South Carolina Basketball: Gamecock week 5 in review

South Carolina basketball head coach Dawn Staley. Mandatory Credit: Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports
South Carolina basketball head coach Dawn Staley. Mandatory Credit: Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports /

South Carolina basketball had a combined undefeated record for the season. Emphasis on had, with the Gamecock men losing to Clemson on the road, but Dawn Staley’s group is still flying high with an unbeaten record and the #1 ranking in the polls to show for it.

The South Carolina basketball men went 1-1 last week, with the aforementioned loss to Clemson and a road win (their first of the season) against East Carolina in Greenville, NC. The South Carolina women bested Morgan State at home, then defeated a feisty Utah squad in a neutral-site victory in Connecticut.

The men’s team had a point differential of +1 last week, and both games came down to the wire, a 72-67 loss to Clemson and a 68-62 loss to East Carolina. Against Morgan State, South Carolina didn’t have much trouble, winning 104-38, but Utah stayed close in a game that the Gamecocks eventually won 78-69.

Both teams have two games by next Tuesday, with the Gamecock men playing two winnable home games against Charleston Southern and Winthrop. The Bucs recently parted ways with their head coach, and both teams rank outside of the top 125 in the latest KenPom rankings.

Dawn Staley’s group plays at home against Presbyterian and on the road against Bowling Green. Both sets of games are on the 16th (Saturday) and 19th (Tuesday), and given the way the South Carolina basketball team has been playing this year, there’s no reason to suggest that the team will have any trouble with their opponents this week.

South Carolina Basketball Week Review:
Stathead Section

Meechie Johnson’s 25.8 points/40 minutes ranks in the 99th percentile nationally, and he’s averaging 5.7 more points per game than last season despite a 15% decrease in minutes per game. His 18.4 PPG ranks 3rd in the conference, trailing only Mark Sears and Dalton Knecht.

Raven Johnson has been a pest (in a good way) on defense, posting a 4.9% steal rate, good for 6th in the conference. It’s a sizable improvement compared to last year’s 3.4% steal percentage on the perimeter for Johnson, and the Gamecock defense as a whole has looked solid.

The South Carolina men are selective about their offensive rebounding. Despite placing below the 30th percentile nationally in offensive rebounding rates on corner threes, at the rim shots, and shots in the paint, the Gamecocks are in the 69th percentile at offensive rebounding off mid-range shots and in the 80th percentile on above-break threes.

It’s an interesting combination, as the lineups with the highest mid-range and above-break three attempt rates are both 4-guard lineups. Often, the Gamecocks are able to produce their best rebounding rates with their lengthy guards rather than a high volume of frontcourt players.

Te-Hina Paopao leads the Gamecocks in offensive rating (estimate of how many points are produced by a player over 100 possessions) with a 129.5 mark, one that ranks 3rd in the conference and trails just Mikaylah Williams of LSU and Ra Shaya Kyle of Florida.

Over the past 5 games, the South Carolina men are shooting a 55.2 FG% from mid-range, a mark that ranks higher than 99% of other D-1 programs in that span. Meechie Johnson and Myles Stute are leading the way with a 73.3 FG% and a 66.7 FG% from mid-range shots, respectively.

As a team, the South Carolina women are giving up just 52.2 PPG, 2nd in the conference behind Texas A&M and good for 16th nationally. That can’t be due to a soft schedule, either, as Dawn Staley’s group has played and beaten six Power 6 schools in their nine games played so far.

Meechie Johnson is 1 of just 4 SEC players (Reed Sheppard, Mark Sears, and Antonio Reeves) with 20+ 3PM and 4.0+ RPG this season. Just 2 SEC players have an assist/usage ratio over 1.5. One is Tre Donaldson at 1.75, while Ta’Lon Cooper is the only SEC player with an assist/usage rate over 2.00. (He’s at 2.15.)

Not only do the South Carolina women lead the SEC in BPG with 9.6, but the gap (3.5) between them and the 2nd-highest team (LSU) is larger than the gap between LSU and 13th-highest team. (Tennessee with 2.6 per game.) The Gamecock women have 3 players in the top 10 of the SEC in blocks per game, and one of them is a guard that comes off the bench. (Fulwiley.)

Amongst qualifying players, Morris Ugusuk has the lowest fouls/40 minutes rate in the SEC with just 1.05 fouls per 40 minutes. He also has drawn 2.09 fouls/40 minutes, almost double his personal rate of fouling. Every other SEC player with >108 minutes played is averaging at least 1.23 fouls per 40 minutes except the Carolina freshman.

Amongst SEC players with <40 three-point attempts, Myles Stute has the 3rd-most 3PM in the conference, tied with Sean East II and behind only Rob Dillingham and Reed Sheppard.

South Carolina Basketball Week Review:
Boxscore Break

Against Morgan State, South Carolina basketball was led by Tessa Johnson, who had an efficient night on offense, scoring 16 points on 7-9 shooting. In all, 6 Gamecocks posted 10+ points, including Johnson, Raven Johnson, Fulwiley, Cardoso, Paopao, and Sania Feagin. Though Chloe Kitts only shot the ball four times, she tallied 14 rebounds to lead both teams. Ashlyn Watkins had 3 steals and 2 blocks, flashing defensive versatility yet again.

As a team, South Carolina basketball dominated the glass and simply couldn’t miss from the field. They shot 41-60, a 68.3% clip and the highest shooting percentage in a single game in the Dawn Staley era. The Gamecocks went 9-16 (56.3%) from beyond the arc while holding Morgan State to just 20.3% overall from the field. On the glass, Carolina recorded 47 rebounds, more than double Morgan State’s total of 21. In a game in which South Carolina had, at one point, a 68 point lead, the Gamecocks ended up scoring more points in the paint (50) than Morgan State had total (38).

The women’s game against Utah was more competitive, with the Utes pulling within 2 points late, even with the Gamecocks ending the first quarter up double-digits. For starters, the Gamecocks could not stop Utah forward Alissa Pili, who led both teams with 37 points. No matter who Dawn Staley assigned to her on defense, it seems like the ‘Cocks were helpless to stop Pili.

Luckily for South Carolina, however, the offense picked up the slack. Though the team shot just 3-13 from deep without her, MiLaysia Fulwiley went a perfect 3-3 from three as part of an 11-point performance. Kamilla Cardoso, Chloe Kitts, and Te-Hina Paopao combined for 43 of the team’s 78 points, and Kitts again led the team in rebounds.

As a team, the Gamecocks were better than the Utes in almost every category except one crucial aspect: turnovers. South Carolina committed 23 turnovers, their most in one game since 2018 against Clemson when they managed 27 in 40 minutes. (Funnily enough, Clemson also recorded 27 turnovers in that game.) Cardoso, Raven Johnson, and Fulwiley all recorded at least 4 turnovers. The shooting, however, wasn’t bad by any means. The Gamecocks shot 54.5% from the field, the third straight game they’ve shot .500 or better.

Against rival Clemson, South Carolina had a key contributor step up, even if the final score wasn’t what the team would have hoped. Meechie Johnson (26 points) posted his 6th career game of 24+ points, with 4 of those games coming just in the Gamecocks’ 9 contests this year. Johnson also led the team in assists, steals, and offensive rebounds, and if just a few other players stepped up, the game could have been won. Stephen Clark did score 10, his first game in double-figures for South Carolina, as did B.J. Mack, but they were the only 3 ‘Cocks to score 10+ points against the Tigers.

As a team, the Gamecocks weren’t their usual self from deep, shooting just 10-30 from the perimeter, which isn’t horrible, but also isn’t near the level that fans have become accustomed to over the past few weeks. (Players not named Meechie went 4-20 from beyond the arc.)

The Gamecocks missed some clutch free throws when they got to the line, finishing the night with a 13-19 mark from the stripe. Other aspects of the game were about equal, with Clemson grabbing a few more rebounds than Carolina (42-38 margin) but nothing major in that department.

Both teams had exactly 13 assists and 5 steals to their credit. Overall, it was the superior shooting of the Tigers that won them the game, (and lost Carolina the game, on the flip side) and a few more made shots could have sealed the upset for the ‘Cocks.

In the men’s next game against East Carolina, Myles Stute and Meechie Johnson stepped up big, both scoring 15 points to lead the team. Zachary Davis had another efficient off-the-bench performance, scoring 9 points on 3-5 shooting and collecting 5 rebounds. B.J. Mack led the team in rebounds with 8, but got into foul trouble, as did Stephen Clark, who managed just 1 point. The Gamecocks scored just 15 bench points, a trend that could become worrisome. 4 different Pirates scored in double-figures against Carolina.

In terms of team stats, South Carolina shot slightly better from three and from the line compared to their rates against Clemson, making 9-of-26 threes and shooting 17-24 from the free-throw line. The Gamecocks out-rebounded the Pirates by a small margin, 38-35, but the teams played quite similarly to each other over most of the 40 minutes. One key statistical deviation from that was a 13-8 assist margin in favor of South Carolina, with all 5 starters recording at least 1 assist.

South Carolina Basketball Week Review:
Player Profile

This week’s player profile on the women’s side is Chloe Kitts. The 6’2 sophomore has improved across the board in her second season with the ‘Cocks.

After appearing in 18 games and seeing just 6.9 MPG, she’s started all 9 games this season and is averaging 19.7 minutes per game to go with a 10.1 PPG average. Her advanced metrics are up compared to last year, which is a good sign considering she mostly played in non-competitive minutes when she saw action last year. Even against ranked opponents and tough competition, she has mostly shined. Against Duke, she scored a career-high 14 points, marking her sixth 10-point game this year in nine appearances.

Her interior defense has made strides, improving her block percentage to 3.4% this year after posting a 0.7% rate last season. She’s been more effective on offense, improving her TS% from 40.5% to 53.5%, and she ranks in the top 20 in the SEC in both offensive rating and rebounds per game. Her rebounding percentage of 21.2% is 2nd on the team behind Kamilla Cardoso, and Kitts has the lowest turnover rate (12.4%) amongst Gamecocks who have played 100+ minutes this season.

Kitts is 4th on the team in win shares/40 minutes, and has a .330 rate in that stat category, an elite rate. After losing Aliyah Boston to the WNBA, Kamilla Cardoso has helped fill her void, but Chloe Kitts deserves her flowers, too, for stabilizing the frontcourt.

On the men’s side, the player profile this week is Ta’Lon Cooper. The former Dorman product is one of the best point guards in the SEC in his last year of eligibility. Cooper has recorded three games of 7+ assists in just nine appearances this year, and he has 3+ assists in every game this year. His assist:turnover ratio of 5:1 is in the top 1% of college basketball players, and that’s with just a 13.1% usage rate.

As a shooter, Cooper doesn’t take a ton of shots, but he’s been very efficient when he has, shooting 50.0% from three. He’s also assisting on 1.2 corner threes per game, ranking in the top 4% of all guards in that category.

Cooper has been excellent at providing floor spacing for the Gamecocks, proving to be a capable scorer but also finding open looks for his teammates. This has helped the offense gel and is one of the main reasons why the Gamecocks are able to take (and make) as many threes as they are in such a slow-paced offense. (326th of 362 D-1 teams in KenPom adjusted tempo.)

Cooper is 2nd on the team in win shares behind his backcourt teammate Meechie Johnson, and his assist percentage of 28.2% puts him 4th in the SEC, behind just Rob Dillingham, Ezra Manjon, and Wade Taylor IV. Cooper leads the SEC in assists per game, and is the only player averaging 5+ per game. His offensive rating of 140.4 is enough for 4th in the conference.

Overall, Cooper has arguably been the most crucial transfer on the team from a schematic standpoint, and an argument could be made for statistical impact as well. He’s the glue that holds the offense together, and that’s why he’s averaging 32.3 MPG.

South Carolina Basketball Week Review:
Lineup Lookback

The South Carolina basketball men have not wavered from their typical starting five of Ta’Lon Cooper, Meechie Johnson, Myles Stute, Stephen Clark, and B.J. Mack. The quintet has started all 9 games for the Gamecocks this year, though Jacobi Wright, Zachary Davis, and Morris Ugusuk are all averaging more minutes than Clark so far this year. Despite that, the starting lineup is by far the most prevalent lineup for the Gamecock men so far, recording 67 minutes on the court together through 9 games. The next-closest lineup, consisting of Cooper, Wright, Stute, Davis, and Mack, has seen 18 minutes of action together.

The starting five is the only lineup with 10+ minutes played with an above-average defensive rating, and the Gamecock defense certainly has room to improve. However, another lineup, consisting of Cooper, Wright, Johnson, Davis, and Mack, (just the starting five with Wright and Davis in the place of Stute and Clark) has an eFG% of 66.7%, inside the 90th percentile amongst qualifying lineups this year.

Collin Murray-Boyles has returned from his mononucleosis absence, but he’s still getting back into the swing, seeing 3 minutes against George Washington, 17 against Clemson, and 9 against East Carolina. Especially with Clark’s improvement as of late, and an easy schedule forthcoming, it’s not needed for Murray-Boyles to grab that starting spot just yet, (he will eventually, he’s just that good) and he’s benefitting from a rotational role with the South Carolina basketball program right now.

On the women’s side, Tessa Johnson and Sakima Walker got starts over Raven Johnson and Kamilla Cardoso against Morgan State at home, as opposed to the regular starting five of Cardoso, Kitts, Raven Johnson, Bree Hall, and Te-Hina Paopao, but the inclusion of Johnson (Tessa) and Walker were simply a way to switch up the lineup against a lower-level opponent and allow the two to get a start under their belt.

Against Utah, the usual starting five took the court again, and they all played 25+ minutes. Barring injury or unforeseen circumstances, Cardoso, Kitts, Raven Johnson, Bree Hall, and Te-Hina Paopao are locked into their starting positions, regardless of how well MiLaysia Fulwiley and Ashlyn Watkins are playing. That’s one of the best parts about having so much stockpiled talent with South Carolina basketball. Watkins and Fulwiley would be guaranteed to start at any other school in the country, and they will continue to improve within their rotational role.

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