South Carolina Basketball: 2023-24 season preview

South Carolina basketball's Meechie Johnson drives to the basket in the win against Georgia. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports
South Carolina basketball's Meechie Johnson drives to the basket in the win against Georgia. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports /

South Carolina basketball didn’t have the best season in Lamont Paris’s first year, but given the situation he inherited, it was about the best he could’ve done. Paris flipped 5-star hometown recruit GG Jackson but had to work in the transfer portal just to find a 13-player roster.

Despite a 11-21 record, last season saw the Gamecocks beat Clemson, Kentucky, Georgetown, and Georgia. The team improved markedly over the course of the season, and they looked competitive by the end of the year, taking Alabama and Arkansas down to the wire.

This year, despite the departures of Jackson II to the NBA and guard Chico Carter Jr. to Depaul, the South Carolina basketball roster is in a much better place than the start of last year. Offensive spark Meechie Johnson, who averaged 13.7 PPG in conference games, returns, as does Josh Gray, the physical center who averaged 6.4 PPG and 9.6 RPG over his last 14 games.

The whole team improved over the course of the year as they became adjusted to Paris’s system, but Johnson and Gray were amongst the most-improved as they found their niche on the team.

They will likely be joined in the starting lineup by 3 transfers Paris snagged from the portal: Ta’Lon Cooper from Minnesota, Myles Stute from Vanderbilt, and B.J. Mack from Wofford.

Pure point guard Cooper will start at the 1, giving Johnson space to work in a more natural role for him at the shooting guard spot.

Stute, a 6’6 hot-shooting guard, will be inserted on the wing for a small-ball 3 role.

Wofford transfer B.J. Mack, arguably the biggest transfer pickup this offseason, literally and metaphorically, will play at the 4. He can shoot from all levels, though, and will provide valuable court spacing on offense, something the South Carolina basketball team didn’t have last year.

The best starting five, in terms of balancing size and skill, will be Cooper at the 1, Johnson at the 2, Stute at the 3, Mack at the 4, and Gray at the 5.

That may differ from what Paris puts out in the first few games, as The Citadel transfer Stephen Clark started at the 5 spot instead of Gray in the exhibition Wednesday against Wofford. Clark is still a more than suitable starter, given his previous production and interior defense, but he’ll have to adjust to a Power 6 schedule after coming over from the SoCon, something Gray has already done.

As for the other starting spots, barring injury or sharp statistical declines, they seem pretty much locked down.

One notable factor regarding the projected starting lineup is the age and experience, especially compared to last year. In the last game of the season against Ole Miss, the ‘Cocks started one freshman (Jackson II), two sophomores (Wright and Johnson), 1 junior (Gray), and 1 graduate (Brown).

This year, the starting lineup will comprise of either three graduate students, (Cooper, Mack, and Clark) one senior (Stute) and one junior (Johnson), or two graduate students (Cooper, Mack), two seniors (Gray and Stute), and one junior (Johnson).

Having a starting five that has experience against all levels of competition is valuable in this era of college basketball, and this year’s team won’t have to go through the growing pains it went through last season, when the team’s biggest offensive threat was the age of a high school senior.

Two more big differences with this year’s roster is the amount of depth and size of the roster. Jacobi Wright and either Stephen Clark/Josh Gray will be two of the better bench options in the conference, and Collin Murray-Boyles will make an immediate impact as a freshman (at least once he recovers from mono). Zachary Davis is a defensive spark plug, and Ebrima Dibba could be a difference-maker if he’s back to full health.

Local freshman Arden Conyers and international signing (Finland) Morris Ugusuk round out the bench, along with Benjamin Bosmans-Verdonk. Conyers and Ugusuk might not yet be ready for extended minutes against SEC competition, but the two have untapped potential, and their ceilings are quite high as lengthy guards in Paris’s system.

The size aspect shouldn’t be minimized either. At times last year, 6’6 Hayden Brown was the starting power forward. That was never going to work against good, physical teams, and it was no fault to Brown or Paris.

The roster situation that Paris inherited wasn’t close to an SEC basketball team, and he did the best he could with what he had. This year, the Gamecocks finally have a roster that physically matches up with the rest of the conference.

All 3-5 positions are between 6’6-7’0, and the Gamecocks have plenty of tall, lengthy guards. Cooper is 6’4 at the point, and Ugusuk, Dibba, and Davis stand at 6’4, 6’5, and 6’7, respectively.

Overall, the team should be refreshingly competitive. The non-conference schedule is certainly manageable, with games against Virginia Tech and Clemson sandwiched between mostly mid-major and low-major opponents.

While the SEC schedule is always going to be difficult, South Carolina basketball does get to play Ole Miss and Georgia twice, two teams that they beat last year.

Even in a particularly deep SEC this year, there’s no doubt that the Gamecocks will have an improved record compared to last year.

The starting five is healthy and markedly improved comparative to last season, and this South Carolina basketball team has depth. Lamont Paris has had a year to change the culture of the program, and last year’s players are entering year two in his offensive and defensive schemes.

In a year of relative continuity for the conference, (only one coaching change in the SEC this offseason) the Gamecocks will be competitive and most likely around a .500 team. Anywhere between 13-18 and 18-13 wouldn’t be surprising.

2022-23 record: 11-21 (4-14)

2023 postseason finish: None

Roster changes: GG Jackson (Drafted by the Memphis Grizzlies), Chico Carter Jr. (Transferred to Depaul), Hayden Brown (Graduated), Tre-Vaughn Minnot (Transferred to Portland State), Javon Benson (Hit the transfer portal but found no new school), Ford Cooper (Transferred to Hampton), Daniel Hankins-Sanford (Transferred to UMass)

Most difficult games: vs. Virginia Tech (Nov. 10, Charlotte), at Clemson (Dec. 6), at Alabama (Jan. 9), at Arkansas (Jan. 20), vs. Missouri (Jan. 27), at/vs. Tennessee (Jan. 30, Mar. 6), at Texas A&M (Feb. 28)

Gamecock Rotation

PG: Ta’Lon Cooper (6-4, 200, Gr.)

2022-23 stats: 9.8 PPG, 6.3 APG, 4.0 RPG, 37.8 3PT% (Minnesota)

SG: Meechie Johnson (6-2, 184, Jr.)

2022-23 stats: 12.7 PPG, 3.7 RPG, 3.4 APG

SF: Myles Stute (6-6, 209, Sr.)

2022-23 stats: 8.4 PPG, 4.6 RPG, 0.6 APG, 36.1 3PT% (Vanderbilt)

PF: B.J. Mack (6-8, 270, Gr.)

2022-23 stats: 16.6 PPG, 5.6 RPG, 1.4 APG (Wofford)

C: Josh Gray (7-0, 265, Sr.)

2022-23 stats: 4.3 PPG, 6.3 RPG, 0.5 APG

6: Stephen Clark (6-8, 208, Gr.)

2022-23 stats: 16.3 PPG, 6.5 RPG, 2.8 APG, 1.8 BPG (The Citadel)

7: Jacobi Wright (6-2, 185, Jr.)

2022-23 stats: 7.3 PPG, 2.1 RPG, 1.8 APG, 35.0 3PT%

8: Collin Murray-Boyles (6-7, 231, Fr.)

247 Sports Composite No. 108 rated recruit

9: Zachary Davis (6-7, 194, So.)

2022-23 stats: 2.2 PPG, 2.2 RPG, 0.7 APG, 0.7 SPG

10: Ebrima Dibba (6-5, 214, R-Sr.)

2021-22 stats: 8.1 PPG, 5.4 APG, 4.8 RPG, 1.3 SPG (Coastal Carolina; missed 2022-2023 with injury after joining South Carolina basketball)

11: Arden Conyers (6-7, 204, Fr.)

247 Sports Composite No. 236 rated recruit

12: Benjamin Bosmans-Verdonk (6-9, 238, R-Sr.)

2022-23 stats: 1.9 PPG, 3.1 RPG, 1.1 APG

13: Morris Ugusuk (6-4, 160, Fr.)

International Signing via Finland

14: Eli Sparkman (6-0, 160, So.)

2022-23 stats: 1.7 PPG, 1.0 RPG, 0.0 APG, 66.7 3PT%

South Carolina Basketball Projections
Team MVP: Meechie Johnson

Johnson made the decision to return to the Gamecocks after toeing the NBA draft process, a decision that will likely benefit both Johnson and the ‘Cocks. Transferring in from Ohio State prior to last year after never really finding his niche in Columbus, (13.0 MPG in 2 seasons with the Buckeyes) the 6’2 guard didn’t immediately find that niche in Columbia, either. In the first 5 games of last season, Johnson only averaged 5.4 PPG on 22.5 FG% from the field.

That’s when Johnson had a bit of a breakout against Georgetown, scoring a then-career high of 17 points in a Gamecock win. He would reach that mark 9 more times by the end of the season.

Despite the presence of GG Jackson, Johnson was oftentimes the first option offensively as the season went along. In 19 of the Gamecocks’ last 24 games, Johnson scored in double figures, including 20-point games against Arkansas and LSU.

His best game, however, might have been against Kentucky, a shock Gamecock road win in which Johnson scored a career-high 26 points on 9-16 shooting from the field, including 6-10 from deep. Johnson scored 37% of the Gamecocks’ points and was the team’s MVP in the biggest win of the season.

While he had to play point guard for stretches at a time due to South Carolina not having a true point guard on their roster, this year Johnson should have a more natural role at the shooting guard position this year, as Ta’Lon Cooper will man the point.

Now in his second year within Paris’s system, the familiarity will help Johnson’s game too. His average of 13.7 PPG in conference games would’ve placed him in the top 14 in the SEC if extrapolated over the entire season.

Somewhat lost in the buzz of the new transfer class is the fact that Johnson’s return is extremely important to the fortunes of this Gamecock squad. His perimeter game is sure to get a boost from playing in an off-ball role, and he showed flashes of elite three-point shooting last year. Don’t be surprised if Johnson breaks out in his second year as a Gamecock.

South Carolina Basketball Projections
Most Underrated Gamecock: Josh Gray

By the end of the season there weren’t more than a couple SEC centers performing as efficiently. As mentioned above, Gray averaged 6.4 PPG and 9.6 RPG over his last 14 games, including performances of 20 points and 14 rebounds against Arkansas and 11 points and 13 rebounds against Florida.

He had 8 games of 10+ rebounds, and his career offensive rebounding percentage of 16.4% is the 21st-highest mark in D-1 basketball over the past 14 years, out of thousands of players and ahead of names such as Miles Plumlee, Tacko Fall, and Armando Bacot.

When South Carolina basketball missed shots last year (typically a high volume of such) Gray was often right there to clean it up. He was also a more-than-capable interior defender, ranking 13th in the conference in blocks per game with 0.8 despite only starting 15 games and seeing 16.8 MPG.

It’s rare to have such an elite rebounder like Gray on a team, even if he doesn’t offer much value outside of the paint. Standing four inches taller than any other player on the team means the South Carolina basketball team also has the ability to match up against other vertically-gifted centers, such as Jamarion Sharp at Mississippi, Micah Handlogten at Florida, and Connor Vanover at Missouri.

Gray’s height when he’s on the court erases any height disadvantage the Gamecocks have when they play Mack and Clark at the 4 and 5, which is ultra-important in the SEC.

While Gray has played under 3 different head coaches in his career, he has plenty of untapped potential with Lamont Paris. Paris has extracted the best from plenty of his post players over the years, including Nigel Hayes and Silvio de Sousa. This Gamecock team’s ceiling will be directly influenced by the level of play of Josh Gray, and he’s up for the challenge.

South Carolina Basketball Projections
Key statistic: Steals per game

South Carolina basketball wasn’t great in any statistical category besides offensive rebounding (thanks to Josh Gray). One area in which they struggled immensely was taking the ball away from the opponent.

The Gamecocks ranked 334th out of 363 D-1 programs in steals per game with just 4.9. Only 35 teams produced less than 5.0 steals per game, and the South Carolina basketball team was one of them.

Was there any silver linings regarding the perimeter defense? Yes, although it’s not one that many would expect. Freshman Zachary Davis was quietly the best perimeter defender on the entire roster last year.

Davis placed 3rd on the team in SPG with 0.7 per contest, even though he only saw 13.7 MPG. His steal percentage of 3.1% was highest on the team and more than double the percentage of all but two Gamecock teammates (Eli Sparkman and Hayden Brown).

His size (6’7) caused plenty of havoc on the defensive end, to the extent of Coach Paris shifting to a 1-3-1 zone when Davis was on the court at the end of the year in an attempt to take advantage of Davis’s abilities as a defender.

While Davis wasn’t the best offensively at times, as he struggled with turnovers and shooting efficiencies, he was a gem on defense as a freshman against SEC defenses. Against both Alabama and Georgia, he collected 3 steals, and Davis averaged 1.2 SPG over his last 11 games, improving and adjusting as the season went on.

While the team as a whole struggled to force turnovers, Davis was so adept on the defensive end that Paris played an entirely different scheme when he was on the court.

This year, Davis returns, of course, and some important transfers bring in solid perimeter defense.

Ta’Lon Cooper averaged 1.1 SPG last year with Minnesota, and Stephen Clark and B.J. Mack combined for 1.5 SPG between the two of them at their respective institutions.

One name to watch in this aspect, however, is one that’s already been a Gamecock. Ebrima Dibba, the Coastal Carolina guard from the previous transfer class that missed last year with an Achilles tear, averaged at least 1.3 SPG in all 4 seasons he played at Coastal. While the return from injury is worth monitoring, Dibba could be a rotational player that makes a difference on the perimeter.

This team should be better in terms of perimeter defense and taking the ball away, especially if Davis’s role increases. It’s likely to see South Carolina basketball average between 6.0-6.5 SPG this year, a mark that would fall around 230th-150th in the country, better than last year.

South Carolina Basketball Projections
2023-24 End-of-Season Projections

Projected SEC finish: 8th-14th in SEC

Projected postseason ceiling: NIT Bid

Projected postseason floor: No postseason

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