South Carolina basketball fans know that the Gamecocks are not at the top of most of the media's mind when men's college basketball is discussed (the women are a different story).
Outside of one magical season in which Sindarius Thornwell won the SEC Player of the Year and led USC to an improbable Final Four run, the Gamecocks have been a virtual afterthought to the national media. Even when Carolina won double-digit SEC games in four out of five seasons, the Final Four year of 2016-2017 was the only year they could make the NCAA Tournament field.
The 2023-2024 South Carolina basketball squad, however, is forcing the world to pay attention. Lamont Paris has his team at 13-1 (already besting their 11-win total from last year), and the Gamecocks just knocked off a good Mississippi State team to begin SEC play.
Joe Lunardi and others in the "bracketology" world, to their credit, have included USC in the back end of their NCAA Tournament projections, but the Gamecocks might belong in a spot of higher regard.
The straw that stirs the drink for the CourtCocks is guard Meechie Johnson.
The former Ohio State Buckeye transferred into the South Carolina basketball program before last season, but being forced into primary point guard duties and having to share a court with GG Jackson kept Johnson from consistently being "the man" in Columbia.
That has changed this year.
So far in the 2023-2024 season, Meechie Johnson is averaging 18.2 points, 4.2 rebounds, and 2.5 assists, but that only tells part of the story as he is making an interesting case for SEC Player of the Year.
Johnson is shooting 45% from the floor, 37% from 3-point land, and 82% from the free throw line. He ranks 3rd in the SEC in points per game but takes fewer shots than one of the two players above him. He is 5th in the league in 3-pointers made, and he shoots over 50% from inside the arc. From the charity stripe, he is one of just two players to shoot 80% or better on more than 5 attempts per game.
Ken Pomeroy ranks Johnson as the 8th-best offensive player in the country, and his 120.8 offensive rating is better than any other player in the SEC, regardless of position. That number is also 4th-best among all guards and the top mark among guards who play at Power-6 programs. Gamecock radio play-by-play man Derek Scott rightfully thinks that should put Meechie Johnson in the SEC Player of the Year discussion.
His efforts have put the Gamecocks in the top-50 nationally in team offensive rating, and their defense is good enough that they already have beaten a team ranked ahead of them when they played Grand Canyon out in Arizona earlier this year. The 57th-ranked KenPom team, USC will have plenty of opportunities to ascend the rankings thanks to Johnson.
He does more than just score, too.
Meechie Johnson has been moved to shooting guard this season, and despite not playing point guard anymore, he still ranks inside the top-20 in the conference in assists. He has a high usage rate but has maintained a low turnover output, averaging just over 1 per contest. He also has pulled down over 4 rebounds per game, one of just two players in the conference below 6'3" to do so.
Johnson has done his part to help the defense, as well. He is improved on that end of the floor, and thanks in large part to his partnership with point guard Ta'Lon Cooper, South Carolina basketball is limiting opponents to fewer 3-point opportunities (and makes) than any other team in the SEC, and that has translated to USC's league-leading 63 points allowed per game.
Johnson has turned his elite quickness into elite off-ball defense, often impacting the game in ways that don't show up on the box score: thwarting cut attempts, making smart traps, and denying passes to opposing guards have become part of his defensive game. Despite the Gamecocks' playing a conservating style that does not promote gambling for steals, Johnson snatches about one cookie per game, including a clutch on-ball pilfer to seal the Mississippi State win.
The Gamecocks foul less than all but two SEC teams and turn the ball over less than all but one, a testament to their best player who is on the court for about 30 minutes per game.
His impact has been felt when he's been off the court, as well. He missed the Elon game, and despite the Gamecocks' playing a vastly inferior opponent, they put up a bottom-5 performance of their season in points, 3-point percentage, free throw attempts, free throw makes, free throw percentage, and turnovers.
The most recent SEC Player of the Week (Johnson shared the award with LSU's Jordan Wright), #5 has become a fan favorite, and he seems to feed off of his Gamecock crowd's energy at home and the opposing crowd's anger on the road.
The hardest thing to quantify, though, about Meechie Johnson in the 2023-2024 season is the fact that he seems to play his best when his team needs it most. Are the Gamecocks in the middle of a scoreless stretch? Meechie is going to get them a bucket. Is the game about to come down to clutch free throws? #5 is going to get the ball and sink his shots from the line. Is the opposing defense shutting everything down? Johnson is going to find a way to snake his way into the lane or get just enough space for a 3-pointer.
Simply put, Meechie Johnson is one of the best guards in the country, and it is time for the college basketball world to start paying attention.
He will get a chance to bolster his resume on Tuesday night against Alabama.