Eric Smith got the tattoo on his chest over the summer, a prescient quote for the season ahead.
"Walk by faith, not by sight."
At 14-17 overall, 4-14 in the SEC, the Gamecocks haven't seen the wins they've wanted. But through it all, they've maintained their faith - in the playbook, the principles, and the process under first-year head coach Frank Martin.
It hasn't been easy. But sooner or later, that faith gets rewarded. The Gamecocks hope it begins with a spirited, season-ending run in the 2013 SEC Tournament in Nashville. Pre-tip reads before the Gamecocks and Mississippi State (9-21, 4-14 SEC) take the floor at Bridgestone Arena for the second time in a week (7:30 p.m. EST, Gamecock IMG Sports Network):
The Four Factors: What did we learn from Carolina's 79-72 win over Mississippi State Wednesday? Pay attention to these four factors:
1. The Bulldogs can run. Mississippi State, while far from an uptempo team, has had uncommon success against South Carolina in transition. In two games, the Bulldogs have outscored the Gamecocks 45-14 in fast-break points. That easily surpasses their fast-break average against the rest of the SEC.
Mississippi State - Fast Break Points/Total Points
Vs. South Carolina (2g): 35.1%
Vs. Rest of SEC (16g): 9.8%
For a team that struggles to score in the halfcourt - Mississippi State averaged an SEC-low 58.9 points per game in conference games - the Gamecocks can't allow MSU's running game to get in full locomotion.
2. Keep the ball moving. On January 9, Mississippi State's 1-3-1 zone frustrated Carolina into an SEC-high 24 turnovers.
On Wednesday, Carolina dissected that zone to the tune of 18 assists on 21 made field goals.
What was the key? Martin said he installed a series of plays that he ran at Kansas State when the Wildcats played Oklahoma. Like Mississippi State, OU also used a 1-3-1 zone. Martin thought the plays may not have worked earlier in the year, given his personnel. They generally began with a high ball screen for point guard Bruce Ellington.
Bruce Ellington (right) benefitted from the high ball screen against Mississippi State's 1-3-1 zone.
"That high ball screen against the 1-3-1 releases that top guy's pressure, so now you can reverse the ball a little bit," Martin explained afterwards.
He continued: "We tried to keep a two-guard front, and keep guys in a triangle: foul line and [two players at the] blocks extended. That makes that 1-3-1 kind of stay back, rather than get extended and get after you."
As a result, the Gamecocks got terrific ball rotation, and only committed seven turnovers by the time they broke open a 59-37 lead midway through the second half . Carolina operated skillfully against the 1-3-1 zone Wednesday. Can they do it twice in one week?
3. Someone needs to replace Jalen Steele's scoring. The Bulldogs were already cruelly short-handed when three players went down with season-ending knee injuries before the season started. One of their few veterans, 6'8" forward Wendell Lewis, lasted eight games before a fractured kneecap required a medical redshirt. Then on Wednesday, Steele, a lithe 6'3" guard who was tied for the team scoring lead at 9.7 points per game, tore his ACL in the second half. While his three-point percentage hovered at 32%, Steele still commanded the top shooting reputation on the Bulldogs.
Freshman Craig Sword (left) scored 20 points against South Carolina last week.
In his absence, look for freshman Craig Sword to carry an even greater scoring lead. A "rhythm player who doesn't settle for anything" according to assistant coach Lamont Evans, the 6'4" guard led MSU with 18 points against Carolina in January, and scored a team-high 20 on Wednesday. Freshman guard Fred Thomas may also look to assert his outside shot, and 6'8" power forward Colin Borchert, a classic "stretch four," can stroke the three-pointer.
4. Offensive rebounds are there... but Carolina needs to take advantage of them. In two games, South Carolina only managed a 34.5% Offensive Rebounding Percentage against Mississippi State, well below its season average of 38.5%. That's odd, considering MSU ranks 322nd nationally in Defensive Rebounding Percentage - i.e., they allow gobs of offensive rebounds.
Stat of the Year? The South Carolina-Auburn game January 12 featured 27 lead changes, the most in college basketball this year.
Louisville and Notre Dame traded 26 leads when they met February 9 in South Bend - but that game lasted five overtimes.
Glass Eater: Michael Carrera grabbed his first rebound 13 seconds into the season opener against Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
Talk about setting a tone.
Michael Carrera almost became the first underclassman to lead the Gamecocks in scoring and rebounding since Jimmy Foster in 1982.
Carrera's maniacal intensity has been a fixture all season long. The freshman forward from Anzoategui, Venezuela, finished the regular season ranked 13th in the nation in Offensive Rebounding Percentage (OReb%), and 21st in the nation in Defending Rebounding Percentage (DReb%). Carrera was one of two freshmen nationally to rank in the top 100 in both categories (Weber State's Joel Bolomboy is the other, but you already knew that).
Michael Carrera - Rebounding Percentage*
Category Percentage NCAA Rank
OReb% 15.5% 13th
DReb% 24.5% 21st
*-Offensive Rebounding Percentage = % of a team's missed shots that are rebounded by an individual.
*-Defensive Rebounding Percentage = % of an opponent's missed shots that are rebounded by an individual.
At 6'5," Carrera is also the shortest player to rank in the top 100 in both categories.
Where There's A Will(iams), There's A Way: Junior Brenton Williams closed the regular season by pouring in 55 points over his final two SEC games. Several of his baskets against Vanderbilt were of the acrobatic, are-you-kidding-me variety, the nets giving an angry hiss to the Memorial Gymnasium crowd.
"The basket looks like a 55-gallon drum to him right now," associate head coach Brad Underwood said afterwards.
Underwood says Williams' activity off the ball has led to his accuracy with it.
"[Vanderbilt] tried bumping him off every screen, and that's what Brenton has to understand. Teams are going to do that. He can make shots. He's got a knack for that. Now he's got to learn how to do that through the physicality of the game," he said.
After his 38-point explosion against Mississippi State, there's little doubt the Bulldogs will plant a tracking device on Williams. Regardless of who defends him, can Williams "cut his legs," and sap Mississippi State physically with his nonstop movement? The Bulldogs have a short bench; Williams may not repeat his 38-point performance, but he can wear the Bulldogs down for their own offensive possessions.
And Finally... It's a big week for Frank Martin. And an even bigger week for his barber.
With the regular season over, Martin gets his long-awaited tonsorial appointment. And with the regular season over, the Gamecocks hope to put some close shaves behind them, too.
Our pre-game coverage begins at 7:00 p.m. EST on the Gamecock IMG Sports Network. It's been a great year - thank you for reading our insights, anecdotes, and scouting reports on "Inside The Chart." We hope you enjoyed our stories as much as we enjoyed preparing them. See you in Nashville. -AD--