The Daily Gamecock

South Carolina men's basketball sees improvements on offense, defense at start of SEC play

<p>Men's basketball head coach Lamont Paris talks to his players on Nov. 13 during their 74-64 victory over Virginia Military Institute. During his seventh season as a collegiate head coach, Paris has led the Gamecocks to a 13-1 start.</p>
Men's basketball head coach Lamont Paris talks to his players on Nov. 13 during their 74-64 victory over Virginia Military Institute. During his seventh season as a collegiate head coach, Paris has led the Gamecocks to a 13-1 start.

The South Carolina men’s basketball team has not reached the NCAA Tournament since 2017, which ended in a historic run to the Final Four. The Gamecocks' "Cinderella" run included wins over Duke and Florida before the team fell to Gonzaga one game short of the national championship. 

The Gamecocks have not replicated said success following the 2017 run. Since then, they have gone through a head coaching change and have only gone over .500 twice. However, things are looking up for the Gamecocks in head coach Lamont Paris' second season.

This year, South Carolina has surpassed expectations and garnered national attention from its improved shooting, defense and turnover ratios. 

The Gamecocks were projected to finish last in the conference in a pre-season poll, according to a panel of SEC and national media members.

Even though preseason predictions were not in the Gamecocks' favor, head coach Lamont Paris said he did not think that these poor forecasts carried much weight.

"There's not much in a pick," Paris said. "Personally — and I hope our team takes this — the only thing I can thank (media predictors) for is that they picked us last. Second to last is nothing. ... I can't even use that as billboard material."

Since then, the Gamecocks have gone 13-1 (1-0 in the SEC) through 14 games and sit tied for first in the SEC. This earned them 29 votes in the Associated Press men's basketball poll released Monday. However, this is still not enough votes for the team to officially be nationally ranked.  

This hot start stems from the team’s improved scoring. South Carolina is averaging 74.9 points per game and shooting 44.7% from the field this season, a significant increase from the 64.3 points per game and 40.3% field goal percentage it mustered last year.

The Gamecocks have also seen improvements from individual players, most notably junior guard Meechie Johnson. Johnson is averaging 18.2 points per game this season, a 5.5-point increase per game from the previous season, when he averaged 12.7.

Graduate forward B.J. Mack said he was glad to see Johnson's hard work pay off after Johnson scored a career-high 29 points against Notre Dame on Nov. 28.

"It's a great feeling, you know, where (you) keep feeding him energy and just let him know, 'Hey, it's your moment. It's your time to shine,'" Mack said.

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The Gamecocks have also improved on the defensive side of the ball, averaging 5.1 steals and 3.4 blocks per game this season, both of which are increases from the 2022-23 season.

Paris said that he wants defense to be South Carolina's "identity."

"I've always preached the defensive side of the thing," Paris said. "I joke around and say, 'I don't know if I'm the most defensive-minded offensive coach,' (but) defense matters to me."

Despite the Gamecocks' defensive improvements, its opponents are still averaging more steals and blocks per game.

South Carolina has also taken better care of the basketball, which is another upgrade that the Gamecocks have shown in Paris' second season. South Carolina is averaging 3.3 fewer turnovers per game this season (9.9) than they did in his debut campaign (13.2). 

Along with committing fewer turnovers, the team is also turning the ball over less than their opponents. Last season, South Carolina averaged 2.7 turnovers more than their opponents per game, while this season has seen a stark turnaround with an average of 1.1 fewer turnovers per game.

The Gamecocks' improvements on both sides of the basketball have helped it climb national rankings lists, which will help improve the team's resumé for NCAA tournament consideration. South Carolina currently sits at 42 out of 362 NCAA Division I men's basketball teams in NET rankings, a ranking system that calculates a team’s national position based on factors like win percentage, strength of schedule and scoring margin.

“We really trust each other as a team, as coaches,” Johnson said. "We're very confident, and we just believe that we can win any game. We go out there and be us."

After starting conference play with a win over Mississippi State, South Carolina will continue to face stiff competition as six SEC teams currently rank above them in NET rankings, three of which are ranked in the top 25. 

Despite the tough road ahead, Paris said he is confident that the Gamecocks can remain competitive in conference play and that they are not playing to be last. 

“What a low goal that would be,” Paris said. "We're much more, significantly more, skilled, significantly more experienced, and we did not finish last last year."

The Gamecocks will be back in action Tuesday night in Tuscaloosa when they play Alabama (9-5, 1-0 SEC). Tip-off is at 7 p.m., and the game will be broadcast on the SEC Network.