Expectations for the South Carolina men’s basketball team coming into the 2023-24 season were low.
A panel of national and SEC media members predicted the Gamecocks would finish last in the conference. South Carolina finished the 2022-23 season with an 11-21 record and missed the NCAA tournament for the sixth consecutive year.
But the Gamecocks have since curbed those expectations with an impressive 7-0 start to the season — the program’s best season-opening win streak since 2016-17. South Carolina is one of 14 NCAA Division I men’s basketball teams yet to lose a game heading into this week.
Both head coach Lamont Paris and Gamecock players credited the team’s early success to its veteran leadership from incoming transfers and improvements on both sides of the ball.
Paris said at the beginning of the season that last year’s squad was “undermanned” in many areas of the court. To alleviate this issue, Paris and the men's basketball program’s coaching staff used the transfer portal to acquire veteran players who would serve as leaders for their younger teammates.
Among those transfer players is graduate student forward B.J. Mack, who has added a new dimension to South Carolina's offense. Mack showcased his ability to be an offensive threat from inside and long range, as he averaged 5.2 rebounds per game and shot 36.6% from three in his three seasons with the Wofford Terriers.
Paris said Mack can be a valuable scoring option for the Gamecocks close to the basket in situations where the team is struggling to shoot from distance.
"You're going to have some games where they're not going in ... but our team is also built in a way that we can get the ball around the basket," Paris said. "You can throw it to a couple guys, but particularly B.J. in the post, so I think we're equipped to change some things if we're not making threes."
South Carolina's offense as a whole has been productive through seven games, and transfer players like Mack have contributed greatly to the team's scoring efforts. Three of South Carolina’s top four scorers this season are all transfers with at least two years of experience — Mack (16.7 points per game), junior guard Myles Stute (10.3) and graduate student guard Ta’Lon Cooper (9.7).
It’s not just these players who are performing well on offense, though. The entire team’s offensive output has improved since last year. Despite a much smaller sample size of games, this year’s team is averaging more points per game (76.7 in 2023-24, compared to 64.3 in 2022-23).
This improvement stems from having more players who can shoot efficiently, Paris said. South Carolina has seen increases in both its field goal percentage (from 40.3% to 47.2%) and 3-point percentage (32.3% to 40.2%) since last season.
“Our skill as shooters and ability to put the ball (in the net), I think offensively we’re significantly better," Paris said. "I think that'll probably be the first thing that you'll be able to see pretty quickly, and it’s probably the biggest improvement that we’ve made overall.”
Paris’ faith in his players’ shooting abilities has allowed the team to be more confident with the basketball during games, Mack said.
“He tells us after practice a lot just to make sure you work on your game, so (we’re) getting these open shots in our offense where everybody’s … just believing that it’s going to go in,” Mack said. “I believe that with this offense, and with coach Paris having that belief in us, that if we feel like it’s an open shot, then we’re going have a chance to make it at a high rate.”
South Carolina has also made strides in improving defensively as well, holding opponents to just 64.3 points per game compared to 72.6 last year. The team’s emphasis on scouting individual matchups and rebounding have been the two biggest factors contributing to its defensive prowess, Mack said.
Junior guard Meechie Johnson said the lineup of players Paris uses late in games, consisting of Mack, Cooper, junior guard Jacobi Wright, sophomore guard Zachary Davis and himself, has done a great job of closing out the team’s narrow victories.
“That group is a really lock down defensive group, and we can do a lot of good things defensively, as you can see; hold teams to not getting a shot off, getting turnovers, being real active in the gaps and stuff like that,” Johnson said. “We really believe in our defense work and what we do in practice, so it’s amazing that we can go out there and put it all together.”
Despite the team’s encouraging start to the season, Paris said the team will not remain complacent and will continue finding ways to improve throughout the campaign.
“They’re going to be talking on the bus on the way back home about plays that happened and things that they could have done and ‘What if I would’ve just done this? We could've been in a much different position,'” Paris said.
But South Carolina still has a long was to go, as it has 24 more regular season matchups that will test its ability to continue exceeding its preseason expectations.
The team will hit the road for its game against Clemson Wednesday night — its toughest test of the season. The Palmetto Series matchup will tip off at 8 p.m. and air on the ACC Network.