To snap their four-game losing streak, the Gamecocks have called on a secret weapon: assistant coach Matt Figger.
As South Carolina prepares to face LSU (13-8, 4-6 SEC) Thursday, Figger will again deliver the scouting report for the Gamecocks, something he did for their 82-73 overtime win January 16. In all, Figger has had the scouting report of LSU head coach Johnny Jones 12 times. He faced Jones 10 times at South Alabama, when Jones was head coach at North Texas; once when Kansas State met UNT in the NCAA Tournament; and again this year.
Including last month's tilt in Baton Rouge, Figger is 11-1 against Jones.
With stats like that, how can one not be confident?
Pre-tip reads before the Gamecocks and Tigers share Valentine's Day reservations for 10 at Colonial Life Arena (7:00 p.m. EST, Gamecock IMG Sports Network):
SEC-ond Coming: What did we learn from the Gamecocks' last meeting with LSU? Pay attention to these four factors:
1. The 3-2 zone scrambled LSU. With the Tigers leading by two and two minutes remaining, Frank Martin "played a hunch" and switched to a 3-2 zone, placing Lakeem Jackson between Bruce Ellington and Brenton Williams up top. The Tigers finished the game missing 10 of their last 12 shots, with the only baskets coming on a fast break and a putback. When LSU had to run a halfcourt set, they shot 0-for-10.
3-2 Zone vs. LSU - Final 2:00 + OT
FG's: 2-12 (.167)
The Gamecocks' switch to a 3-2 zone accomplished three things: it clotted driving lanes for point guard Anthony Hickey; it made LSU stand around more, and forced most of it shooting to the corners; and it prevented the Tigers from finding Johnny O'Bryant, their physically imposing forward.
Lakeem Jackson shutting off a drive from LSU's Jalen Courtney (left). Jackson's work in the Gamecocks' 3-2 zone helped swing the game.
The Gamecocks won't catch the Tigers off-guard with a zone Thursday. Can they still execute it effectively?
2. Anthony Hickey may be the fastest draw in the SEC. Hickey, who scored a team-high 18 points against the Gamecocks, has a hair-trigger release and won't hesitate to shoot threes at any time in the shot clock. He's incredibly evasive working off ball screens, and with his ability to shoot, slash, and create, it's no surprise the Tigers rank 3rd in the SEC in percentage of three-pointers taken (36.1%).
In their January meeting, Bruce Ellington harassed Hickey into a season-high 5 turnovers, most of them coming from over-dribbling around the perimeter. The Ellington-Hickey matchup - a battle of jet-quick, 5'8" guards - will make for great theater. If Ellington makes Hickey work on the offensive end, will it sap his quickness chasing after steals (an NCAA-leading 3.4 spg)?
3. The Gamecocks avoided "habit passes." Figger described them in our pre-game interview: "Passes like normal wing entries, cross-court passes, things like that. The [LSU] kids are so great, and are such good anticipators. It's kind of like a blitzing secondary," Figger said.
For the most part, the Gamecocks avoided those habit passes against LSU. The Tigers managed just 9 steals in 79 possessions for a Steal% of 11.4%, below their season average of 14.3%.
LSU Steal %
Vs. USC: 11.4% (9 steals, 79 possessions)
Equally important, the Gamecocks prevented LSU from converting those turnovers into fast breaks. The Tigers managed just 4 fast-break points, and South Carolina outscored them 27-17 off turnovers. Against a fevered, uptempo team like LSU, that "category win" was significant.
LSU grabbed a season-low 3 steals against Alabama. Will the Gamecocks find them in an extra larcenous mood Thursday?
4. Johnny O'Bryant has gotten healthier. That's not a good thing. When they met in Baton Rouge, O'Bryant was still working back to full strength from a high ankle sprain. One newspaper described his play as "sporadic and less than spectacular." Foul trouble overshadowed him, as did freshman Michael Carrera, who torched the Tigers for 23 points and 10 rebounds.
Since then, the 6'9," 260-pound O'Bryant has returned to his usual, spring-loaded self. In the seven games since that unceremonious night against the Gamecocks, "JOB III" has averaged 15.5 points and 10.7 rebounds per game. His 9 double-doubles lead the SEC, and he scored a career-high 22 points in a 60-57 loss to Alabama Saturday.
Before South Carolina 10.5 ppg 7.7 rpg
After South Carolina 15.5 ppg 10.7 rpg
Johnny O'Bryant (right) likes to turn over his left shoulder (Photo courtesy: nola.com)
Like another double-double machine, Tennessee's Jarnell Stokes, O'Bryant favors shooting over his left shoulder, but he also has more of a face-up game. The Gamecocks elected not to double-team Stokes, so they wouldn't leave Tennessee's three-point shooters unprotected for kickouts. The gambit worked: the Volunteers only shot 3-of-14 from three-point range, and leading scorer Jordan McRae was held in check. When it comes to three-pointers, LSU's light is almost permanently green. Can the Gamecocks' interior defenders push O'Bryant off the block, and play solid one-on-one defense?
Hidden Hero: At first, the numbers don't jump out - five points and one assist over 35 minutes. Yet after Carrera, junior Eric Smith had posted the next highest plus-minus against LSU (+17). In the 35 minutes in which Smith was on the floor, Carolina outscored LSU by 17 points.
"It's about making solid decisions. It's about doing your job. It's about being in the right place. That was one of his better performances across the board," he said on "Carolina Calls." "He was solid on defense. He got us into offense. He made good decisions with the basketball."
Thanks to Smith's ballhandling and decision-making, LSU couldn't unleash the full brunt of its style. Don't discount "E-Wade's" important in the rematch.
Eric Smith (left) did the little things vs. LSU.
Destined To Be? The Gamecocks have worked on their late-game execution after another win slipped out of their grasp against Tennessee. But they've also been foiled by something beyond their control. In all but one of Carolina's "close" SEC games, their opponent has exceeded its season average at the free-throw line.
Team FT% Entering Game FT% vs. Carolina
Miss. State 66.1% 72.0% (18-25)
Auburn 68.5% 64.3% (18-28)
LSU 59.2% 81.3% (13-16)
Vanderbilt 56.8% 60.6% (20-33)
Missouri 72.5% 77.8% (28-36)
Georgia 67.0% 68.8% (11-16)
Tennessee 66.0% 72.0% (27-37)
Average 65.1% 71.2% (+7.1%)
Like South Carolina, LSU has lived in a permanent state of suspense. The Tigers' last six games have all been decided by five points or less.
And Finally.... In a distinction only a stat geek could love, the Gamecocks have scored 1568 points.... and allowed 1569.
Our pre-game coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. EST on the Gamecock IMG Sports Network. See you CLA (I'll bring the chocolates). -AD--