South Carolina Basketball: Why the men’s team has improved significantly

South Carolina basketball mascot Cocky. Mandatory Credit: David Yeazell-USA TODAY Sports
South Carolina basketball mascot Cocky. Mandatory Credit: David Yeazell-USA TODAY Sports /

South Carolina basketball is off to their best start (6-0) since the magical 2017 Final Four run after a win in the ACC-SEC challenge against Notre Dame. Just a year ago, the Gamecocks were 3-3. What’s changed? How have the Gamecocks gone from the SEC cellar to a possible at-large bid? To find out, it’s important to look at both what’s improved from last year, what’s issues from last year have disappeared, and what makes this team’s start worth recognizing.

There will be a definite conclusion not only to determine what happened to the South Carolina basketball team last year, but also to determine what transpired from the time the buzzer rang against Ole Miss in the SEC tournament to the tip-off against USC-Upstate that has allowed the Gamecocks to improve to such a degree in just one offseason.

Note*- All stats and numbers are accurate prior to Friday’s game against George Washington.

South Carolina Basketball: What went wrong last year?

South Carolina basketball went 11-21, with just two wins against teams ranked in the top 120 in the final KenPom rankings. (This year, they already have two wins against teams in the top 80 in just 6 games.)

From a shooting standpoint last year, South Carolina basketball was awful. They ranked last in the SEC and 347th nationally with a 40.3 FG%. Who were the main culprits? Among the 9 Gamecocks who averaged 5.0+ MPG and 1.5+ FGA per game, the lowest eFG percentages (a stat that adjusts for the fact that a 3PA is worth a point more than a 2PA) were Daniel Hankins-Sanford at 36.1%, Benjamin Bosmans-Verdonk at 39.3%, Zachary Davis at 42.6%, and GG Jackson at 44.4%.

All other Gamecocks were above 46%, but Chico Carter (60.1 eFG%) and Josh Gray (51.7 eFG%) were the only players above 50.0 eFG%. To put that in perspective, 233 D-1 programs had a 50.0 eFG% as a program last year, and Carter was the only Gamecock in the 50th percentile or higher (97th percentile!).

From all levels of the court, the Gamecocks simply couldn’t put the ball in the basket. Out of the team’s 2PT%, 3PT%, and FT%, not a single shooting level percentage was inside the top 280 nationally out of 363 teams.

Shot selection and perceived success rate vs. actual success rate was partially to blame. Out of 8 South Carolina Gamecocks that attempted 10+ threes over the course of the season, the two highest rates were Chico Carter (47.6%, elite) and Jacobi Wright (35.0%, good).

However, those two were 4th and 5th on the team in 3PA last year, respectively. Meechie Johnson (32.7%) took more threes than Carter and Wright combined, while GG Jackson (32.4%) and Hayden Brown (21.8%!!!) took the 2nd and 3rd most threes on the team. Despite ranking 3rd-5th in 3PT% on the team that already had a very low-percentage success rate from behind the arc, the trio of Johnson, Jackson, and Brown took 65.4% of the team’s overall threes.

Brown’s rate in particular was concerning, given Carter’s 3PT% was more than double that of Brown. While Brown often had to take the court as a small-ball 4, (that in of itself will be discussed later on) Carter’s 3P attempt rate should have, statistically, been over double Brown’s, not below it. Still yet, this wasn’t the sole reason the Gamecock offense often stagnated and felt stale last season.

The addition of 5-star GG Jackson was, undoubtedly, a net-positive for the team. Over half of the Gamecocks’ 11 wins last year wouldn’t have happened were it not for Jackson. SC State, Clemson, Georgetown, Eastern Michigan, Kentucky, LSU. All of those wins would have either been losses or much tighter wins with the absence of Jackson from the team. That’s what makes the next statistic all the more eye-opening.

Just one lineup of 30+ minutes played total from last year finished with a plus-minus (point margin compared to opponent while on court) greater than 5, but that lineup did not include Jackson. The Gamecocks’ best lineup, by an absurd margin, with a net rating in the 97th percentile and 42.7 points higher than the 2nd-best lineup, was Meechie Johnson, Jacobi Wright, Chico Carter, Hayden Brown, and Josh Gray.

This lineup, unsurprisingly, was built on outside shooting. Amongst lineups of 30+ minutes, this particular rotation was the only lineup with an eFG% of >60.0%, and that was with relying on the deep ball much more than other lineups. 54.7% of Gamecock shot attempts were behind the arc with this lineup on the court. But, unlike other lineup combinations, these shots went in at an incredible rate.

With the aforementioned 3PAr of 54.7% ranking in the 96th percentile, (not a performance metric but rather just a measure of which shots the ‘Cocks took) South Carolina’s ultimate “small-ball+Josh” lineup spaced the floor and hit 48.6% of their threes when they were on the floor together. That’s actually a championship level offense. That’s an SEC-contender type of offense at the very least.

Out of all D-1 programs, this particular lineup ranked in the 91st percentile with an offensive rating (an average amount of points scored in 100 offensive possessions) of 130.0, 15 points higher than any other qualifying lineup for the ‘Cocks. This is, of course, without GG Jackson on the court. That doesn’t make sense, does it? The team was best without their best player? Yes and no. It shouldn’t make sense, but it will.

One of the most undervalued variables of college hoops (and basketball in general) is just how well the team’s personnel fits into the desired offensive and defensive schemes of the head coach. For example, a coach with a half-court, high volume of cuts on offense philosophy might need a 3-star that has played a Princeton-style offense for years rather than an iso-heavy 5-star.

That’s not a shot at GG Jackson, and it won’t ever be. The section of the fanbase referring to him as “Me-G Jackson” and claiming the forward wasn’t ultimately a net positive for the program are, in this opinion, misguided and misinformed. The Ridge View product was, in terms of raw talent, the most talented Gamecock in recent history. The team’s record would’ve been hovering around 6-25 without him.

That being said, yes, the team’s best lineup (statistically) came with Jackson on the bench. GG Jackson’s style of game didn’t mesh with Paris’s scheme offensively, but his talent was enough to mask that over spans of games. A coach’s first year is crucial towards getting his styles of play cemented into the program. Lamont Paris was never going to change his philosophy to cater to Jackson’s strengths, and that’s absolutely a good thing.

Jackson was always a one-and-done, so why would Paris introduce a Jackson-friendly offense in Year One just to have to change it the next year once Jackson’s in the NBA? That would have hindered the rest of the team’s development and impacted this (2023-24) year’s fortunes. There were, and still are, players that may not have been as talented as Jackson but fit into Paris’s plans much smoother than the 5-star freshmen did.

Could Paris have installed an offense that flowed better with Jackson’s natural scoring tendencies? Yes. Could that have led to a better overall record last year? Also yes.

But that would have set back the next season. That would have been Paris mortgaging the future for maybe an additional 5-6 wins in his first season. Meechie Johnson wouldn’t be averaging 16+ PPG right now if Paris adjusted to Jackson rather than Jackson trying to adjust to Paris. The team wouldn’t be 6-0 this year if Paris strayed from his modus operandi to appease Jackson’s offensive skill set.

Again, that’s not a shot against Jackson. Being the face of a college program right after junior year of high school? That’s difficult. It’s not easy. Once that first hint of adversity hits (yes, adversity is way overused in sports circles but it’s the right context to use it here) it’s easier to just blame the coach or the scheme, as a player who (before arriving at campus) had never experienced losing to this degree or a situation where he wasn’t the best player on the court.

Add in all the outside noise, (social media, draft prep, scouts, family/friends, adjusting to college as a student) and it really wasn’t a situation in which most people would have succeeded to the level that Jackson did. Was it perfect? Absolutely not. But given the circumstances, given the program Paris inherited and the fact that Paris’s scheme didn’t play into Jackson’s strength, last year actually did exceed expectations, or at least any reasonable expectations.

Paris knew Jackson wasn’t exactly going to be a perfect fit in his offense. But he needed frontcourt depth, to the most degrees possible. Even if Jackson wasn’t going to average 25 PPG, he was going to be a net positive and build momentum on the recruiting trail, which really was enough of a reason to sign Jackson, regardless of on-court production.

That’s why Paris is the man for this job. This was part of the plan. Paris didn’t go into this job just to move up the D-1 ranks. To some in the fanbase, last year was about GG Jackson getting the Gamecocks to the Big Dance. To Lamont, last year was actually about this year.

It was about Meechie Johnson or Jacobi Wright’s development in his system, not maximizing GG Jackson’s production. If Jackson’s game flourished in Paris’s system, it would have been an added bonus, not an expectation.

Paris knows which players are going to work as Gamecocks and which players would maybe work well in a system that isn’t Paris’s. Lamont had his eyes on B.J. Mack, Ta’Lon Cooper, and Meechie Johnson for years, and they are the type of players that work in his scheme.

It’s never a great experience to go 11-21, but last year had to happen for this year to happen. Lamont is a tireless worker, and almost everything that happens to this program is a part of the timeline that he’s implementing for this team.

I said earlier that Hayden Brown’s presence at the power forward spot would be talked about. That lineup from earlier, the Johnson-Wright-Carter-Brown-Gray lineup with the elite shooting, was a lot more indicative of Hayden Brown’s potential than most other times he was on the court.

Last year, watching the games courtside or on television, it was easy to blame Brown for his turnover issues and tendency to foul, or when he got bodied in the paint. But now, it’s painfully clear just how impossible it was going to be for him to succeed.

The Citadel transfer was 6’6 going up against SEC-size bigs, which only worked when Josh Gray was anchored in the post as a defensive stopper.

Those 68 possessions of the “small-ball+Gray” lineup were beautiful. It was a glimpse of what was going to happen this year, and Brown would have been so much more effective if he was in this year’s offense with a true point guard (Cooper) and actual offensive spacing. Hayden Brown wasn’t always the answer last year, but when he was, he deserved all the credit that he never got from the fanbase and outside observers.

When Brown was replaced with GG Jackson in the “small-ball+Gray” lineup, the team’s production crashed. The 3PAr remained basically the same with Jackson instead of Brown, (from 54.7% to 53.7%) but the offensive production stopped. The lineup’s eFG% dropped from 60.2% to just 47.6%, while the lineup’s 3PT% dropped from the elite mark of 48.6% to just 31.8%.

Keep in mind, this is literally the exact same lineup as the amazing, super-efficient, aesthetically pleasing, fantastic offense, but with GG Jackson in the place of Hayden Brown.

The net rating in the 97th percentile with the “small-ball+Gray” lineup didn’t just drop when Jackson was put in for Brown, it fell off a cliff à la the O’Doyles’ at the end of Billy Madison. The net rating with Jackson on the court instead of Brown, again, with the same other 4 Gamecocks on the floor, dropped to the 2nd percentile. In number form, it went from +48.2 (elite) to -51.4 (unthinkable).

“But Hayden Brown committed all those crucial turnovers.” Yes, sometimes he did. But the perfect (small-ball+Gray) lineup’s turnover percentage was 13.0%. That’s pretty good, around the 70th percentile. Once Jackson was put in that lineup for Brown, that turnover rate more than doubled to 27.8%. That, just like the net rating, was in the 2nd percentile.

One would think that the addition of the 6’9 Jackson would at least help the defense, especially down inside the paint. But no, it did not. The defensive rating with Brown in the small-ball+Gray lineup? 81.8, in the 92nd percentile. With Jackson instead of Brown? 136.5, 4th percentile. (The lower number with defensive rating is better, think golf.) Hayden Brown was a near-perfect fit in a Lamont Paris program. He just showed up one year too early.

It’s worth noting just how the program was left under Frank Martin. Not a shot at Frank, I love the guy, but a good portion of the team from last year wasn’t up to the SEC or Lamont Paris standard. Of the 13 players that recorded playing time last year, 2 were walk-ons, (Eli Sparkman fan club member right here) and 3 are now at a mid or low-major school.

One transfer (Ebrima Dibba) tore his Achilles prior to the season. South Carolina only had 11 scholarship players available, and two of those scholarship players played less minutes than walk-ons Ford Cooper and Eli Sparkman. Coach K could not have got last year’s team to the NCAA Tournament. The average Joe might not have even recorded a win.

Anyone that doubts Lamont Paris’s qualities as a coach just needs to rewatch last year’s win at Kentucky. He won that game with a 6’6 power forward against Oscar Tshiebwe, Antonio Reeves, and Cason Wallace in Rupp Arena with a motley crew of low-major transfers, Frank Martin holdovers, a scrappy shooting guard from Cleveland being forced to play point guard, and a high school senior. That is not talked about enough.

In terms of basic stats instead of more analytical concerns, South Carolina couldn’t force their opponents into turnovers last year. They were the only SEC team to record less than 5 steals per game, (4.9) and 12 SEC teams recorded at least 6 per game.

That was no fault of Hayden Brown or Zachary Davis, whose steal percentages of 2.1% and 3.2% were in the 80th and 90th percentile, respectively. But because of Davis’s offensive shortcomings last year, he wasn’t on the floor as much as he could have been. (He averaged 13.9 MPG, 8th on the team.)

Make no mistake, he was somehow so incredibly good and valuable as a defender even as a freshman from a small high school (Denmark-Olar) playing against SEC starting offenses and NBA talent.

When Davis was on the court, the ‘Cocks steal percentage was 9.1%, good for the 46th percentile nationally, around average. With him off the court, however, the team steal percentage fell to 6.9%, which was in the 7th percentile. The team’s block percentage with Davis on the court was 9.3%, which was above-average nationally in the 61st percentile. With Davis off the court, the team blocked just 6.1% of shots, falling into the 16th percentile.

As a basketball journalist and game film watcher, I am personally partial to players that can provide value both by blocking shots and stealing the ball. Davis is objectively the best perimeter defender on the team, and the case could be made that he’s tops in the conference. Paris actually transitioned to a 1-3-1 zone later in the year when Davis was on the court, which is indicative of the quality of defender that Davis is.

Paris wouldn’t bend to change the offense to fit GG Jackson’s style of play, but he regularly changed his defense to maximize the talents of Davis. Do with that information as you wish.

But because Davis didn’t provide a lot of offensive production (-2.3 offensive box plus/minus, 0.0 offensive win shares, 38.2 FG%) and the team was already struggling on offense and couldn’t afford to any potential offensive advantage, the Gamecocks couldn’t always enjoy the benefits of Davis’s defense on the perimeter.

Of the 7 Gamecocks that started 14 or more games last year, 6 of them placed below the 50th percentile in steals per 40 minutes. The one player that averaged above the 50th percentile, Hayden Brown in the 76th percentile with 1.3 steals per 40, wasn’t enough to swing the Gamecock defensive metrics by himself.

Speaking of the Gamecock defense, anything inside the arc was typically a green light for any Gamecock opponent last year. The Gamecocks gave up a 67.2 FG% at the rim last year, which placed them in the 12th percentile nationally. At the mid-range level, the Gamecock defense gave up a 40.9 FG%, which sounds good in theory, but the D-1 average is closer to 35-36%, putting the Gamecocks in the 7th percentile in that category.

Believe it or not, there was one defensive area that South Carolina defended at a suitable, even above-average rate, that being the corner three. The ‘Cocks allowed just 33.1% from the corner last year, good for the 77th percentile. Credit where credit is due. Overall, however, the Gamecock defense was swiss cheese typically.

The numbers did dip and fluctuate when certain players were off or on the court. For example, when Chico Carter Jr. was on the court, opponents shot 37.3% from corner threes. When he wasn’t on the court, Gamecock opponents shot just 25.8% from corner threes. This is about the only analytic that Carter Jr. rated poorly on. It’ll be discussed later, but Chico Carter Jr.’s performance last season was perhaps the most impressive on the team from an individual standpoint.

When Hayden Brown was off the court, the team’s mid-range defense struggled immensely. By immensely, I mean giving up a 45.8 FG%, a rate that ranked in the 1st percentile nationally, not where a team would prefer to be.

Opponents also converted at a 70.0% at the rim with Brown off the court, putting the Gamecocks in the 3rd percentile. When he was on the court, opponents shot 39.5% from mid-range and 65.6% at the rim, which still isn’t good, (10th percentile and 21st percentile, respectively) but is a big improvement from the off-court numbers.

There’s two ways to digest that information, and both can be true. The first being that Hayden Brown was a net-positive for the Gamecock defense. The second is that Hayden Brown often produced a negative product on the defensive end for the team through not being able to play defense after fouling out of the game.

Brown was 2nd in the SEC in fouls per game, and was 1 of just 3 players (Brown, Charles Bediako, and Jordan Walsh) to total 100 fouls in the conference. The kicker? Bediako and Walsh played 5 and 6 more games than Brown did, due to varying levels of team success.

Brown fouled out 10 separate times across the course of the season, including collecting 5 fouls in just 9 minutes against Florida. But in 7 of the ‘Cocks’ 11 wins, Brown committed 4+ fouls, and 40% of the times he fouled out resulted in a Gamecock win, despite an overall team winning percentage of 34.4%.

This is despite the fact that the defense was markedly worse with him off the court. That may just be coincidence, because there’s absolutely no positive correlation between Brown’s absence and team defensive success rate. We’ll mark that one up to a small sample size and move on.

This is one of the only critiques of Paris in the article, and this might not even be his fault, but the fact that he is the leader of the program pretty much acts as a magnet for this discussion. In some games, almost the entire team did not look like they wanted to be playing basketball on that given day.

I was personally at the Texas A&M blowout home loss, which I firmly believe to be the worst Gamecock basketball game in the 21st century, and the ‘Cocks allowed the Aggies to record a 64.5 ORB%. On almost 2/3rds of Texas A&M’s missed shots, they just grabbed the ball back. There’s not even a 1st percentile mark on the data sheet, it’s just a 0. Unprecedented levels of inability to grab a defensive rebound.

That’s an effort issue, not a skill issue. Rebounding is just three things: height, ball tracking ability, and effort. The first two can only take a team so far.

The game after, a disappointing loss to Ole Miss, the Gamecocks actually held the Rebels to a 21.2 ORB%, which, despite the loss, is acceptable, because they played basketball like they were there to play basketball.

There were really good moments within the pitfalls of an 11-21 season, but there were also moments (three 40+ point losses, losses to ECU and George Washington, giving up exactly 81 points three games in a row) where it seemed like the Gamecocks got hit with adversity (self-inflicted) and didn’t or simply couldn’t bounce back.

This year, the team really hasn’t faced any type of serious deficit, so it’ll be interesting to see how they respond once they lose a game or fall behind double digits. With Paris in his second year at the helm, the thought is that the team will be better prepared mentally, and that certainly looks the case so far.

There are a few more issues to discuss. The team lacked a true point guard. Meechie Johnson did his best to try and fill the point guard role, but he’s naturally more of a shooting guard. Jacobi Wright played some point guard, and his assist/turnover ratio of 1.84/1 was highest on the team and in the 87th percentile nationally.

Throughout the season, however, the team worked in a patchwork-type rotation at the one spot. It wasn’t an indictment against any players in particular, but the team just didn’t have the right personnel for the needed role, like what Ta’Lon Cooper is doing for this year’s team.

That made it hard for the team to get the ball moving efficiently in crucial offensive situations. Of the team’s 355 assists last year, (last in the SEC) 19.4% of them were from Johnson to either Jackson, Brown, or Carter Jr., which wasn’t bad at all, just a normal assist distribution, but it didn’t fit Johnson’s game.

Like what we’re seeing this year with Cooper and Johnson’s production, Johnson works much better in a shooting guard role, as opposed to the point guard spot he had to occupy last year. Johnson’s scoring talents were impeded by having the play the point spot, and it lowered the Gamecock offense’s ceiling.

It was said earlier in the article that Chico Carter Jr.’s performance would be talked about, and it’s definitely notable. Similar to Hayden Brown, Carter Jr. would have been really productive in this year’s offense under Lamont Paris, but that statement undermines just how valuable he was last season.

He was automatic from deep, shooting 47.6%, more than 12 percentage points higher than the next-highest Gamecock. On a team that struggled immensely with shooting the ball, the 6’3 guard had no trouble getting the ball in the hoop. He wasn’t the focal point of the offense, (just a 16.3% usage rate) but when he was involved, he was extremely efficient.

He was part of the small-ball+Gray lineup, and this, like Hayden Brown, was where he played his best and allowed his offensive ceiling to shine. For the season, Carter Jr. actually shot better from outside the arc (47.6%) than inside the arc (46.5%).

His most effective spots on the floor were in the paint (57.9 FG%, 16.7% higher than D-1 average) and above break threes, which he converted at a 48.6% clip, much higher than the D-1 average of 33.5% and much higher than the other Gamecocks. Even though the team shot below D-1 average from every area of the court, Carter was one of the only consistent factors keeping them close to average.

Carter Jr., interestingly enough, outside of at-the-rim shots, shot best from 25-30 feet from the basket. He shot 45.0% from 4-10 feet, 40.0% from 10-15 feet, 26.7% from long twos, and 44.9% from short threes. From the 25-30 foot range? 50.9% on 27-53 shooting. It wasn’t just a case of small sample size, as Carter Jr. was simply better the further he got from the hoop, which really helped with floor spacing. (And getting an extra point.)

It’s a bit disappointing that Carter Jr. decided to transfer out, as he would have been more or at least similar amounts of productive in Paris’s second year. But with Johnson returning and Cooper coming in to man the point, you can’t blame Carter Jr. for wanting to end his college career at a place where he was sure of what role he was going to receive.

He’s averaging 13.3 PPG, 4.2 RPG, and 3.8 APG at DePaul, so it’s safe to say he made the decision that was right for his career, even if it wasn’t what some of the Gamecock fanbase wanted.

But it seems like Carter Jr. was really good, right? So why is he in the “what went wrong” section of the article? It’s impossible to examine what went wrong in a given season without also examining what went right. The two are always going to be intertwined. Chico Carter Jr. was really good last year, but (clearly) not every guard performed at the level of Carter Jr., and he wasn’t given enough time on the court.

Think of Carter Jr. and Zachary Davis. Last year, Davis was elite on defense and struggled on offense. Carter Jr. was elite on offense but struggled on the defensive side of the ball. When on the court together, which wasn’t all too often, the two most used lineups containing both Davis and Carter Jr. had net ratings below the 10th percentile.

Even when a team has quality pieces, the individual strengths might not mesh particularly well on the court, further complicating rotational choices that the coach has to make.

In further examples, Josh Gray was elite at rebounding last year. He wasn’t a threat scoring outside the paint, however. Benjamin Bosmans-Verdonk gave all his effort on the court last year, but had a turnover rate of 37.1%. Hayden Brown drew a ton of fouls, but committed just as many, making the already thin rotation thinner. A lot of, almost all Gamecocks, really, had tangible positives about their game last season, but every player also had room to improve.

It really culminates in a conclusion of four main points. The Gamecocks went 11-21 last year because of 1) personnel not fitting into Paris’s schemes, 2) a talent gap following Frank Martin’s departure + limited time for Paris to recruit replacements, 3) lack of a true point guard, and 4) inefficient shooting and shot selection in an offense that relies on good shots.

The first two reasons occur quite often in a program’s first year with a new head coach. The previous year’s players transfer out, leaving limited time for the new coach to recruit from the transfer portal and try and convince some of the team’s former players to stay at the school, while the new coach might bring in some of his players from his previous school.

Lamont Paris didn’t bring over a single player from UTC, which, whether or not it was the correct decision, did put a bit of a roster crunch on last year’s team. Of course, it left scholarships open for the next season, which benefited this year. That’s just one of the reasons that last year had to happen for this year to start the way it has.

Lamont Paris bought into his own approach, and started preparing for 2023-24 before the 2022-23 season even started. He didn’t change his scheme to match his personnel, he simply kept the course and it’s showing this year. Paris isn’t just a quarter-zip meme on Twitter, he’s the mastermind behind a complete 180 of the Gamecock basketball program.

When discussing what went wrong last year, it’s imperative to mention just how much that season shaped what’s happening to this Gamecock basketball team this year.

South Carolina Basketball: What’s going right this year?

It’s dangerous to prescribe to the notion of “a team should naturally be better in a coach’s 2nd year because there’s nowhere to go but up.”  Not all present success is an indication of future success.

This year, however, at least the first six games, is really and truly showing what Lamont Paris is capable of when given time and the ability to use the transfer portal. For starters, this team can shoot. They’re hitting shots at a 46.7% rate, which isn’t elite, at 103rd nationally out of 362 teams, but that’s still good, and it’s so much better than last year.

In terms of conference ranks, they’re 4th in FG%, 3rd in 3PT% at 37.2%, and 12th in FT% at 70.3%. Besides the free throws, which aren’t likely to improve throughout the season given the individual players’ career free throw percentages, the other shooting stats are night and day different compared to last year. The team’s eFG%, which was 13th in the conference last year with a 46.9% clip, has risen to 53.9%, good for 4th in the conference.

Unlike last season, when just one South Carolina basketball player posted an eFG% above the 50th percentile, 8 of the 10 Gamecocks are averaging an eFG% above the 50th percentile. Ta’Lon Cooper, Stephen Clark, and Jacobi Wright are all above the 75th percentile. Meechie Johnson and Benjamin Bosmans-Verdonk are right behind in the 74th percentile and 73rd percentile, respectively.

Last year’s players (Johnson, Wright, Bosmans-Verdonk, Davis, and Gray) are mostly taking big leaps in production through the start of this year.

Take a look at Johnson, Davis, and Wright, in particular. All three have a TS% of at least 50.5%, a mark that none of the three reached last season. They’ve been getting open looks, thanks to Ta’Lon Cooper at the point and B.J. Mack’s ability to stretch the floor. They’re also simply developed into better basketball players, and the entire coaching staff deserves credit for that.

Johnson last year had a 3PT% of 32.7% and a 2PT% of 41.5%. Through 6 games this year, his 3PT% has dropped slightly to 32.3%, but his 2PT% has risen dramatically to 59.0%. That’s helped him increase his scoring average from 12.7 PPG to 16.8 PPG.

Jacobi Wright, albeit in a small sample size, has vastly improved on his outside shooting. His 2PT% has risen from 42.5% to 48.1%, but his 3PT% has jumped from 35.0% to 55.6%, which currently puts him in the 96th percentile nationally. If anything, he should probably be shooting more threes. Amongst players in the SEC who have attempted at least 2 threes per 40 minutes, Wright ranks 3rd in 3PT%, behind just Sean East II of Mizzou and Reed Sheppard of Kentucky.

Zachary Davis has also improved significantly on the offensive end. After posting a turnover rate of 19.7% last year, he’s more than halved that number down to 9.6% this year. He’s shooting 37.5% from deep on 1.6 attempts per game after shooting just 17.1% on 1.2 attempts from behind the arc per game last year.

Davis’s steal percentage last year, elite at 3.0%, has risen to 3.7% this year. It’s extremely impressive to see that number rise, given how excellent he defended the perimeter last year. The team’s defensive numbers in terms of steals and blocks haven’t seemed to rise too much, though.

Last year’s 4.9 SPG has improved slightly to 5.5 per game, and the BPG rate is up to 2.8 after a 2.6 BPG mark last year, but it’s not equivalent to the type of renaissance the team’s offense is undergoing.

Ta’Lon Cooper and B.J. Mack, as mentioned, have been major parts of the massive improvement on the offensive end.

Cooper, the point guard transfer from Minnesota that started his career at Morehead State, has been the best distributor of the basketball in recent South Carolina basketball history, from both a schematic and statistical standpoint. Cooper’s AST% of 29.7% ranks in the 95th percentile, and his 6.2/1 assist/turnover ratio is even more impressive, ranking in the 99th percentile nationally.

Not only is he creating scoring opportunities for his teammates, but he’s preventing mistakes while doing so, which is just as important. Yes, he’s also shooting 50.0% from inside the arc and 41.9% from three, and that’s really just an added bonus, like finding another hot bag of fries in your McDonald’s bag when you really only ordered one.

Amongst SEC players with an assist percentage of >25%, only Rob Dillingham, Zyon Pullin, and Andrew Taylor have a lower turnover percentage, and only Dillingham has played in all of his team’s games.

Out of the Gamecocks’ 87 assists this season, Cooper has provided 31 of them, 19 more than any other Gamecock. 23 of those 31 assists have gone to either B.J. Mack, Myles Stute, or Stephen Clark. The thought that adding these transfers would impact team chemistry? Absolutely disproved. In fact, it has impacted team chemistry, but in a positive way.

In terms of Cooper’s scoring, it’s a bit more complex. He’s averaging 9.0 PPG, good for 4th on the team behind Johnson, Mack, and Stute, but 2.3 of those 9.0 PPG are coming on second chance opportunities, a percentage that ranks in the 92nd percentile.

It’s as if Cooper initially finds his teammates open looks, but if the ball gets back to him after a missed shot in that same possession, he’s open to just taking it himself and getting to the basket. He gets to the basket often, too. Of his 9.0 PPG, 3.7 are scored inside the paint. Cooper scores a higher percentage of his points in the paint than B.J. Mack.

Speaking of Mack, B.J. Mack’s contributions to the floor spacing need to be discussed as well. Having a power forward or small-ball center (not to suggest Mack is by any means small at 270 pounds) being able to regularly step out and hit outside shots (35.7% from deep on 4.7 attempts per game) creates a much more spread-out offense for the team to work with, and creates mismatches on the defensive end for the opponent.

Mack, who had offers from several other SEC schools, leads the team in PER, (player efficiency rating) usage rate, offensive box plus/minus, total box plus minus, win shares per 40 minutes, and offensive win shares. While not all of those categories are equal or without metric flaws, (no stat is truly capable of determining a player’s value) the fact that Mack leads the team in such a variety of catch-all analytics shows just how valuable his addition has been.

The South Carolina basketball team might not have beaten (in fact, they wouldn’t have) Grand Canyon had it not been for Mack, who scored 27 points and recorded 13 rebounds.

He’s elite from the line, shooting 87.5 from the stripe this year, meaning there’s no “hack-a-Shaq” tactic that opponents can use to stop him from scoring. Most mid-major to high-major transfers suffer at least some type of statistical decline in the upwards move, but Mack has actually improved his per-40 minute rates across the board even after making the move to South Carolina basketball.

The floor stretching ability, though, deserves a second paragraph of praise. Last year, South Carolina basketball had GG Jackson, who had similar outside scoring capabilities. However, he didn’t have the same inside scoring techniques that Mack has developed over the course of his career.

While opponents often were able to focus on Jackson on the perimeter without too much worry about him backing down his matchup with a post move, Mack is different. He has improved footwork in the paint, and can bully his way to the basket in a way that the Gamecocks couldn’t do last year, save for Josh Gray, who isn’t the outside threat the Mack is.

When the defense puts both inside and outside pressure on Mack, that leaves room for a plethora of other Gamecock shooters to get open. Jacobi Wright, Zachary Davis, Ta’Lon Cooper, and Myles Stute are all shooting better from deep than they did last year.

That’s not just some coincidence, either. Those 4 players were on 3 different teams last year, and now that they’re in a scheme with the floor-spacing Mack, all of their outside shooting has benefitted. The best players in basketball don’t just elevate their own games, but also the games of others. Mack is no exception.

In a way, the South Carolina basketball team isn’t even nearly reaching their offensive ceiling, in a shooting sense. They’re attempting over 35% of their shots at the rim, almost 5% higher than the D-1 average. This is despite the team shooting just 56.4% from those types of shots, 5.7% below the league average. Though just 12.0% of the team’s shots come from mid-range twos, they’re shooting a blistering 52.5% on those attempts, 17.2% higher than the D-1 average of 35.3%.

The ‘Cocks are about in line with the league average of shots by corner threes, with 7.8% of their FGA coming from the corner. They’re converting at a 50.0% rate, though, 15.3% higher than the D-1 average. 50.0% of shots from the corner worth 3 points going in the basket is much more than 56.4% of shots at the rim, worth 2 points, going in. This team could take more threes and be better off, a statistic that seems almost impossibly true after last year’s struggles.

This South Carolina basketball team has the size this year that they lacked last year. Mack, Gray, and Clark are all serviceable at the 4 or, in Gray’s case, the 5, and keep in mind that Colin Murray-Boyles will be back soon, providing further depth at the power forward position. It’s likely that Murray-Boyles pushes Clark out of the starting lineup, moreso due to the abilities of the freshman than the limitations of Clark.

Not having to put Hayden Brown through the gauntlet as a 6’6 power forward has really helped this team balance itself out. Hayden Brown walked so B.J. Mack, Stephen Clark, and Collin Murray-Boyles could run. As mentioned earlier, it’s important to remember just how courageously Hayden Brown performed in an unwinnable situation last year.

One unlikely improvement is from Benjamin Bosmans-Verdonk. The one-time Illinois transfer did not look ready for D-1 basketball at all last year, and the team struggled often when he was on the court. This year, however, Bosmans-Verdonk has increased his shot rate while improving his FG%, (39.3 FG% to 60.0%!) and he’s become much improved in the rebounding aspect.

Last year, he had a rebounding percentage of 12.2%, but he’s bumped that up to 21.0% this year through 6 games. His win shares/40 minutes last year was just 0.06, (the league average is .100) but he’s improved that number to .80 this year. Yes, he’s not going to transform into a starting-level type player for this South Carolina basketball team, but credit is absolutely due where it is due. He’s also balancing being in law school, and is just a very intelligent person and player.

Myles Stute has cooled off just a bit from a blazing hot start to the season, but he’s still been very good, performance-wise. His turnover percentage has stayed low, (11.6%) and he’s 4th on the team in points produced with 56. 52.5% of his shots have been from three, and he’s making 41.7% of them, which is about all you can ask for from a player. He has been drawing fouls, which is valuable even if he isn’t the best free-throw shooter.

His three-point attempts per 40 minutes/ 3PT% is enough for him to land around names like Denver Jones at Auburn and Riley Kugel at Florida. He’s just a great high-volume, high-percentage three-point shooter. In Lamont Paris’s offense, that’s extremely valuable.

Jacobi Wright would be the frontrunner for SEC 6th Man of the Year if it weren’t for Josh Hubbard and Khalif Battle. The junior guard and holdover from the Frank Martin days is much more than the typical glue guy. Besides the aforementioned jump in 3PT% for Wright, his plus-minus of +41 is second on the team, behind only Morris Ugusuk. His 50.0 FG% is the highest in the team’s backcourt, and though his 3PAr is just 25.0%, again, he’s shooting 55.6% on those three-point attempts.

Jacobi Wright should have the green light when he gets the ball behind the arc. He’s actually shooting 30.8% from mid-range twos this year despite that area of the court comprising 36.1% of his shot attempts, so he might actually be better served to step back and shoot from distance more often. He’s shooting 77.8% at the rim, however, which ranks in the 83rd percentile, so perhaps all he needs to do is only shoot threes and close-range twos.

For a team that’s struggled from the line, Wright hasn’t at all. His 92.3 FT% is highest on the team and in the 86th percentile nationally. Besides Mack and Wright, no other Gamecock has a FT% over 75%. That’s, again, one area that the team might just not improve on. The Gamecocks have quite a few players that are near-automatic from deep but, for whatever reason, just don’t consistently make free-throws.

South Carolina basketball’s best lineup so far this season, amongst the 4 lineups with 10+ minutes played, has been Johnson, Wright, Cooper, Davis, and Mack. It has a net rating of +38.4, in the 81st percentile. The most common lineup by far, however, on the court for 40 of the team’s 240 minutes played so far, has been the starting 5 of Johnson, Cooper, Stute, Clark, and Mack.

It’s also been a pretty efficient lineup, with a net rating of +22.5, good for a 67th percentile rank. It’s also the best defensive lineup out of the 4 qualifying Gamecock lineups, with a defensive rating of 95.0, the only 1 of the 4 lineups with a sub-100 defensive rating.

Overall, South Carolina basketball has brought in talent. (Mack, Cooper, Stute, Clark.) It has, finally, a true point guard. (Ta’Lon Cooper.) Paris has now been given time to develop his players in his scheme and the progress has shown. The team’s offense has true spacing, and has been knocking down their shots efficiently. All 4 of the team’s main factors as to what happened last year have been solved.

Sure, this team isn’t likely going to win the NCAA championship this year. They haven’t looked like world-beaters or a team that could compete for 40 minutes with Houston or Purdue. But they look good, and they look so much better than last year. It’s like a completely new team, and it almost is. (4 of 5 starters are transfers.)

South Carolina basketball might even make the tournament, they’ve beaten Virginia Tech, and they’re one of just 18 unbeatens left. That’s incredible. Imagine telling that to the Gamecock fan base the day after Paris was hired. Doesn’t that make last year worth it? Of course it does.

But this year couldn’t have happened if not for last year. Last year was necessary for that team to become this team, and Columbia is reaping the benefits. Lamont Paris is the right person for this job. The players say it, the numbers say it, and now the fan base is saying it too. All the haters can get quarter-zipped.

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