South Carolina Basketball: Stat dive into Lamont Paris's team

South Carolina basketball has exceeded expectations this year, and while it seems easy to figure out on the surface why the Gamecocks are winning, there's some under-the-surface reasons as well.

Meechie Johnson drives against Dylan Cardwell.
Meechie Johnson drives against Dylan Cardwell. / Michael Chang/GettyImages

South Carolina basketball is, (at least before the trip to Auburn) simply, on fire. The Gamecocks are the single most-improved team in the Power 6, and arguably across the country.  A previous article has already discussed what has changed over the past season in regards to the team’s improvement, but this deep stat dive is solely a lens into the past 25 games of Gamecock basketball and why they’ve won 21 of those contests. Spoiler alert: there’s more than just a few reasons. 

The team’s offense isn’t near the top of the nation’s stat charts in terms of points per game. In fact, the PPG mark is in the bottom half of all D-1 teams, sitting at 232nd with 72.1 points per game. However, that’s not an indication of a bad offense, but rather just a result of a slow-paced, methodical offense. The Gamecocks are rated at the 7th-slowest pace amongst D-1 programs, and, because of that, most per-game stats for the offense are misleadingly low. For that reason, most of the offensive (and defensive) statistics used in this article are either per 100 possessions or a simple rate or percentage, not per game splits. This allows for a more fair representation of the team’s abilities. 

(Additionally, player ranks on the team stat categories are only counted for the top 10 players on the team in minutes played, and coincidentally the 10 members of the current 10-deep rotation being employed by Lamont Paris. It’s not an official stat cut-off, just one being used by the author in order to get rid of small sample sizes and make data collection easier.)

Why the slow-tempo offense? Especially in a basketball landscape that has put a premium on quick possessions, it could seem counterproductive to play at snail’s pace on offense. Here’s the kicker: tempo does not matter one bit if the ball goes in the hoop. And guess what? The ball is going in the hoop. 

On possessions taking 10 seconds or less on offense, the Gamecocks are shooting 57.4% from inside the arc and 29.0% from deep with just 0.80 points per chance, ranking 327th nationally. However, when the offense slows down, it works to a much better clip. In possessions lasting between 10-20 seconds, the Gamecocks’ points per chance rises almost 20% to 0.95. On those possessions, South Carolina is shooting 53.2% from two and 32.2% from three. The change in productivity is eye-popping, from a points per chance rank of 327 to 51 amongst D-1 teams.

These points from later on in the shot clock are coming from at the rim and above the break (non-corner) threes, with 15.0% of all of their shot attempts coming from either at the rim or above the break with less than 10 seconds on the shot clock. They’re converting those opportunities at the rim at a 57.1% clip, and above the break at a 34.9% rate. In terms of individual success, Zachary Davis and Josh Gray are shooting 80% and 75% at the rim respectively, with 10 or less seconds on the shot clock remaining.  Ta’Lon Cooper and Myles Stute have excelled from above break threes with limited time on the shot clock, with clips of 66.7% and 61.5%, respectively. 

On slightly faster possessions, South Carolina is still effective and opportunistic. Three-pointers with 10-20 seconds on the shot clock comprise 22.6% of their total shot attempts, with a slight discrepancy between above break threes (35.3 FG%) and corner threes (31.3 FG%) in that time span. 

Defensively, the Gamecocks can still produce a cohesive, solid unit on quick possessions. On defensive possessions lasting 10 seconds or less, the Gamecocks are giving up just 0.80 points per chance, good for 29th nationally. The South Carolina defense isn’t especially great on medium-length possessions, giving up 0.90 points per chance, but on defensive possessions lasting between 20-30 seconds, the strength returns slightly, with a 0.76 points per chance given up, ranking 125h nationally. On defensive possessions lasting longer than 30 seconds, South Carolina is allowing just an 8.3 3PT%, good for 50th nationally. 

Going back to offense, despite the slower-paced set, the Gamecocks rely heavily on the three-pointer, with 42.9% of their shot attempts coming from behind the arc. Elite ball movement (an assist percentage of 60.4% ranks 19th nationally leads to open looks for shooters, and four of the five current starters (Johnson, Stute, Mack, and Cooper) have all shown the ability to consistently knock down threes. Cooper and Stute lead the team with 3PT percentages of 44.8% and 39.8%, respectively. 

Stute (59.4% 3PAr), similar to Morris Ugusuk with a team-leading 74.2% 3PAr, takes more than half of his shots from behind the arc. However, the two aren’t taking the same type of deep shots. Ugusuk primarily takes his threes closer to the barrier, with 64.5% of all of his shot attempts coming as threes closer than 25 feet to the basket. Stute, on the other hand, is consistently shooting longer threes, with 18.2% of all of his shot attempts coming from farther than 25 feet from the basket. Johnson (26.8%), and Mack (18.3%), also rely on the deeper deep ball more often, ranking in the top 8% of all D-1 players in terms of shots taken from a distance greater than 25 feet. 

Are those deep threes effective? It depends on who’s taking them, but the answer can absolutely be yes. Ta’Lon Cooper leads the team in FG% on 25+ foot shots with a high 45.8 FG% mark. Jacobi Wright (42.9%), Zachary Davis (40.0%), and Myles Stute (40.0%) all have 3PT percentages of >39.9% from that distance.  Meechie Johnson, the team leader in shots taken from that distance, is converting at a 33.8% rate.

Closer in, the corner three has been a spot of sunlight for the Gamecock offense. Over the past five games, South Carolina has connected on 38.3% of their corner threes, ranking 102nd nationally. Amongst Gamecocks taking at least 10.0% of their FG attempts from corner threes, Myles Stute (40.5 FG%) and Morris Ugusuk (36.8 FG%) lead the team in corner three FG%. Though Zachary Davis shoots 26.7% of all of his shot attempts from the corner three spot, he’s converting on just 25.9% of his attempts. 

That doesn’t mean Davis is inefficient on offense, however, as he’s shooting 62.9% on shots near the rim, an above-average rate. 87.1% of all of his shot attempts come either at the rim or from three, and if we’re talking modern basketball offensive philosophy, that’s a really good thing. 

Not every three the Gamecocks take is from the corner. In fact, 30.9% of the team’s shots come from threes from above the break, the 2nd-highest rate of shots taken for the team just after attempts near the rim (32.0%). While Morris Ugusuk (43.5%), Meechie Johnson (40.6%) and B.J. Mack (37.2%) take a higher percentage of their FG attempts from above the break (ATB) threes, Ta’Lon Cooper has the highest conversion rate of those shots, leading the team with a 50.8 3PT% from ATB threes. No other Gamecock is above 40.0% from that shot area, but Myles Stute (39.0%), Jacobi Wright (34.9%), and Meechie Johnson (33.9%) all are converting at an above-average rate. Cooper’s mark puts him in the top 2% of all D-1 players at shooting ATB threes. 

Moving inside the arc, the Gamecocks are quite efficient. On two-point shots from the right elbow, South Carolina is shooting 48.4%, much higher than the national average of 36.8%. All in all, the Gamecocks are significantly better at shooting from the right side of the court compared to the left. On the left elbow, they’re only shooting 33.3%, lower than the league average of 37.0%. Despite the national average on right-wing threes and left-wing threes being equal, at 33.3%, South Carolina is shooting 36.8% on right-wing threes and 32.1% on left-wing threes. On two-point shots along the right-side baseline, the Gamecocks are shooting 42.5%, higher than the league average of 35.1%. But again, on the left side, the team is shooting below the average (34.8%) with just a 26.3% mark. 

The best shooters inside the arc, are, unsurprisingly, the two most consistent big men (CMB at 62.5 2PT%, Josh Gray at 55.1 2PT%), and, perhaps more surprising, two guards (Ta’Lon Cooper at 55.1 2PT% and Zachary Davis at 54.2 2PT%).  From a pure efficiency standpoint, CMB and Cooper are the best at extracting value from their attempts, with Cooper leading the team with a 63.6 TS% and CMB right behind with a 62.5 TS% mark. No other Gamecocks have a true shooting percentage above 57%, but both Cooper and CMB rank above the 83rd percentile nationally for their positions. 

The Minnesota transfer Cooper doesn’t have nearly the shot volume as other players on the team, however. B.J. Mack and Meechie Johnson have the highest usage rates on the team at 30.3% and 27.1%, respectively. They are also the leaders in points/100 possessions on the team, with Mack at 34.1 and Johnson at 30.9. Right behind them, however, with a lower usage rate (23.5%) is CMB, who’s scoring 29.5 points/100 possessions. 

CMB, in addition to Josh Gray, is adept at getting to the free throw line. Both players draw a shooting foul on over 20% of their shot attempts, oftentimes underneath the basket. Murray-Boyles and Gray combine for an average of 3.4 and-1s/100 possessions, ranking in the 98th percentile. While Ta’Lon Cooper doesn’t draw as many shooting fouls, he converts the shot 50.0% of the times he gets fouled while in the act of shooting, a mark that leads the team. 

Meanwhile, South Carolina doesn’t give up many and-1s on the defensive end. The Gamecocks allow just 1.6 and-1s/game, good for 4th-fewest out of the entirety of D-1. They only allow 15.6% of their shooting fouls to lead to a made basket, a rate that is also 4th nationally, following the old basketball adage of “if you’re going to foul, then foul.”

But the Gamecocks really don’t foul all too often. Opponents are shooting just 26.2 FTA/100 possessions, a mark lower than 70% of D-1 programs. 

Once getting to the line, South Carolina has been consistent but not elite from the charity stripe. On the first attempt, they’re shooting 72.7%. On the second, the conversion rate slows slightly to 71.6%. The small discrepancy between the two numbers likely means the Gamecocks’ free-throw conversion rate is going to hold steady the rest of the year, for better or for worse. Who gets to the line most? B.J. Mack, Meechie Johnson, and CMB combine for 61.3% of all Gamecock free-throws. 

When opponents miss free throws, South Carolina capitalizes. They’re scoring 1.04 points per chance, a rank that puts them 19th nationally out of 362 D-1 programs. Even when their opponent does make a shot, the Gamecocks typically respond. After an opponent made FG, South Carolina is 55th in the country with a 0.95 point per chance rate. 

Other in-game scenarios shine light on just how well Lamont Paris has coached this year. On defensive possessions at the start of either half, South Carolina is holding their opponents to a 12.5 FG% clip and a rate of just 0.31 points per chance, 4th nationally. Following timeouts, South Carolina’s offense is averaging 0.89 points per chance, better than 69% of D-1 programs. Off of set plays drawn up in the huddle, this offense is quite solid. Off timeouts when the Gamecocks don’t have the ball, South Carolina is allowing just a 24.0 3PT% to opponents, a mark that puts them in the 76th percentile across D-1 programs. 

And while the defense doesn’t force many turnovers, the offense is opportunistic when they get the chance to capitalize on them. On live ball turnovers, the Gamecocks are shooting 58.6% on 2PT shots, 29th nationally. On dead ball turnovers, the team is shooting 38.9% from deep, good for 61st nationally. As for opponents, the Gamecocks are allowing just a 47.6 EFG% to opponents, a mark that puts them 48th nationally and 4th in the SEC. Individually, despite the low turnover rate defensively for the Gamecocks, one player in particular is adept at creating havoc on the defensive end. Over the past five games, Collin Murray-Boyles leads the team with 3.6 steals/100 possessions, ranking in the 98th percentile for forwards while also leading the team in steals/100 possessions over the course of the season. CMB, Josh Gray, and Stephen Clark all have above-average block rates on the year. 

Going back to the offense, South Carolina has been quite efficient on the interior over the past several games. The Gamecocks are shooting 64.7% on putbacks in their last five games, a rank that sits inside the top 60 in the country. A trio of players primarily live close to the basket on offense, with Stephen Clark, CMB, and Josh Gray all taking between 62.8%-71.4% of their shots at the rim. CMB in particular has shown flashes of offensive playmaking. On the season, he’s averaging 4.1 unassisted shots made at the rim/100 possessions, a mark that puts him in the 96th percentile of players in the country. No other Gamecock even has 3.0/100 possessions. 

Inside the paint, Ta’Lon Cooper is uniquely effective. He actually leads the team in FG% in the paint with a 51.8 FG%, good for the 88th percentile amongst D-1 guards. Zachary Davis (50.0%) is the only other Gamecock at or above 50.0%.  Stepping back into the midrange zone, three qualifying Gamecocks have a FG% of 41% or higher in the area. Meechie Johnson (50.0%), Ta’Lon Cooper (47.4%), and Myles Stute (41.7%) all rank above the 70th percentile in the mid-range.  However, B.J. Mack (14.6% of all shot attempts) and Jacobi Wright (20.4% of all shot attempts) lead the team in percentage of shots taken in the midrange area. Wright is adept at creating his own shot, with just 15.4% of his makes at the rim coming off an assist, the best on the team. 

The high-quality shooting wouldn’t be possible if it weren’t for the elite ball movement and limiting of turnovers, however. The Gamecocks have an assist/turnover ratio of 1.67/1, the 11th best rank in the country, and a turnover rate of just 13.5%. On shots within the arc, South Carolina is assisting on 45.1% of made twos. Stepping outside, the Gamecocks assist on 91.4% of their made threes, good for a top-30 rank nationally. Zachary Davis has been a key beneficiary of the ball movement inside the perimeter, with 73.1% of his made twos coming off an assist, a rate that ranks higher than 98% of D-1 guards. However, Davis leads the team in percentage of unassisted made threes, with 80.0% of his made threes not coming off an assist, a rate putting him in the 64th percentile amongst guards nationally. 

Looking inside, South Carolina is quite effective at getting open looks right at the basket. On shots made at the rim, they’re assisting on 51.7% of them, 39th nationally. They’re even better on dunks, with 86.8% of all dunks coming off an assist, 18th nationally. 

Individually, the three most effective passers of the ball are two names fans would likely suspect and one that may come as a surprise. Ta’Lon Cooper leads the team with 8.0 assists/100 possessions, followed by Meechie Johnson at 6.6/100 possessions, but the next-highest Gamecock is Collin Murray-Boyles just behind Johnson at 5.6 assists/100 possessions, higher than 96% of D-1 forwards. Cooper and CMB combine for 36.7% of the team’s total assists. 

Sharing the ball is important, but keeping it out of harm’s way is just as important, if not more. Morris Ugusuk and Jacobi Wright, despite ranking 8th and 5th on the team in MPG, respectively, combine for just 10.0% of team turnovers. On the flip side, Meechie Johnson and B.J. Mack combine for 28.3% of the team’s total turnovers.

Floor spacing has led to some players generating a higher rate of assists at certain points on the court. Four Gamecocks have excelled at creating opportunities for others at the rim, with Ta’Lon Cooper, Meechie Johnson, Stephen Clark, and Collin Murray-Boyles all averaging at least 2.0 assists at the rim/100 possessions. Zachary Davis contributes 56.0% of his total assists at the rim. 

Moving up the court, Ta’Lon Cooper is able to create space for shot-makers above the break at the three point line. He leads the team with 2.7 assists on ATB threes/100 possessions, a rank that puts him in the 90th percentile amongst guards. B.J. Mack has totaled 54.8% of his assists on above the break threes, while 45.6% of Jacobi Wright’s assists come on above the break threes. 

Individual connections are also a key component of assists for this team. 40.8% of Myles Stute’s made shots off an assist come from Ta’Lon Cooper, the highest rate of any assist-shooter combo on the team. Meanwhile, 38.7% of B.J. Mack’s total assists go to Cooper. The Mack-Cooper combo is strong, with 9.4% of all assists being from that duo. One underrated connection is Zachary Davis and Josh Gray. 28.0% of Davis’s assists on the season have gone to Gray, despite the next-highest connection rate with Gray (CMB) being 9.1% of Murray-Boyles’s total assists. 

One aspect that’s ultimately important to success in the NCAA tournament is team rebounding rates. The Gamecocks are certainly doing well enough in that department. Their offensive rebounding percentage of 33.7% ranks 6th in the SEC, and the high rate of deep shots taken has only helped the team earn second chances on the offensive end. South Carolina’s ORB% on shots from the paint all the way out past the three-point line ranges between 30.9%-38.1%, all in the 78th percentile or higher. 

Josh Gray and CMB are the two most efficient rebounders on the offensive side of the ball, with offensive rebounding percentages of 15.1% and 14.3% off missed shots, respectively. No other Gamecocks are above 10% on the season. CMB’s offensive rebounding percentage ranks in the 87th percentile, while Josh Gray’s is just behind in the 81st percentile. Defensively, South Carolina excels at rebounding on missed shots at the rim, collecting 68.8% of opponents’ missed shots closest to the basket, a mark that ranks in the 94th percentile amongst D-1 teams. Individually, the two best defensive rebounders are Gray, of course, (with a 28.3% DRB%, in the 99th percentile amongst D-1 big men) and B.J. Mack, who ranks quite a bit behind Gray with a 17.4%, in the 62nd percentile amongst forwards. Zachary Davis ranks in the 89th percentile amongst guards with a DRB% of 27.6% off of opponent missed free throws. 

If Gray played enough minutes to be under consideration for SEC leaderboards, he’d currently rank first in the conference in DRB%. CMB would be 3rd in the SEC in terms of ORB%, ahead of Gray. 

The analytics and catch-all metrics favor certain Gamecocks, and no one more often than the freshman Murray-Boyles. Through 19 games and 10 starts on the season, the phenom leads the Gamecocks in PER (26.6), win shares/40 minutes (.218), offensive box plus/minus (5.8), defensive box plus/minus (4.4), and total box plus/minus (10.2). 

But it’s not all CMB. The rock of the offense, Cooper, leads the team (and is 3rd in the SEC) with an offensive rating of 132.9. CMB is second on the ‘Cocks at 123.9. Cooper also paces the team in offensive win shares with a 2.4 mark and is currently within the top 6 of the SEC in that category. The Minnesota transfer is second on the team behind CMB in win shares/40 minutes, offensive box plus/minus, and total box plus/minus. 

On the defensive end, analytically, Josh Gray has the highest defensive rating with 95.5, followed by CMB (98.1), Stephen Clark (101.0), and Zachary Davis (101.9). However, of that quartet, only Davis has enough minutes logged on the court to qualify for SEC leaderboards, and he’s currently ranked 18th. 

South Carolina’s opponents aren’t shooting many threes, with just a 31.5% 3PAr, a lower mark than 92% of D-1 teams. However, despite shooting a high volume of two-point shots, Carolina’s opponents aren’t making their twos at a successful rate. The Gamecocks are holding their opponents to just a 46.3 2PT% inside the arc, and disrupting passing lanes. Gamecock opponents have an assists percentage of just 46.9%, in the 78th percentile nationally and much lower than the Gamecocks’ aforementioned offensive assist percentage of 60.4%. 

There’s been plenty of spots on the court where Gamecock opponents simply aren’t making or aren’t able to make their shots. Opponents are shooting just 46.8% on putback attempts, a rate that puts the Gamecocks 13th amongst all D-1 teams. In the past five games, that’s a rate that’s dropped to 38.5%, the best rate in the nation out of all 362 D-1 teams. That can be ascribed to a heavy dosage of CMB and Josh Gray down low. At the rim, Gamecock opponents are shooting just 57.6%, another rate that ranks in the 86th percentile. 

Overall, the stats can tell why or how a certain event happens, but they can’t tell the whole story. There’s always going to be a human element to a team, no matter the sport, and even though almost every college basketball possession can be tracked from the moment the ball hits the floor, it takes a human to dribble the ball, pass it, or make or miss a shot. The equations that go into that are just really one part of the basketball equation, and the eye test is still as fresh as ever. For instance, if we just looked at the numbers, Zach Edey would be the consensus No. 1 pick this year, but he’s not, and that’s for a reason. Let these numbers back up a point, don’t just use them to make one. As much as I love statistics, they’re a supplement, not a substitution.