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Show Me My Basketball Opponent: South Carolina (I)

Show Me My Basketball Opponent: South Carolina (I)

There are days when I wish I hadn’t deleted my “Tennessee hired the guy that let Frank Martin go to hire Bruce Weber” tweet. On one hand, there’s nothing worse than contributing to the Tennessee Discourse. On the other…Tennessee hired the guy that essentially fired the guy that took South Carolina to a Final Four. Thankfully, this didn’t result in anything disastrous at all about the football coaching search or anything else.

Anyway, that’s all in the past now. The Gamecocks are nearly two years removed from what was probably the most miraculous Final Four run by a Big Six school of my lifetime. Only 13-loss 1999-2000 Wisconsin really challenges their reign, and that was a team with five Top 25 wins. I think some may have forgotten how absurd it was, so let me refresh you: South Carolina entered the NCAA Tournament with the 151st-best offense by KenPom in America. They’d lost six of their previous nine games. They ranked 315th in eFG%. All they did well was get offensive rebounds and get fouled. They hadn’t topped 1.096 PPP on offense in six weeks by the time their Friday night game against Marquette rolled around.

So, yeah, all they did was drop 93 on Marquette and 88 on a top 10 Duke team to go to the Sweet Sixteen. Then the #2 defense in America showed up for a game to obliterate Baylor. And then they’d beat Florida in the Elite Eight and then they nearly beat the second-best college basketball team in America just for fun. Like, you’re never gonna have that happen again, embrace it. Sindarius Thornwell was God for two weeks.

Of course, when the Cinderella story ends, it ends fast. South Carolina is 27-25 since that Gonzaga loss, though a shocking 5-1 start to SEC play (buoyed by a 4-0 record in close games) has helped matters. Gone is the elite defense (#96 Torvik, #106 KenPom). Remaining is the awful shooting (#286 eFG%), quality offensive rebounding (#70 OREB%), and a profound ability to foul everything in sight (six of seven seasons 300th or worse in Defensive Free Throw Rate). Basically, it’s everything that’s encapsulated Frank Martin’s bizarre tenure at South Carolina, minus a Thornwell freakout.


WHAT THEY BRING

Well…very little offensively!

I mean I’m supposed to be kind of nice here but. As mentioned above, South Carolina’s never been a good shooting team under Martin, so nothing about that is surprising. However, it’s the consistent incompetence at shooting the ball anywhere other than the rim that’s depressing. They rank 305th nationally in 3PT% at 31.0%:

They’re 238th nationally on two-point jumpers at 34.8%:

And even their actually-good 65.5% rim efficiency rate is a disappointment, because just 29.2% of their shots (329th of 353) come at the rim.

It’s just depressing, because there’s clearly the building blocks of a decent offense here. Chris Silva is a relentless foul drawer that’s very efficient at the rim. Hassani Gravett is a 42% three-point shooter. Felipe Haase is a 250-pound stretch 5 that hits 37.2% of his threes. Malik Kotsar is a very good offensive rebounder. AJ Lawson isn’t efficient, but he gets fouled frequently and seems to be a fine passer. I’m not saying this is the next Gonzaga, but you could do better than having the 228th-best offense in America by unadjusted offensive efficiency. I just don’t get how it’s so bad and then you toss a below-average turnover rate on top of it:

As a side note (because it doesn’t fit in elsewhere), they’re also particularly bad against zone defenses. Synergy has them in the 7th-percentile nationally against zones, which is no surprise for a terrible shooting team:

This would be a fine game for Barnes to consider the zone, especially as one of the few things South Carolina does well is draw fouls.

The only saving graces: offensive rebounds and fouls

After reading that headline, it goes without saying that this is not an offense many enjoy watching. South Carolina is 5-0 in games where their Free Throw Rate (percentage of free throw attempts to field goal attempts) is 49% or higher and 5-0 when their OREB% is 37.8% or greater. In all other games: 5-9. Shooting does matter – 7-2 when their eFG% is above 50%, 3-7 when it’s below – but those two things matter more. You need to keep this team off the offensive boards, because if you don’t:

This could be a longer night than it has any right to be.

Other specific things they do…well? Fine?

South Carolina – meaning Chris Silva – is Okay on post-ups! They rank in the 54th-percentile nationally and in the 60th-percentile including pass-outs. I kid you not, this is their highest-ranked play type that isn’t a putback.

They’re also…kinda…okay on pick-and-rolls – 45th-percentile P&R Ball Handler, 52nd-percentile Roll Man, 47th-percentile overall. Look, I’m trying:

They also rank in the 2nd-percentile nationally in making unguarded threes. This sounds terrible, but – and hear me out – it’s actually not, because 47.5% of their catch-and-shoot threes are unguarded. Is this because there’s only two rotation players hitting more than 31% of their threes. Of course it is, but they’re open, and it’s the thought that counts.

By the way, they’re somehow a worse shooting team at home, hitting 29.8% of threes and getting blocked on 9% of attempts. This team being 5-1 in SEC play while being +1 in net points is as stupid as it gets.

Chris Silva

Easily the most terrifying offensive player they’ve got. Gravett hits threes but most of them are assisted; he’s not much of a threat elsewhere. Keyshawn Bryant is profoundly inconsistent everywhere but the rim. AJ Lawson is Kinda Bad. Malik Kotsar doesn’t shoot enough. Silva has the highest Usage Rate, but only plays 25 minutes a game and is fourth on the team in field goal attempts. Why? Because he commits six fouls per 40 minutes of play and has committed 4 or more fouls in six straight outings. That’s how you get 8 minute, 7 points (LSU) and 31 minute, 32 points (Auburn) back-to-back. Foul him out, because if not, he can do this easily:

Mediocre defense that’s especially bad in transition

They don’t actually spend a ton of time in transition despite playing a top-30 pace. Around 11.3 possessions per game on defense are in transition, per Synergy. Unsurprisingly, they aren’t limiting the damage one bit. Opponents are shooting 58.7 eFG% in transition against SC, which ranks #303 in the nation.

This obliterates the actually-not-bad #73 half-court eFG% defense, of course. It appears that South Carolina is particularly bad about getting back after missed shots; it was a key reason why they lost at home to #164 Stony Brook in November. They also commit shooting fouls on 16.3% of transition possessions, which ranks 335th in America.

Basically: you either score or get fouled…and then you score.

Zone better than man, but with perimeter caveats

South Carolina only runs a zone on about 19% of possessions, but it appears to be better pound-for-pound. Opponents are hitting just 36.7% of their shots against SC’s zone (#16 nationally), and they foul nearly 30% less than they do in man. They should do this more, right?

Well…there’s a catch. There’s not an SEC team worse at allowing unguarded threes. 56.7% of opponent catch-and-shoots have gone unguarded this year, a laughably bad number and one that ranks 350th of 353 teams. Considering opponents are hitting 42.3% of these open attempts and just 29.4% of their guarded ones, you’d think Carolina would put a renewed emphasis on the perimeter in SEC play. Nope! The rate is worse in SEC play: 58.5% unguarded, 45.8% shots made. Feel like you’re watching a paper tiger yet?

Also, because this is such a lenient perimeter defense, opponents are taking (41.2% 3PA, #262) and making (35.9% 3PT%, #261) lots of threes. Literally, if you pass the ball well enough, you can get about any open three-pointer you want.

A strangely excellent two-point defense

What makes it more bizarre is South Carolina’s legitimately very good interior defense. Just 31.6% of opponent shots come at the rim (#69!), only 55.7% are converted (#56), and they block 17.3% of rim attempts (#11). That’s excellent!

They’re also a very good pick-and-roll defense – 94th-percentile on Ball Handler, 72nd on Roll Man. Including passes, it’s 61st-percentile overall, but that’s still solid. Lots of turnovers forced on it:

They haven’t faced nearly as many post-ups, but they’re in the 82nd-percentile there. As soon as you get inside the arc, you’re playing a top-30 defense. Take a step outside of it, you’re not playing a top-300 defense. I don’t get it at all.

Specific matchups to target

Keyshawn Bryant, the starting small forward, is a horrific perimeter defender. Get inside the arc and he’s a top-three shot blocker on the team. Outside of it, he’s allowed 28 of his 44 (63.6%) catch-and-shoots defended to go unguarded.

Tre Campbell, the starting PG, has also been brutal on the perimeter. 23! of his 31 catch-and-shoots defended: unguarded.

Lastly, I know you’re desperate to find someone that Tennessee can take to the rim. Their game does depend on it. Sixth man Hassani Gravett, who plays the second-most minutes on the team, starts at SG and has struggled quite a bit defending drives. Jared Harper of Auburn took it to him for a good portion of the game:

Turner/Bowden, do your thing.


HOW TENNESSEE BEATS IT

Run the floor, basket-to-basket

It’s a 90th-percentile transition offense against a 10th-percentile transition defense. This is one of the easiest things you can do tonight.

South Carolina struggles tons with getting back after missed shots. A fun thing here is that you can get some quick threes off of it, because opponents are white-hot from three in transition in general: 29 of 60 (48.3%). Of the 46 catch-and-shoot threes, just 18 (39.1%) have been guarded. (pretending to smack the hell out of a giant bell) SCHOOOOOOOFIELD!

Hammer the rim because of their fouling prowess

Yes, South Carolina blocks a lot of shots. Yes, they’ve been pretty solid in rim defense in general. No, this shouldn’t stop you from going to the rim and drawing fouls:

Synergy says South Carolina commits fouls on 20.7% of possessions that end in a layup, dunk, or post move. That’s great for Tennessee. Bad for dudes who are whining about Grant Williams getting star calls, I guess. Admiral Schofield doesn’t draw nearly as many fouls, but considering his matchup advantage on offense, this should be a great game for him:

Hammer the boards, too

South Carolina’s at about the same level of defensive rebounding proficiency as post-Azubuike Kansas (13 OREBs for Tennessee) and West Virginia (11). Tennessee’s capable of better outings than those, but a 12-OREB outing would be acceptable. Tennessee really needs more of this going forward:

Take shots off of screens and handoffs

Oddly specific, sure, but South Carolina can’t stop either. Their Off Screen play type defense on Synergy is giving up 1.087 PPP, while they rank in the 25th-percentile in defending handoffs. Considering Lamonte Turner’s burgeoning proficiency in both, this could be a good night for him to be the microwave:

Slow the game down defensively

South Carolina’s the fifth-fastest offensive team on Tennessee’s schedule, clocking in at an Average Possession Length of 15.5 seconds. (Above them: Eastern Kentucky, Gonzaga, Memphis, Arkansas.) They’ll want to move up and down the court and draw fouls, as it’s about the only thing they’re good at. This is why I think throwing a zone at Carolina would do wonders: it allows Tennessee to dictate the flow of the game. Forcing Carolina into half-court offense, where they’re the worst shooting team in the SEC, is ideal. Demolishing transition positions like Schofield does below is an excellent way of forcing the desired outcome:

High-quality post-up defense and board protection necessary

Tennessee’s not exactly playing Gonzaga or even Eastern Kentucky here, but posting up is something South Carolina’s good-ish at. Only three teams in America get more free throws per possession from post-ups, and Chris Silva’s proven to be a dominant force when he’s not in foul trouble. I thought Tennessee’s post defense was excellent against West Virginia, despite Derek Culver’s okay game:

Likewise, Tennessee needs a good outing protecting their own boards. Three of the last four opponents have hit 32.4% or better on their OREB% rates, with only Vanderbilt dipping below. South Carolina is as good as Gonzaga at getting offensive rebounds; boxing out is important:

This is another area for opportunity. Because the Gamecocks are going to miss a lot of shots, there will be plenty of chances for rebounds. Making Silva or Malik Kotsar or Felipe Haase go over Kyle Alexander’s back to get a rebound would be ideal, because any unforced foul is a great one. Tennessee needs Silva to be on the bench as much as possible, as Carolina’s 5-1 when he commits three or fewer fouls (5-8 otherwise).

It’s a bad shooting team, but guarding them is advised

I mean duh. Tennessee did an alright job of this against West Virginia, guarding 10 of 17 catch-and-shoots (58.9%). That’s not where I want it to be (preferably 65% or better), but it’s a step in the right direction. Because it has to be Bizarro World right now, West Virginia went 4 of 10 on guarded shots and 1 of 7 on unguarded ones. Even this somewhat open attempt forced the shooter backwards:

Just a good make, nothing you can do there. Grant Williams plays excellent defense on this wild shot:

More of that, please.

Monitor the pick and pop

Tennessee’s oddly inexperienced in this play this season. Opponents have only gotten 18 attempts off of pick-and-pop plays, and just 10 of them came from three. Eastern Kentucky ran it more than any other team on Tennessee’s schedule to some success:

Kansas ran it three separate times with Dedric Lawson, which resulted in a pair of layups, but also this missed three that was well-guarded:

It seems clear to me that teams will try to put Grant Williams in the blender here. Williams needs to stick to his man on these and make sure he’s not blowing an assignment, as the majority of big man assignments on South Carolina pick plays are to pop out for open threes.


LINEUP NOTES

South Carolina:

  • On their fifth starting lineup of the season: Campbell/Lawson/Bryant/Silva/Kotsar. Against Auburn, Haase started over Kotsar.
  • A weird team that only consistently goes about seven deep with Haase and Gravett playing 20+ minutes from the bench. Evan Hinson has played in 11 straight games, but hasn’t played more than 14 minutes in SEC play. Alanzo Frink has played 20 and 18 but also has three games of 2 minutes or fewer.
  • Gravett gets subbed in for Lawson/Campbell after the first couple of minutes in most games. Depending on Martin’s mood, they either move Lawson to SF and Bryant to the bench OR Lawson to PG and Campbell to the bench.
  • Silva has played six 30+ minute games in the last two months.

Tennessee:

  • A lineup change! Who knows if they run this out again, but if so: Bone/Turner/Schofield/Williams/Alexander. The shooter lineup!!
  • Relegated to the bench, Yves Pons makes a big move towards playing…essentially the same minutes he’s played all month. He got in 10 minutes against WVU after two consecutive 14-minute outings.
  • Derrick Walker played 9 against WVU, the most he’s played since Georgia.
  • Kyle Alexander only played 12 against WVU, but that was because of serious foul trouble. He’s played 21 or more in every game since Gonzaga.
  • Jalen Johnson sighting! He played 2 minutes against WVU.

KEY MATCHUPS

Grant Williams vs. Chris Silva. This is literally the only player on South Carolina that can consistently create his own shot. Williams will have his hands full with perhaps the only other player in the SEC as proficient at drawing fouls.

Jordan Bowden/Lamonte Turner vs. Hassani Gravett. Gravett is the only consistent outside threat, and Bowden has proven to be the only consistent outside defender. Turner was considerably better against WVU, but he needs to keep it up.

Yves Pons vs. Figuring It Out. I don’t know what more needs to be said here, as I think most fans are pretty tired of Pons belatedly chasing a shooter as he forgets the shooter exists for a second too long.


PREDICTION

Tennessee 82, South Carolina 70.

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Vols

Will Warren is a contributor to FOX Sports Knoxville. He loves Popeyes, computers, the Nashville Predators, and melatonin.

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