Preview & Prediction: By Evan Dorey
The SEC has had a difficult season, when considering its at-large bid hopes, not having a great non-conference record, and having only one team (LSU) separate itself from the pack. One team hoping to get some separation is #38 South Carolina (18-5, 7-3), who will try to keep pace in the East division when they face a slumping team from the West, #73 Mississippi St. (16-9, 6-4).
South Carolina’s at-large profile will depend on its conference record; its non-conference schedule was quite weak. The Gamecocks have been solid in the SEC, splitting a series with Florida, and winning at Kentucky, but losing to LSU and Tennessee. Mississippi St. had a tough early season, taking several tough losses in the non-conference, but there was reason for optimism in Starkville when the Bulldogs started 6-2 in conference, including winning at Kentucky. Back-to-back losses to Auburn and LSU have brought them back to Earth a little, but they still have a legitimate shot to finish with the second best record in the SEC.
The Gamecocks have an average SEC offense, but their fast pace of play means they lead the SEC in points per game. South Carolina does a good job of hanging on to the ball at their high speed, but doesn’t shoot a great percentage from two-point range, where most of its shots come from. It does have the ability to hit the outside shot, and is good on the offensive glass, which balances its struggles inside. The Gamecocks are terrible free throw shooters, under 63% on the season. Mississippi St. has a solid defense for one reason, and one reason only: it can defend the inside as well as any team in the country, without committing a lot of fouls. Unfortunately, the Bulldogs get beaten out on the glass and from the perimeter, where they’ve been vulnerable.
Despite its domination of the interior defensively, Mississippi St. gets very little of its offense from inside. The Bulldogs are second in the conference in attempting three-pointers, and have been pretty successful, hitting 37% of them. Hitting these shots is critical for them, because the other areas of their offense are average at best. Mississippi St. struggles on the offensive glass, but does manage to get to the free throw line, where it’s an average team. As one would expect from a fast-paced team, South Carolina’s defense (one of the SEC’s best) forces a lot of turnovers, but doesn’t do that well on the glass. The Gamecocks defend the perimeter well, allowing just 31% of three-point attempts, but aren’t as strong inside. This is not a good matchup for Mississippi St.’s offense, as it will have trouble taking advantage of South Carolina from two-point range.
A pair of undersized guards are key to South Carolina’s fortunes, 5-9 junior Devan Downey and 6-0 senior Zam Fredrick. Downey takes a quarter of South Carolina’s shots, and is fairly efficient with them, though he enters the game having gone 10-for-36 in the last two games. He’s also an excellent distributor of the ball, and is fourth in the nation in steals. Frederick isn’t quite as efficient, mostly because he can’t scorer from inside as well as Downey. He’s a passable three-point shooter, though. The South Carolina frontcourt is led by junior Dominique Archie, a good rebounder and defender who also has a solid scoring touch. Mike Holmes leads the team in rebounding, but is a 44% free throw shooter. Sophomore Sam Muldrow has recently entered the starting line-up after suspension and injury, and looks like he has the potential to be a solid inside scorer, including an 18-point game against Georgia. Lithuanian Evaldas Bainulis is a 6-7 threat from long-distance off the bench, while junior guard Brandis Raley Ross has really struggled with his shot.
Jarvis Varnado has a reputation as a pure shot-blocker, but while he’s clearly the nation’s best in that area, he’s become a pretty solid all-around player, leading Mississippi St. in rebounding and scoring as well. Varnado shoots nearly 60% from the field, and has done a spectacular job on improving his free-throw shooting, up to 70% after being a 50-50 shooter his first two seasons. The problem for Mississippi St. is that Varnado is the only real inside presence in the starting five: besides him, no one averages more than 5 boards a game. Freshman Dee Bost is a solid ball-distribution guard, and gets a steal-and-a-half a game, but isn’t a great shooter, only 35% from the field. Barry Stewart shoots a similar percentage, but without the assists. Ravern Johnson is 6-7, but is mostly a perimeter player, and easily the team’s best three-point shooter. Phil Turner is the fifth starter, an effective scorer who has seen his minutes grow of late. Kodi Augustus, Romero Osby and Brian Johnson are three forwards who have seen inconsistent playing time, but been mildly effective in it. Riley Benock is a decent bench guard who doesn’t do a lot offensively.
The combination of a poor offensive matchup, and Mississippi St.’s bad form coming into this game, make me think that South Carolina will pick up a critical road win.
Winner: South Carolina Margin: 4-8
-- Evan Dorey's game previews & rankings are based on Elo Ratings. Elo Ratings are fairly simple, all teams are assigned an initial number of points, which is the same for all teams, eliminating preseason bias. Then, as the season progresses, when a team wins it gains points, and when it loses it drops points. The amount of points that are gained or lost depend on the level of the opponent (beating a cupcake gets you little, beating #1 will be a big increase), the scoring margin of the game (which is capped), and the game’s location. To take a look at Evan's College Basketball Elo Ratings, visit his website or blog where he discusses the rankings along with other statistical observations about big games and interesting teams.