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Let's Not Get Cocky: South Carolina Preview

Yeah, you'll read that headline, and you'll like it.  Gamecock bullets:

  • Overall record of 15-16 last season; 6-10 in the SEC.  Best win was against Kentucky at home.  Bowed out in first round of SEC Tournament to end season.  Finished 84th in the KenPom rankings; 118th on offense, 69th on defense.
  • KenPom has them finishing right in the same neighborhood this year: 118th on offense, 64th on defense.  Projected to go 6-10 in conference play again.
  • Opened the season with a 94-79 win over Elon.  Sam Muldrow led the way with 20 points (more on him in a minute).  Nine players saw 10 minutes or more on the floor for South Carolina.
  • SC returns 2 of 4 starters from last season (the 5th starting spot was split between, like, the entirety of the remaining roster).  Gone is 5'9" shot-taker extraordinaire Devan Downey, who averaged 22.5 points on 19.1 FGA per game last year. 
  • The top returning scorer is 6'9" senior forward Sam Muldrow, who averaged 10.4 points/game on a .468/.259/.653 (2pt/3pt/FT) shooting line last season.  More impressively, Muldrow averaged 3.1 blocked shots per game, ranking 19th in the country in individual block%.
  • The other returning starter is 6'5" sophomore forward Lakeem Jackson, who averaged 7.2 points/game on a .525/.000/.271 shooting line (only 8 three-point attempts in that sample, but posted a Nixesque 16-59 shooting line from the charity stripe).  It looks like Jackson can handle the ball some on the wing; he put up a 1.69 assist/turnover ratio last year.
  • The Gameock roster features six incoming freshmen.  5'9" Bruce Ellington looks to be the heir apparent to Downey at the point.  6'4" guard Brian Richardson was also in the SC starting lineup in the team's opener.
  • Head coach Darrin Horn is entering his 3rd season at SC, having previously coached at Western Kentucky.  The Gamecocks won a share of a division title and made the NIT in Horn's first season before reverting to last year's .500ish record.

South Carolina looks like a team in rebuilding mode coming off a disappointing season.  That's generally not a good combination.  On the other hand, running out a bunch of new, hungry players can lead to things like "intensity" and "balance."  Phrased more neutrally, this is a team with a deep and athletic, but inexperienced, roster.

Stepping back a bit: Whatever success SC had last season was a function of winning the turnover battle.  The team ranked in the top 40 nationally in both offensive and defensive turnover percentage, while playing a pretty up-tempo style, ranking 60th nationally in adjusted tempo.  The team's big problem on offense was shooting the ball: SC hit just 32.0% of its 3-point attempts and 65.0% of its free throw attempts.  Defensively, the team couldn't prevent second-chance scoring opportunities, allowing opponents to pull down a whopping 37.5% of potential offensive boards.  And, despite a healthy team block% of 14.5, the team still allowed opponents to make nearly 50% of their two-point attempts.  This smells like a team that played for the big play on defense but got burnt for easy baskets quite frequently.

Michigan State will look to use its own athleticism, some of it young but much of it quite experienced, to take advantage of SC's style of play.  It's a good thing Korie Lucious is back from his suspension (Mike Kebler could be available, too), to give Kalin Lucas a break and avoid running him down in a second straight fast-paced game as he continues to work back from the Achilles' injury.  If that doesn't work, pounding the offensive glass for easy putbacks is the back-up plan.  The challenge may come in the halfcourt offense, as Muldrow's presence gives the Gamecocks a legitimate shot-blocking presence; Draymond Green et al. will need to adjust their shot selection in the paint accordingly.  (Aside, also from the Kebler link: Alex Gauna is officially redshirting this season.)

Defensively, MSU will focus on containing Jackson's playmaking going toward the basket.  He presents a challenge as another undersized athlete at the 4-spot (without the 3-point shooting ability of Brandon Bowdry).  Beyond that, the biggest key is probably avoiding turnovers on offense that lead to easy baskets going the other way for the Gamecocks.  The game should be a good test of Keith Appling's transition to major college basketball on that front.

KenPom predicts an 80-64 win in a 72-possession game.  On paper, this should be a tailor-made early-season opportunity for MSU: a test against players of not-insignificant athletic ability that should nonetheless result in an entertaining win on national TV.   (Oops, too cocky?  [slaps knee])

P.S.  Speaking of national TV, MSU's game will close out ESPN's College Hoops Tip-Off 24-Hour Marathon.  The action starts in just a few hours, at the stroke of midnight (Miami-Memphis).  Set your alarm for 4:00 a.m. to see Trey Zeigler and the Chippewa play in Hawaii.  Ohio State will participate in perhaps the marquee game of the day, playing at Florida starting at 6:00 p.m.  Feel free to use this preview as an open discussion thread if you're engaging in the early season basketball viewing debauchery.