South Carolina Basketball: Week in review

South Carolina basketball will shoot the ball from outside a lot in the 2023-2024 season. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports
South Carolina basketball will shoot the ball from outside a lot in the 2023-2024 season. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports /

South Carolina basketball combined for a 5-0 record to start the season, as both the men’s and the women’s teams took care of business. Dawn Staley’s group looked particularly impressive, outscoring two ranked opponents by a combined margin of 214-147.

The South Carolina basketball women started the season ranked no. 6, not only behind returning champion LSU and perennial power UConn, but also looking up at Iowa, UCLA, and Utah. The Tigers and Huskies both lost, and the dominant performances of South Carolina basketball against Notre Dame and Maryland propelled the ‘Cocks to the top spot in the latest AP Poll.

The men kicked off their season with a dominant victory over USC-Upstate, then carried that up with a nail-biter of a victory against ACC foe Virginia Tech at the Spectrum Center in Charlotte. On Monday, the South Carolina basketball team had their worst showing of the season but still ended up beating SoCon opponent VMI by double digits.

This week, the women’s team has just one game, a rivalry against Clemson that has been lopsided in recent history. Dawn Staley’s South Carolina basketball team has beaten their upstate rivals 12 outings in a row, dating back to fall 2009. After the Gamecocks’ road win last year, the Tigers will have to travel to Columbia this season, facing off Thursday at 7 p.m. at Colonial Life Arena.

The men are taking part in the Arizona Tip-Off in Glendale, Arizona, where they’ll play DePaul and one of either Grand Canyon or San Francisco. Both Grand Canyon and San Francisco are currently ranked inside the top 90 in the KenPom rankings, while DePaul sits outside the top 170, despite being a Power 6 institution.

One member in particular of the DePaul basketball team will be familiar to Gamecock fans. Chico Carter Jr. is one of the Blue Demons’ starting guards, and he’s off to a quality start this year despite the team’s 0-2 record.

The Antelopes of Grand Canyon would likely be the strongest test for the Gamecocks. The WAC conference affiliation doesn’t mean the ‘Lopes aren’t a talented team, and they’re led by former Vanderbilt head coach Bryce Drew. Seniors Tyon Grant-Foster and former Presbyterian guard Rayshon Harrison (a graduate of Legacy Early College in Greenville, the same school as Gamecock Jacobi Wright) are the backcourt leaders of a team that is likely to make the tournament.

While a loss may shock portions of the fanbase if the Gamecocks were to play and lose against the Antelopes, it would be to a team that’s around the same skill level as South Carolina. Still, the South Carolina basketball team would likely be favored in the matchup, and they have plenty enough talent to win the Arizona Tip-Off this week.

South Carolina Basketball Review
Stathead Section:

Ta’Lon Cooper is averaging 5.7 APG through the Gamecocks’ three games, while having committed just one turnover in 88 minutes on the court. His assist-to-turnover ratio of 17:1 is the highest non-infinite turnover ratio in D-1 basketball so far through Tuesday, out of thousands of players.  Last year, the Gamecocks totaled 45 turnovers in their first 3 games, while that number is down almost 25% to 34 through 3 games this year.

The Gamecock women, through two games, are leading both the SEC and the entirety of D-1 basketball in blocks per game. Ashlyn Watkins (4.5 BPG) and Kamilla Cardoso (3.0 BPG) would still rank amongst the top 10 teams in the nation in BPG just by themselves.

The men are 2nd in the SEC currently in 3PT%, and 4th in 3PM per game, despite attempting threes at the 3rd-lowest rate in the conference. The current clip of 43.9% is more than a 27% increase compared to last year’s season average of 32.3% from deep, placing the Gamecocks amongst the most improved teams in the SEC in that aspect.

The Gamecock women have been embracing the phrase “sharing is caring” through their two games so far. They’re averaging 29.5 assists per game, tops in the SEC and good for 2nd nationally, only behind Utah, who’s played two low-major programs. Raven Johnson and Te-Hina Paopao are leading the team with 7.5 and 7.0 APG, respectively, with 5 Gamecocks averaging 2 or more per game so far.

After struggling to take the ball out of the opponents’ hands last year and finishing last in the SEC with 4.9 steals per game, the Gamecock men have improved slightly to start the 2023-24 season. The team is averaging 6.3 SPG through 3 games, and Zachary Davis’s steal percentage of 6.1% would rank 1st in the SEC if he played enough minutes to be eligible for statistical leaderboards. (Davis missed the last game against VMI.)

Dawn Staley’s group ranks 318th in the country in 3PAr, which measures which percent of possessions end in a three-point attempt. While it seems like a low number, (it is) the fact that the Gamecocks can control the paint while still making threes when they have to (30th in the country at 42.5% from deep) is a key quality of a championship team, something the Gamecocks seem perfectly able to do this year.

The men currently lead the SEC and rank 18th in the country in the amount of 10-0 runs per game, with 1.67 through 3 games. Statistically, this type of extended run is highly indicative of which team wins a game. While that seems a bit obvious, it’s a characteristic that can display which teams are able to put together consistent stretches of both quality offense and quality defense.

For a team that struggled mightily at times on the defensive side of the ball last year, (13th in the SEC in opponent PPG) this is a good sign of improved defense as well as an offense capable of catching fire at any time.

South Carolina Basketball Review
Boxscore Break:

Looking into the first game of the season against USC-Upstate, two team statistics and one individual statistic really stand out. The Gamecocks shot an elite 54.5% from deep on 12-22 shooting, the first sign that the team’s shooting woes of last year were truly in the past.

Another important number was the Gamecocks out-rebounding the Spartans by a 45-27 margin. This is where the Carolina size in the backcourt really paid off. Zachary Davis, Ta’Lon Cooper, Meechie Johnson, and Myles Stute combined for 26 rebounds, almost as much as the entire USC-Upstate team.

Individually, Ta’Lon Cooper leading the Gamecocks (with Meechie Johnson) with 15 points was a sign of a more two-dimensional player than perhaps previously thought. Cooper has always shown to be an elite playmaker, but if he has the ability to consistently score in double-figures this year, it adds an additional wrinkle to this Gamecock offense that they didn’t have last year.

In the women’s first game, in Paris against Notre Dame, Kamilla Cardoso was the MVP with a 20-point, 15-rebound performance. Any concerns about the frontcourt depth following the graduation of Aliyah Boston were greatly exaggerated, and the Gamecock big (wo)men are likely the best frontcourt in the SEC, maybe the country.

In terms of team statistics, one number that jumps out is a 2PT% of 60.3% on 38-63 shooting inside the arc. The Gamecocks simply dominated inside the arc, both in offensive sets and in transition.

In the men’s game against Virginia Tech, Myles Stute showed out, especially in the first half. He finished the game with 21 points, leading the team, but his 5-6 shooting from outside was perhaps the most impressive part of his game.

One alarming statistic, however, didn’t come from the Gamecock side, but rather the Hokies. Virginia Tech was 18-22 from the line, a number that almost won them the game. The South Carolina basketball defense consistently sent the Hokies to the line, and it wasn’t really due to the number of fouls (no Gamecock committed more than 3 fouls) but rather due to the timing of them.

The Gamecocks committed shooting fouls consistently against a very good free-throw shooting team, which is typically not a recipe to win a game. But the Gamecocks won despite not playing their best game, something that they rarely did last year. It’s a good sign of things to come.

Against Maryland, two Gamecock women recorded double-doubles. Chloe Kitts and Ashlyn Watkins combined for 26 points and 21 rebounds, part of the reason why the Gamecocks were able to dominate the boards for a 53-33 margin.

The team shot 12-24 from distance, a sizable improvement compared to the Notre Dame matchup, where they made just 31% of their shots from the perimeter. 7 Gamecocks scored 10+ points, and every member of the team that played scored at least 3 points.

Monday against VMI, the Gamecock men didn’t have their best game, to put it lightly. Freshman Tyran Cook for the Keydets deserves a box-score shoutout, as he came off the bench, scored 16 points on 6-11 shooting, and collected 3 steals against the Gamecocks. Cook and teammate Koree Cotton kept the Keydets in the game for 40 minutes against a much bigger opponent.

As for South Carolina basketball, 3 separate ‘Cocks were responsible for some silver linings Monday. B.J. Mack recorded his first double-double as a member of the Gamecocks with a 17-point, 13-rebound performance. He also collected 3 steals off the Keydets.

Benjamin Bosmans-Verdonk had some turnover trouble, but he made up for it with 8 rebounds off the bench, including 7 offensive rebounds, cleaning up the glass on a cold shooting night for the Gamecocks.

Jacobi Wright also continued to perform well off the bench, scoring 9 points and shooting perfectly from the perimeter with 2 clutch threes.

South Carolina Basketball Review
Player Profile:

On the women’s side, MiLaysia Fulwiley has played exceptionally well against two ranked teams as a freshman guard. The Columbia native is 2nd on the team in PPG with 14.5, including 17 points in her first collegiate game against Notre Dame. One play in particular, a driving, double-clutch, reverse lay off a behind-the-back handle, caught the attention of NBA greats Kevin Durant and Magic Johnson.

Fulwiley looks completely capable of manning an elite offense, with a so far seamless transition to the college game. It’s not just her offense, however, that makes her valuable. Against Notre Dame, she grabbed six (6!) steals in 26 minutes of action. That’s six (possibly transition) possessions that the Gamecocks can use to take the momentum of the game.

It’s not often that a program of this caliber has a freshman skilled enough to play such large roles in her first two collegiate games ever, let alone against ranked opponents. Fulwiley might be among the best guards to ever don a jersey for Dawn Staley and South Carolina basketball before the time she graduates from the university.

Another newcomer, but hardly a freshman, Myles Stute is deserving of a player spotlight for the men’s team. His 3PT% of 61.5% (elite!) currently ranks 4th in the conference, even with such a small sample size. Stute might be the best under-the-radar pickup of the transfer portal season, and he’s proven invaluable to this Gamecock squad through three games.

He leads the Gamecocks in box plus/minus with 12.2, (right above Ta’Lon Cooper) and he’s 8th in the conference in offensive rebounding percentage as a 6’6 stretch three. That’s hustle and grit, along with the natural “see ball, get ball” ability that can’t be taught.

The Vanderbilt transfer is also t-6th in the SEC in win shares, another analytical stat that determines how much a player’s individual performance translates to team wins. (For what it’s worth, Ta’Lon Cooper is 1st.) Especially with Collin Murray-Boyles out indefinitely with mono, having Stute play so well at the 3 is vital to South Carolina basketball’s hopes of an impressive non-con schedule.

Stute’s current offensive rating (points produced per 100 possessions) of 142.7, if extrapolated over an entire season, would have been the highest mark in the SEC last year. He’s off to a blistering start, and Lamont Paris deserves tons of credit for seeing this potential and nabbing him in the portal.

South Carolina Basketball Review
Lineup Lookback:

On the men’s side, the starting lineup has remained the same across all three games, in line with our season preview. Ta’Lon Cooper has manned the point, followed by Meechie Johnson at the shooting guard spot, Myles Stute as a stretch 3, hot-shooting B.J. Mack at the 4, and Stephen Clark starting at center. However, that isn’t necessarily translating into an equal minutes distribution for that quintet.

Cooper, Johnson, Stute, and Mack are all averaging between 25-30 minutes per game, but Clark is 9th on the roster in minutes played with 13.0, behind fellow big man Benjamin Bosmans-Verdonk, who looks improved from a hustle and rebounding standpoint compared to last year.

The playing time situation in the frontcourt is complicated by the relative absence of Josh Gray, who has played sparingly while dealing with an illness. Clark has struggled so far, albeit in a small sample size. His turnover percentage of 27.8% is higher than all but Bosmans-Verdonk’s 45.5% mark, and his true shooting percentage is 7th out of 9 eligible Gamecocks. (4 Gamecocks have played less than 20 total minutes this season and are not counted in this statistical exercise.)

Clark has also struggled as a rebounder, despite often being the tallest Gamecock on the court. His rebounding percentage of 8.8% is lower than Myles Stute and Zachary Davis, and it ranks just 5th of the 9 eligible Gamecocks.

The Gamecocks could live with below-average shooting from the Citadel transfer forward, but the lack of rebounding is the primary reason why A) Benjamin Bosmans-Verdonk is getting more minutes than Clark, and why B) Josh Gray is likely to start at the center position once he returns fully healthy from his illness.

Looking further down the road, once (if?) Collin Murray-Boyles returns from his mono diagnosis before SEC games start, if the frontcourt struggles continue, it wouldn’t be unlikely to see a starting 5 of Cooper, Johnson, Stute, Murray-Boyles, and Mack, as Paris looks to find his best lineup.

On the women’s side, the starting 5 also has not deviated from the first game of the year. Against Notre Dame and Maryland, Dawn Staley sent out guards Bree Hall, Raven Johnson, and Te-Hina Paopao to pair with Chloe Kitts and Kamilla Cardoso in the frontcourt.

Although forwards Ashlyn Watkins and Sania Feagan saw more minutes than Kitts in the first game, it was likely due to the nature of the game being favorable enough to see how the bench performed against high-level competition.

In the second game against Maryland, the starters (again, Hall, Johnson, Paopao, Kitts, and Cardoso) played the most minutes out of any Gamecocks. Although Watkins and Fulwiley have played at an elite level, the starters are likely going to remain in their respective roles in the foreseeable future, barring injuries, while the Gamecock bench will continue to have the most depth in the nation.