South Carolina Basketball: What Joe Lunardi’s bracketology thinks of the Gamecocks

South Carolina basketball guard Meechie Johnson didn't have his best game statistically but provided high-quality effort when he was in the game. Mandatory Credit: Vasha Hunt-USA TODAY Sports
South Carolina basketball guard Meechie Johnson didn't have his best game statistically but provided high-quality effort when he was in the game. Mandatory Credit: Vasha Hunt-USA TODAY Sports /

South Carolina basketball fans have gotten a chance to do something they haven’t done in a while: they’ve enjoyed the start of basketball season. Head coach Lamont Paris has put a much-improved squad on the court this season after tying a program record for losses (21) last year, and USC appears to be a good team.

But where do the Gamecocks stack up in regard to having realistic postseason aspirations?

It’s still early in the season (the regular season is just 1/3 of the way finished, and conference play has yet to begin), but this 8-1 South Carolina basketball team has been part of the NCAA Tournament discussion for the first time in several years.

With good wins over teams like Grand Canyon (“neutral site” in Arizona), Virginia Tech (neutral site in Charlotte), East Carolina (@ East Carolina), and George Washington, the NET rankings (a major factor in NCAA Tournament selections and seedings) have Carolina at 28th, and college basketball analyst Andy Katz has the Gamecocks as the 33rd-best team in the country.

Both of those numbers should have South Carolina basketball firmly in the NCAA Tournament field if the season were to end today. However, the premier bracketologist of the day is ESPN’s Joe Lunardi, and Lunardi is slightly lower on USC than the numbers might indicate.

The Gamecocks were labeled as “on the bubble” in Lunardi’s first bracketology of the season (not including his preseason predictions), and now, he has the Gamecocks as the final team to make the Big Dance without having to play in the play-in round of the tourney.

Some of Lunardi’s hesitation with putting the Gamecocks any higher likely comes from projecting them to struggle a bit during SEC play. Based on recent seasons (no winning record in league play since the 2019-2020 campaign), that is a reasonable expectation for this team.

However, this year’s team is vastly different than those other Carolina squads.

Lamont Paris is in his first full year with a complete offseason of recruiting, both from the high school ranks and the transfer portal.

Paris has his guys on the roster now, and the Gamecocks have embraced a new style of play that allows for more ball movement and outside shooting. Shots at the rim and shots from outside make up the bulk of the Gamecocks’ shot selection instead of the late-in-the-shot-clock scrambling chucks that existed in the later years of Frank Martin.

The roster is full of experienced, veteran players.

BJ Mack, Ta’Lon Cooper, Meechie Johnson, Myles Stute, Stephen Clark, Jacobi Wright, Josh Gray, Benjamin Bosmans-Verdonk, and Ebrima Dibba are all in their 3rd year of college or later, and youngsters like Collin Murray-Boyles, Zach Davis, and Morris Ugusuk bring plenty to the table.

This team also has its first true point guard in years in Ta’Lon Cooper.

There have been good players who played some point for the ‘Cocks (Meechie Johnson, Jermaine Couisnard, AJ Lawson, Hassani Gravett, PJ Dozier, etc.), but Devan Downey and Tre Kelley were the last point guards in garnet and black who could really run an offense. Cooper currently leads the SEC in assists per game (5) and has just 9 turnovers in 9 contests.

The Gamecocks have multiple legitimate scorers who can put the ball in the basket both in the paint and from outside.

Meechie Johnson is an elite shooter and has some dynamic quickness that he uses to get into the lane. Myles Stute can be one of the top shooters in the conference and has a serviceable game down low. BJ Mack is a legitimate post presence and is in his 4th-straight season shooting 30% or better from outside. Ta’Lon Cooper is a good outside shooter (50% so far this season from 3) and, at 6’4″ and 215 pounds, he is a low-post nightmare for smaller guards.

No, the Gamecocks shouldn’t be viewed as a real contender in the SEC yet, and they shouldn’t be thought of as a lock for the NCAA Tournament. However, they will outplay their preseason projection of 14th (last place!!!!!) in the league, and the NCAA Tournament is a real possibility.

The South Carolina basketball schedule is very manageable as out-of-conference play finishes up, and the Gamecocks should be 12-1 heading into the all-important SEC slate. For a change, this season should be a fun one to watch.

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