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What you need to know about S. Carolina’s defense

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(Photo by Ryan Messier/Paint Touches)

Defense good. Offense bad.

Of course, if this blog were South Carolina focused, we’d say the opposite about Marquette: Offense good. Defense bad.

And both are true. This is a fantastically intriguing matchup of two polar opposite teams. And these aren’t just your average differences, these are extremes.

Marquette Adj O: 7th
South Carolina AdjO: 149th

Marquette Adj D: 154th
South Carolina Adj D: 3rd

Let’s put some context on this. Marquette has the 2nd worst defense of all at-large teams in the field and the 10th worst overall. That’s bad.

South Carolina has the worst offense of all at-large teams in the field and the 9th worst overall. That’s also bad.

Something has to give. We’ll start by looking into their defense, and try to break down what makes it so special this season.

Current Form

On February 5th, South Carolina was 19-4, having just beaten Georgia and sitting pretty at the top of the SEC  with a 9-1 record. The sole loss had come at Kentucky and with only one bad loss on the resume, the Gamecocks seemed primed for a top-4 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

Fast forward 5 weeks and that outlook turned bleak quite quickly. South Carolina lost 6 of its last 9 games, with the wins coming over underwhelming Mississippi State (twice) and a home win over a Tennessee team that finished outside the top-60 in the KenPom ratings. (In fact, if we go back a tad further, South Carolina hasn’t recorded a win over a top-50 KenPom team in almost 2 months, a 57-53 victory over Florida.)

As impressive as their non-conference performance was, with wins over Michigan and Syracuse, their play of late does not resemble the team from November. In their past 9 games, South Carolina has only broken 1.0 Point Per Possession 3 times. The offense has never been good, per se, but the defense isn’t breaking teams down to the same extent, losing 2.2 efficiency points in Ken Pom in the process. Here is a bit more analysis on why I think the defense has wilted a tad of late. 

https://twitter.com/i/moments/841707838212845572

Preventing Penetration

But even though the defense isn’t as dominant as it had been earlier in the year, that does not mean it isn’t good. In fact it will be the best one Marquette has faced (and probably will face) this season. One of the reasons is that almost every player on the team, big and small, can defend the perimeter 1 on 1. Even more impressively, they can prevent penetration, using great technique and lateral quickness to head off drives to the rim.

According to Hoop-Math, only 32.4% of opponent shot attempts come at the rim, while 33.6% come from 2-point jumpers, and 34.0% come from behind the arc. For Marquette, this wouldn’t seem to be a terrible issue, as they are taking a fewer percentage of shots both at the rim and from long-2s, and take 41.1% of shots from long distance. But don’t let that get your hopes up. They will be affected.  

Looking at numbers only tells you so much, so I dug in to some video of why SC held opponents to such low eFG% and there is not magic bullet. Yes, the team covers for each other well and recovers quickly when penetration does come, but they just do an amazing job of defending tightly 20-feet from the basket. They don’t usually let ball handlers turn the corner, and on the rare occasions where they do, there are always shot blockers at the ready. 

Marquette hasn’t relied on drives to the basket to win games, but a physical defense that stretches beyond the arc does give them problems. Seton Hall had nowhere near the level of defense of SC, but Marquette couldn’t get anything going in the second half when the Pirate’s pressure started throw the ball handlers off rhythm. Drives ended up in double teams that made it difficult to kick out. Size and physicality has effected Marquette all season, and they are about to get a very heavy dose of it.   

Fouls

As you would expect with an aggressive, physical defense, foul trouble is a big issue for them. All of their bigs 6-9 or taller average over 5 fouls committed per 40 minutes. Chris Silva, their only offensive threat on the inside and best rebounders, makes Luke look like a pro at not fouling. Silva fouls a team high 7.6 times per 40 and as a result doesn’t reach 50% of minutes played on the season.

Teams also get to the line a lot against South Carolina. The Gamecocks are one of the worst teams in D1 in keeping opponents off the line, as teams are attempting 46.7 FTA/FGA. Marquette doesn’t draw many fouls, but they do convert at a high clip when they get there, 77.9%, 7th best in the country.  

It’s always a mystery how NCAA Tournament officials will call the game, but a tight one with more whistles will definitely favor Marquette.  

Transition

Marquette kills teams in transition with a 63.6 eFG% and 24.8% of initial shot attempts coming. That transition eFG% is 12th best in the country, boosted in large part by a robust 42.8% from long distance in PUJIT3 situations.

South Carolina, predictably, doesn’t allow a ton of transition buckets and holds teams to a very low eFG% when they do come. Opponents are posting an eFG% of 47.6% in transition, which makes SC the 18th best transition defense in the country. Teams just haven’t been able to get in rhythm against the Gamecocks, and have only hit 24.7% of 3s shot in transition.

With points coming at a premium and open looks few and far between against SC, the amount of damage Marquette can cause in transition may be one of the keys to the game.   

Turnovers

South Carolina is the second best team in the NCAA Tournament at forcing turnovers, and the 4th best overall this season, forcing opponents into coughing it up almost 1 of every 4 possessions (24.5%). Even in 4 of its last 5 losses, opponents have turned it over more than 20% of possessions.

The defense is simply terrific at forcing mistakes in all sorts of ways, but that is what pressure does. It makes ball handlers uncomfortable and forces them into congested areas where SC’s length and athleticism can really swallow them up.

Marquette hasn’t been bad on the season as a whole protecting the ball, coming in at no. 74 in TO%, but it has had issues against high pressure teams like St. John’s. Jajuan Johnson, Markus Howard and Haanif Cheatham have been the biggest culprits, so it wouldn’t surprise me to see Rowsey and Reinhardt initiate a lot of the sets on offense.     

3Pt Defense

But the last 1000 words basically boils down to this portion. If Marquette can hit 3s at or above its season average in terms of both percentage (43%) and quantity (41% of all FGs taken), Marquette should win. If it were only that simple though.

Despite the caveat from KenPom himself that there is no such thing as good 3-point defense, South Carolina held opponents to 29.6% from long range, the fifth lowest mark in the Division I.

 To get a sense of what South Carolina does on the defensive end to wreak such havoc from long distance, I watched every defensive possession from its win over Michigan. If you remember, Michigan made Marquette’s defense look nonexistent in its blowout win at MSG. Just 6 days later, though, Michigan was nearly erased off the board by South Carolina, scoring only 46 points in 62 possessions, by far its worst offensive game of the season. Again, Big Blue finished the season with a better offense than Marquette according to KenPom, so this is a big deal.

In their matchup, Michigan shot an abhorrent 2-26 from 3, by far their worst shooting night of the season. In seeing brick after brick, I noticed that the shot quality wasn’t awful. This wasn’t a case of a team desperate to come back, launching 12 3s in the last 4 minutes. In fact, I was really surprised at the quality looks they did get, and subsequently miss.

Even though it was a clear “off” night for the Wolverines, South Carolina does get a lot of the credit. As I mentioned before, they do a great job of recovering to open players after penetration. But they also use their length to disrupt shooters, even in helpless situations.  Look at the sequence below. 

Screen Shot 2017-03-14 at 12.22.58 AM

Michigan’s 22 receives a perfect spot up pass right in his shooting pocket with his defender all the way at the free throw line. Most times, make or miss, this results in an unguarded shot. Not so against SC.

Screen Shot 2017-03-14 at 12.23.18 AM

Thornwell doesn’t quite make it in time to block the shot, but he gets within range to disrupt it, taking a path where he can sprint and leap for max extension without worrying about fouling the shooter.  This resulted in one of Michigan’s 24 missed 3-pointers on the night.

Only two players are under 6-foot-4, and those two only combine to play 75% of minutes. So on defense, there is length and speed at basically every position at all times. This makes  even open shooters uncomfortable, because they can’t be positive the shot will end up as open as it appears. Miss a few early on and it starts to snowball, as players feel the pressure of having to create for themselves and go away from the offense that was getting them easy looks. 

That’s not to say no one has shot well against SC. Mississippi went 8-17 on Mar. 4, Florida went 9-19 on Feb. 21, and Arkansas went 7-14 on Feb 15th. That’s 3 of their last 7 games where opponents have shot well above their season average. So it isn’t impossible or improbable, it’s just difficult. Ball movement, as opposed to shots off the dribble are the key. 

And of course, making the ones you get. Easier said than done.

 

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