Some see "down year." The Gamecocks see "opportunity."
Yes, the SEC has taken its share of lumps following a number of early-season faceplants. That matters little to South Carolina, which looks to rebound from a disappointing 2012 by mixing it up in a wide-open league in 2013. The journey begins Wednesday at Humphrey Coliseum, where they'll look to snap a six-game losing streak to Mississippi State (5-7, 0-0 SEC).
Pre-tip reads as the Gamecocks descend into the Golden Triangle (8:00 p.m. EST, Gamecock IMG Sports Network):
Scouting The Bulldogs: Few teams endured a more tumultuous offseason than Mississippi State. After backsliding into the NIT, head coach Rick Stansbury retired after 14 seasons. Guards Brian Bryant and Dee Bost (a noted Gamecock killer) graduated. Post players Arnett Moultrie and Renardo Sidney declared for the NBA Draft. 6'8" guard Rodney Hood, arguably the team's most talented returning player, transferred, as did reserve guard Deville Smith. New coach Rick Ray, a former Clemson assistant, dismissed two more players in September for a violation of team rules. Add in three season-ending knee injuries, and Mississippi State is down to an astonishing seven scholarship players.
Brenton Williams and the Gamecocks (70.1% FT, 4th SEC) will try to get to the free-throw line against an MSU team that doesn't permit many attempts.
With so few bodies, the Bulldogs can ill afford to run into foul trouble, and send opponents on jaunt after jaunt to the foul line. To their credit, they've dodged that problem: MSU leads the SEC, and ranks 7th nationally, in free-throw rate (22.9%). In fact, they're the only team in the Top 10 of that category with a losing record. For all their depth and scoring issues, the Bulldogs don't let opponents get to the foul line often.
When South Carolina has excelled this year, the Gamecocks have harvested free throws, getting to the line on dribble-drives or off offensive rebounds. Can they do the same against a team that doesn't run into "foul ground" often?
Oddly Enough: Despite scrambling to fill an eight-man rotation, Mississippi State doesn't have a single player who ranks in the Top 10 in the SEC in minutes played. The Bulldogs and Gamecocks play at an almost identical tempo.
Man To Stop: It only takes one player to tap a team's confidence. For that reason, junior guard Jalen Steele earns "Man To Stop" status against the Bulldogs. A former Mr. Basketball from Knoxville, Tenn., the 6'3" Steele missed the first month of the season with a fractured shooting wrist. In four games since, he's averaged 11.0 points per game while shooting 46% (8-17) from three-point range. He's also made his last 27 free throws dating back to last year.
Even with a lethal screen-and-roll player like Dee Bost last year, Steele often drew the "shooter" label on an opponents' scouting report. If Steele knocks down a few jumpers early, it could stretch the floor for MSU's long, athletic slashers like freshman Fred Thomas (10.3 ppg, 2nd team) and swingman Roquez Johnson (team-high 12.4 ppg). A few three-pointers by Steele could also kickstart the Bulldogs' shaky shooting confidence. MSU ranks 328th in the nation in three-point percentage (27.5%), last among major-conference schools.
Mississippi State junior Jalen Steele (right) is MSU's best outside shooting threat.
Senior Leadership: Lakeem Jackson is South Carolina's Swiss Army knife, a broad-shouldered senior who has played everywhere from point guard to center during his career. Jackson's consistency has drawn consistent praise from Frank Martin during the Gamecocks' 10-3 start.
How vital has Jackson's steady play been? In their three losses, Jackson averages a plus-minus of -18.0, worst on the Gamecocks' roster. In Carolina's 10 wins, his plus-minus jumps to +10.8.
Lakeem Jackson Plus-Minus
Losses: -18.0 (vs. Clemson: -14 Worst on team)
(vs. St. John's: -26 2nd Worst of team)
(vs. Elon: -16 2nd Worst of team)
("Plus-minus" is a count of how many points a team outscores an opponent -- or gets outscored -- while that player is on the floor).
No player has a greater +/- discrepancy between wins and losses than Jackson. With Michael Carrera uncertain because of a sore hip, Jackson will need to bring his steady, scrap-iron play to the Humphrey Coliseum paint. The Bulldogs offensive-rebound well, and will look to scavenge for high-percentage baskets around the rim.
Lakeem Jackson has been a barometer of South Carolina's wins and losses.
Power Play: What South Carolina lacks in height at the power forward position, they gain in quickness. Between Carrera, Mindaugas Kacinas, and even Jackson, the Gamecocks have three players capable of drawing out taller forwards, and taking advantage of their speed off screens. Mississippi State's deepest position may be at the "4," where junior Colin Borchert and sophomore Roquez Johnson each like to stretch the floor, slash, and shoot from outside. Do the Gamecocks have the type of power forward to neutralize them?
Swordfight, Part I: Freshman guard Craig Sword has a nickname more suited to playing for the Gamecocks, not against them: "Chicken."
While "Chicken" (8.4 ppg) isn't a prolific three-point shooter, the Gamecocks need to keep him in front of them. Head coach Rick Ray said of Sword: "He just has so many more fast-twitch fibers than everyone else."
Perhaps that explains the nickname.
Swordfight, Part II: They may not have the most experienced backcourt in the country, but Mississippi State certainly has the best-sounding one: Craig Sword and sophomore Trivante Bloodman. Can Bruce Ellington and Eric Smith vanquish a Sword/Bloodman backcourt?
And Finally... Senior guard Shane Phillips (Pittsburgh, Pa.) had a connection to South Carolina long before he set foot on campus. Phillips' Dad, Oliver, coached linebackers at Duke from 1980-1982 alongside an up-and-coming offensive coordinator named Steve Spurrier. He also had coaching stints at Brown, VMI, and Carnegie-Mellon and VMI.
Two factors steered Phillips to basketball. For starters, he didn't have ideal size for a football player. Secondly - and more poignantly - Phillips said basketball was one of the few sports he could practice on his own while his Dad was encumbered with the long hours of coaching football.
Our pre-game coverage begins at 7:30 p.m. EST on the Gamecock IMG Sports Network. We'll see you in Starkville. -AD--