South Carolina Basketball: Gamecock men's mid-season review heading into SEC play

South Carolina basketball has excelled this season. What's to come once the SEC slate rolls around?

South Carolina basketball guard Ta'Lon Cooper drives to the basket against Virginia Tech.
South Carolina basketball guard Ta'Lon Cooper drives to the basket against Virginia Tech. / Mitchell Layton/GettyImages

South Carolina basketball has turned a corner, it appears. After an 11-21 season last year, the Gamecock men have already surpassed last year’s win total with a 12-1 record so far in Lamont Paris’s second year.   

While the team’s strength of schedule hasn’t been especially difficult, (331th nationally and last in the SEC, per KenPom) wins are wins. It’s not like South Carolina has played D-2 opponents all year. They’ve beaten Grand Canyon (likely WAC champion) and Virginia Tech (one spot below Grand Canyon in the KenPom rankings). The Gamecocks’ one loss of the season so far, a road loss to Clemson, however disappointing as it was, is still classified as one of the better losses in the SEC, (Alabama lost to Clemson at home) and the Gamecocks were in position to win that game too. 

Besides those three games, South Carolina has won the games that they’ve needed to win: USC-Upstate, VMI, DePaul, Notre Dame, George Washington, East Carolina on the road, Charleston Southern, Winthrop, Elon, and Florida A&M, in order. While some would consider those games “cupcakes”, and the reality is that quite a few were, again, wins are wins, and the Gamecocks looked just as impressive as usual in most of those games. Sure, Charleston Southern (for whatever reason) and East Carolina (more excusable) gave the ‘Cocks trouble, but they pulled those wins out, and with 12 of 14 teams in the SEC holding multiple losses, there’s a sense of pride around the South Carolina program having just a singular loss so far. 

What’s driving that progress, though? Has the team turned a corner just like that in Paris’s second year? And are these Gamecocks able to hang with the big dogs in the SEC? The answers to those questions are, in order, a combination of things, yes, and most likely.

South Carolina Basketball Mid-Season Review:
Stathead Section

After finishing 221st in the final KenPom rankings last year, the Gamecocks currently sit at 60th in the latest iteration. No team above the Gamecocks in the current rankings finished below 183rd last season, marking one of the largest improvements in high-major college basketball. 

South Carolina basketball has been elite in terms of ball control this season. Even adjusted for strength of schedule, the Gamecocks’ adjusted turnover percentage of 13.5% ranks in the 82nd percentile, and the team’s assist/turnover ratio of 1.60/1 is even better, ranking in the top 95th percentile nationally. Minnesota transfer and South Carolina native Ta’Lon Cooper has been largely responsible for that jump, as he ranks T-2nd in the conference with 4.5 APG and holds an assist/turnover ratio of 4.14/1, in the 98th percentile for guards across the country.

Up 61-51 with 7:24 left in the game against DePaul, Meechie Johnson missed two straight free throws. Since then, he hasn’t even missed two free throws total, posting a 35-36 (97.2 FT%) total since that trip to the line on November 17. Prior to this streak starting, Johnson’s career FT% was 70.0%, which just makes this run of elite shooting even more impressive. 

South Carolina is one of just 5 SEC teams with a 3PT% of 35% or higher, joining Kentucky, Ole Miss, Alabama, and Arkansas in that distinction. While the Gamecocks have posted a sub-35% 3PT% in all of their last 6 games after converting a program-record 18 three-pointers, four Gamecocks have a 3PT% of 35% or greater, and every player in the starting lineup (Ta’Lon Cooper, Meechie Johnson, Myles Stute, Stephen Clark, and B.J. Mack) has the ability to knock down deeper shots when called upon. 

In addition to Ta’Lon Cooper’s success with ball security, two other Gamecocks are notably specializing in mistake-reduction with the rock in their hands. Both Meechie Johnson (8.9%) and B.J. Mack (9.0%) are top-10 in the SEC in terms of turnover percentage, and the ability to keep the ball out of harm’s way is allowing the Gamecock offense to thrive in a half-court setting.

The Gamecocks are the only team in the SEC with less than 9 steals/100 possessions and less than 6 blocks/100 possessions. 12 teams in the conference have at least 9.25 steals/100 possessions, while half the conference has at least 7 blocks/100 possessions. South Carolina basketball has rates of just 8.16 steals/100 possessions and 5.16 blocks/100 possessions, but individual performers are seeing success in those categories. Stephen Clark ranks in the top-5 amongst qualified players in the SEC with 4.82 blocks/100 possessions, while Zachary Davis’s steal percentage of 3.3% ranks in the 86th percentile nationally. 

Two Gamecocks are the main aspects of the team’s offense. Both Meechie Johnson (30.9%) and B.J. Mack (28.9%) are 3rd and 5th in the SEC in usage percentage as the Gamecocks enter the conference slate of the schedule. No other qualifying (>100 minutes played) Gamecock is above 21.5% for the season. 

Meechie Johnson is a mid-range specialist. On the season, he’s shooting 11-19 (57.9%) on mid-range jump shots. The D-1 average is just 35.8% from mid-range, and while several programs are attempting to make the mid-range jumper obsolete, (looking at you, Nate Oats) a mid-range jumper at 57.9% is certainly efficient. 

Speaking of shooting zones, another Gamecock has an interesting efficiency split. Freshman Collin Murray-Boyles is shooting 81.3% around the rim, a mark that ranks in the 90th percentile and much higher than the D-1 average of 62.0%. However, just outside, in the paint, Murray-Boyles is shooting 1-8 (12.5%), well below the D-1 average of 40.4%. Assuredly, both numbers should end up closer to the mean, but it’s an interesting sample so far for the talented freshman. 

Just how good is Meechie Johnson at scoring? In the SEC, just one player ranks ahead of him in points/100 possessions, that being Johni Broome at Auburn with a rate of 39.4 points/100 possessions, just ahead of Johnson’s 39.3 mark. No other player in the SEC is higher than 37.0. Despite South Carolina basketball’s slow pace, Johnson ranks 3rd in the SEC in PPG with 17.7, and the points/100 possessions statistic shows just how valuable he is as a scorer. 

It’s a small sample size, but Collin Murray-Boyles has gotten several of his shots sent back this season, as has B.J. Mack, in a larger sample size. Murray-Boyles leads the SEC in shots blocked/100 possessions (on the offensive side of the ball) with a 4.8 mark. That’s more than double almost every other player in the conference. Mack is averaging 2.8 shots blocks/100 possessions, 4th in the SEC behind Murray-Boyles, Mouhamed Diabate, and Manny Obaseki. Overall, the Gamecocks have 3 of the 10 conference leaders in shots sent back this year. That’s not great, but it’s also not a stat that’s going to have a huge impact on the game. 

Yet another small sample size, but Josh Gray is leading the SEC in defensive rebounds per 100 possessions. His 19.8/100 mark is much higher than the next-highest mark of 16.5/100 from Baye Fall of Arkansas, but given the fact that Gray has only played 58 minutes this season, he’s not eligible for SEC leaderboards. Still, it’s a nice nod to the fact that Josh Gray is an elite rebounder when he’s on the court. 

Who’s the best Gamecock in terms of ball control? The answers may be surprising. Zachary Davis is 15th in the SEC (amongst qualified players) with just 1.9 turnovers/100 possessions, leading the Gamecocks, while Meechie Johnson’s 9.0 TO% ranks in the 87th percentile and leads the team. 

South Carolina is 8th in the SEC in APG with 15.4. While that’s not an elite number, it’s above-average at 83rd nationally of 362 teams, and it’s much higher than last year’s mark of just 11.1 APG, a rate that put them last in the conference. This year, the team’s five starters are reaching that mark by themselves, along with 4.3 APG from the bench, led by Jacobi Wright with 2.0 per game. 

South Carolina has attempted 10 shots this season at the immediate beginning of a half (either 1st or 2nd) and had varying degrees of success on those shots. 6 of those shots came inside the arc, while 4 were three-point attempts. The Gamecocks shot 5-6 on those twos but just 1-4 on the threes. 

South Carolina’s highest PPC (point per chance) in a given on-court situation has been off of live turnovers. They’re scoring 1.14 PPC off of live-ball turnovers, with a 40.0 3PT% in those situations. The 1.14 PPC mark ranks in the 91st percentile nationally. The only issue is that they haven’t found themselves in these live ball turnover situations often. In fact, it only accounts for 7.0% of the Gamecocks’ defensive possessions, which ranks in just the 8th percentile amongst D-1 programs. 

After missing a shot, South Carolina basketball typically responds with an efficient defensive possession. Opponents are scoring just 0.72 PPC off of a rebound off a Gamecock missed shot attempt, while shooting just 41.3% inside the arc.

The Gamecocks are most efficient offensively between 10-20 second possessions. Their 0.99 PPC in that time frame ranks in the 95th percentile, and it comprises 40.8% of their shot attempts. They’re still very good between 20-30 seconds (0.86 PPC) but if they move too fast (0-10 seconds) or too slow (30+ seconds), the Gamecocks just aren’t efficient, ranking in the 35th percentile (0-10 seconds) and 9th percentile (30+ seconds) for those two categories. 

South Carolina Basketball Mid-Season Review:
Lineup Lookback

Lamont Paris, save for the game against Elon that Meechie Johnson was unavailable for, has rolled out the same starting five game after game. The starting five of Cooper, Johnson, Stute, Clark, and Mack have been deployed in 12 of the 13 games for South Carolina basketball this season, and, despite the potential that Collin Murray-Boyles has flashed, there’s no reason to suggest that the current starting five will be modified heading into SEC games. As mentioned in prior South Carolina basketball weekly reviews, however, the starter designation doesn’t automatically ensure the most minutes played. 

In terms of time on the court, four starters are still leading the team in minutes: Ta’Lon Cooper (31.7 MPG), Meechie Johnson (27.9), Myles Stute (26.0), and B.J. Mack (24.5). That quartet is followed by Jacobi Wright (22.4), whose plus/minus of +104 ranks second on the team behind Ta’Lon Cooper, Zachary Davis (19.1), Morris Ugusuk (15.9), and then starter Stephen Clark at 12.8 MPG. Two more Gamecocks, Benjamin Bosmans-Verdonk (12.3) and Collin Murray-Boyles (11.7), both are averaging more than 10 minutes per game, while Josh Gray, walk-on Eli Sparkman, Ebrima Dibba (currently injured), and walk-on Danny Grajzl all average between 1.8-5.8 MPG. 

Which lineups have performed the best for the Gamecocks this season? Amongst the seven lineups that have compiled 10+ minutes this season for Carolina, the most effective lineup in terms of net rating has been Jacobi Wright, Ta’Lon Cooper, Morris Ugusuk, Myles Stute, and B.J. Mack, with a +60.1 net rating in just 13 minutes of action. It could seem a bit odd to not see team MVP Meechie Johnson in that lineup, but the high rating could very well be a result of small sample size (just 22 possessions) or several of those possessions coming in situations in which the game has already been decided. 

For what it’s worth, all other lineups with a net rating in the 75th percentile or higher have Johnson in them. He’s clearly a very valuable piece of the equation this year, and 4 of the 5 lineups with 10+ minutes played and Johnson in it have a net rating of +15 or higher. 

The starting lineup for South Carolina basketball has exactly 100 more possessions of data to work with than any other 5-man lineup for the team. That could be one reason why the typical starting lineup has just the 5th-highest net rating out of the 7 Gamecock lineups with 10+ minutes played. On the other hand, the starting lineup has had trouble with securing defensive rebounds (35.9% opponent offensive rebounding rate) and forcing turnovers (8.5% opponent turnover rate), so it actually may not be the best lineup overall. 

In terms of 3-man court combinations, there are three lineups in which three different Gamecocks are on the court together that have net ratings of +50 or higher. Coincidentally, or maybe not, Ta’Lon Cooper and Morris Ugusuk are in all three of those lineups, accompanied by a different Gamecock, those being, in no order, Jacobi Wright, B.J. Mack, and Myles Stute. All three of those lineups (having between 48-68 minutes played) have a plus/minus between +39-+53. 

Does this mean Ta’Lon Cooper and Morris Ugusuk are the most valuable Gamecocks? Not necessarily, but it’s telling that this question can be asked and not be scoffed at. Those two could absolutely be labeled the glue that holds this year’s team together. The team shoots better when those two are on the court, the team rebounds better when those two are on the court, the team doesn’t commit turnovers when they’re on the court, the team draws fouls when these two are on the court, and the team even forces turnovers at an above-average rate when Cooper and Ugusuk are on the court. 

Take out the third variable and just look at the two-man combination of Cooper and Ugusuk. Out of all of the two-player combinations that the Gamecocks have played on the court this year with 70+ minutes played, (29 possible combinations) the highest net rating from a two-player combination is from Cooper and Ugusuk, who have a combined net rating of +33.1. When the two are on the court together, (113 minutes played, or 21.7% of the team’s total game time) the team has an offensive rating of 133.0, over 9% higher than any other two-man combination and 2.8% higher than any college basketball team in D-1, D-2, or D-3. This is elite, y’all.

The team’s highest eFG% is when these two are on the court. The team’s 3rd-highest offensive rebounding rate is when these two (both guards, keep that in mind) are on the court. This isn’t to suggest that, if Lamont Paris cloned Ta’Lon Cooper and Morris Ugusuk eleven times to create a 13-man rotation of just Coopers and Ugusuks, the team would be better. There’s only so far you can get with carbon copies of 6’4 guards. But it does mean the fanbase should focus their eyes a bit more intently on the TV/phone/laptop screen when these two are on the court together. 

South Carolina Basketball Mid-Season Review:
Conference Slate Projection

South Carolina basketball has a 92.3% winning percentage so far this year, and while it’s not going to stay that high once the competition ramps up, there’s reason to remain confident about the Gamecocks keeping up with the rest of the SEC. South Carolina basketball plays every SEC school at least once, with 2 games each against Tennessee, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Missouri, and Georgia. How do the Gamecocks match up with each team, performance-wise? It’s best to branch out the rest of the conference into three categories: teams playing noticeably better than South Carolina so far, teams around South Carolina’s level, and teams that aren’t yet on South Carolina’s level this season. Keep in mind that the non-conference portion of the schedule can often be deceiving, so a team that is currently lower-rated than the ‘Cocks could very well end up being a better team than Carolina, and vice versa. But that’s the nature of projections, anyway, so here’s the expectations.

Teams Currently Performing Higher Than South Carolina: Tennessee, Kentucky, Auburn, Texas A&M

Teams On South Carolina’s Level: Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Alabama

Teams South Carolina Are Currently Performing Higher Than: Missouri, LSU, Vanderbilt

There’s a top 4 right now in the SEC, and, with respect to Ole Miss, (who is the closest this season that 0-15 Detroit Mercy has come to a win) and Mississippi State, (who still have the loss to Southern on their resume) the top 4 is Tennessee, Kentucky, Auburn, and Texas A&M. 

Starting off with those teams on top, South Carolina plays Kentucky at home, Texas A&M and Auburn on the road, and Tennessee in both locations. If there’s a win hidden in this group, it’s either a win over Kentucky or a win at home in March against Tennessee. Auburn and Texas A&M have some of the toughest road environments in the conference, and when added on to the fact that they’re playing at a higher level than the ‘Cocks, it’s difficult to predict a win there. We’ll split the difference between the Kentucky and Tennessee home games and predict a 1-4 record in these 5 games. That’s likely a ranked win and no bad losses, nothing to hang a head over. 

It gets interesting in the middle group. South Carolina basketball plays Ole Miss, Mississippi State, and Georgia twice. There’s not much separating this group, and the most likely scenario here is a 3-3 split, whether it’s a 2-0 record against one team, 1-1 against another, and an 0-2 bagel against the other, or a 1-1 record against all three. Add them all up and South Carolina would have a 4-7 record so far in conference games.

But we’re not quite done yet. We’ve still got a few middle-ground games left. The game against Florida is the first home game of March. Here’s to thinking Carolina will be fighting for position in the standings entering the last week of the regular season, and the home crowd will be the difference maker. The games against Arkansas and Alabama are on the road within the first two weeks of the SEC season. That’s great news for the South Carolina basketball team, because these two teams are definitely still trying to figure things out. Alabama has an elite offense, but they’ve given up 85+ points to every single Power 6 opponent they’ve played. It’s January. Arkansas just hasn’t lived up to expectations, losing to UNCG and Memphis while playing Abilene Christian and Lipscomb close recently, though they do have a win over Duke at home. 

South Carolina seems good enough to win one of those games. With the top 4 and middle ground predictions in, the ‘Cocks have a 6-8 record heading into the very winnable games. 

South Carolina basketball plays Mizzou twice, and while they’ve not looked all too impressive this year with losses to Jackson State and Seton Hall, had two long-term injuries, (Grill and Brown) and fallen behind most SEC teams in the predictive metrics, they have Sean East II at point and Dennis Gates coaching. That should be enough to win a close home game against South Carolina, but South Carolina basketball has the talent to win at Colonial Life Arena. Against LSU and Vanderbilt, both are home games, and given the teams’ combined 13-13 record, there isn’t much to ponder with these two. Maybe the emergence of Jalen Cook could pose problems for Carolina, but right now, South Carolina is on a different trajectory than LSU and Vanderbilt. 

This 3-1 mark in this set of games would mean a 9-9 conference record, according to our projector, (me) with multiple Quadrant 1 wins and a 21-10 overall record heading into the SEC tournament. That’s a bubble resume if I’ve seen one, and this team certainly has the chops (do people still use that phrase?) to make the tournament. They’re veteran-led with a very good offense to pair with a not-bad defense. For what it’s worth, ESPN’s “Analytics” has South Carolina favored in just 5 of their 18 conference games, but I really couldn't care less. This team is not just one conference win better than last year’s group, and anyone with eyes can see this program is easily capable of double their SEC win total from last season. 

Anywhere between 7-11 and 11-7 would not be a surprise given how the Gamecocks have started this season. This is a quality team, and the odds that South Carolina basketball ends up in either the NCAA tournament or NIT is higher than missing both. Every SEC team has at least a few questions. It’s up to the Gamecocks to supply the answers. 

South Carolina Basketball Mid-Season Review:
Author’s Note Observations

It’s disappointing that Josh Gray’s senior season isn’t following the same pattern of performance that he experienced towards the end of last season, but it’s understandable given the offensive scheme emphasizes outside shooting, something Gray doesn’t have in his bag of tricks. Still, the fan favorite is an elite rebounder, and could probably perform as well or likely better than Benjamin Bosmans-Verdonk in his 12 MPG role this season.

One huge change from last year to this year has been the depth on the bench. At times last year when key starters needed a break, it seemed as if production would fall off a cliff. This year, despite ranking 12th in the SEC in bench points per game, the Gamecocks are clearly able to rely on their bench in times of need, and that takes stress off of the starters. 

So what happens after this season? Clearly, the program is experiencing a 180-degree turn from what they went through last year. That’s great and we love that. But taking a look at next year, (even though we really don’t need to, it’s still January) B.J. Mack, Ta’Lon Cooper, Stephen Clark, and, possibly, Meechie Johnson will all be gone. That’s 4 of the 5 starters this year and 3 of the top 4 players in MPG. Jacobi Wright seems to be the answer at point next year in place of Cooper, Stute will keep his small forward position granted he stays, and Collin Murray-Boyles seems to be the starting power forward in Columbia for a couple years after this season. 

After those three, there’s a few questions. Does Zachary Davis have the offensive skill set to be the long-term shooting guard in Lamont Paris’s scheme? Does freshman Okku Federiko get extended minutes given that South Carolina won’t have a player on the roster (as of now) above 6’8? Emphasis on right now, because Paris certainly will have the ability to recruit from the portal given that there will be (at least) 3 open scholarships entering the offseason. That’s five/six players leaving (Cooper, Mack, Clark, Gray, Bosmans-Verdonk, maybe Johnson) plus two incoming freshmen (Federiko and Trent Noah) coming in. 

But those questions aren’t for me to answer, just to ponder. Lamont Paris will answer the questions for us, and he has my utmost trust. The trajectory of this program has never changed so positively in such a short amount of time, and it’s clear that there’s an air of hope and engagement with the fan base. The haters can get quarter-zipped. 

Next. South Carolina Basketball: First SEC opponent gets best player back just in time for USC game. South Carolina Basketball: First SEC opponent gets best player back just in time for USC game. dark