably Nkamhoua’s matchup by game’s end. Either way, Leveque has stopped providing much of an impact on O but is still really good on D. Leveque has finished seven games this year with 4 or 5 fouls, and when he’s off the court, Carolina doesn’t force as many TOs and fouls more frequently.

Three predictions

  1. Both teams block 4 or more shots;
  2. South Carolina has a possession with multiple offensive rebounds that results in zero points and feels incredibly deflating;
  3. Tennessee 71, South Carolina 63.

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