Scouting Report: South Carolina
It's so easy when you're a fan of Vanderbilt men's basketball to focus on the offensive side of things. Stallings is an offense-first coach in charge of guiding some immensely skilled performers such as John Jenkins and Jeffery Taylor. There's no question that when VU is flourishing, the halfcourt sets are crisp and the mid-range jumpers are falling, complete with a low-post mix formerly provided by A.J. Ogilvy and now produced by Festus Ezeli. However, there's a difference between playing "pretty" basketball and winning basketball, and it's the other end of the floor – plus the boards – where Vanderbilt has lagged behind the other upper-tier teams in the SEC. Locking down on defense and being airtight on the glass would have won a number of important games for the Dores in recent seasons: at Tennessee last season, Murray State in the 2010 NCAA Tournament, and any of the many SEC Tournament games that regularly slip through this program's fingers. If Vanderbilt wants to stake out new territory and do things it hasn't done before, mastering defense and the glass will serve as the ticket.
Being able to win games with defense and a sledgehammer style might not fit the typical Vanderbilt profile, but winning games in atypical ways is precisely what will make the Commodores more of a threat in the SEC and – hopefully – a much tougher out when pressure-cooker March basketball arrives. The Commodores started their SEC season with one superb defensive gem against Auburn; as we know so well, VU must make a habit out of smothering opponents, instead of making defense an occasional feature of a conference campaign.
SOUTH CAROLINA AT-A-GLANCE
South Carolina scores better than Auburn does, but not to a considerable extent. The Gamecocks' starting five doesn't have a knockout player akin to SEC-killer Devan Downey, who was able to pilot his program through crunch-time situations. As a result, coach Darrin Horn is searching for combinations in what is generally an eight-man rotation.
Yes, South Carolina lost by only eight points (74-66) to a legitimate Final Four contender from Ohio State, but that close December loss was largely a product of the fact that the Buckeyes were playing without their star post player, Jared Sullinger. The Gamecocks enter this contest with an 8-7 record; if they play any postseason games this season, they will be in a non-NCAA, non-NIT tournament. However, that's not Vandy's concern. A team that could play Ohio State within eight points is capable of springing an ambush. Horn might be failing to recruit at the level he needs to, but Stallings needs to sell his players on the importance of giving no life to the Gamecocks.
Forward – Damontre Harris – Sophomore, 6-9, 214 2011-12: 6 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 2.1 blocks per game
Harris isn't powerful – no one on the South Carolina roster can really be classified as such – but he's the tallest and longest interior defender in Horn's starting five. Harris uses his wingspan to block shots while taking on opponents' foremost post players. He holds his own on the boards, but his lack of height prevents him from being able to create his own shot on a consistent basis. Harris is definitely more of a concern for the Commodores at the defensive end of the court and on the glass. He's not going to hurt Vanderbilt with one-on-one low-post moves.
Forward – Anthony Gill – Freshman, 6-8, 232; 2011-12: 8.5 ppg, 5.2 rpg
Gill is going to be a point of focus for Vanderbilt on the boards. He snared seven of them this past Saturday against Kentucky while adding three steals in 30 high-energy minutes. He's not a polished offensive player; if he scores, it will be off putbacks or other opportunities near the rim. Gill should ripen into a formidable performer for South Carolina in the coming years, but right now, he's not yet ready to be a meal-ticket scorer. He makes himself useful on the glass, and that's where the Dores need to counteract him.
Forward– Malik Cooke – Senior, 6-6, 213; 2011-12: 13.1 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 2 assists and 2 steals per game
Cooke is a noticeably resourceful player who isn't outstanding at any one thing, but performs many skills with a considerable degree of competence. Cooke is a capable yet not imposing scorer. At 6-6 but with a lean body, he's still able to throw himself into the fray on the glass. He passes the ball smoothly and lends continuity to the Gamecocks' halfcourt offense, and he swipes the pill a couple of times every gamenight. Cooke clearly gives his best at both ends of the floor, something that can't be said for every South Carolina player.
Forward – Lakeem Jackson – Junior, 6-5, 230; 2011-12: 5.1 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 2 apg
Jackson noticeably struggled this past Saturday in the SEC opener at Kentucky – then again, a lot of small forwards are going to have a hard time operating against Big Blue. Jackson scored only one bucket in 15 minutes, snagging a few rebounds but amounting to little more than a placeholder on the floor. His lack of quickness made him a target for Kentucky, and so it's reasonable to conclude that Vanderbilt will try to attack him on the dribble and create some sets that will try to expose his vulnerabilities at the defensive end of the floor.
Guard – Eric Smith – Sophomore, 5-11, 211; 2011-12: 6.5 ppg, 1.7 apg
Smith is technically a starter, but he plays bench-level minutes at the point for the Gamecocks. The true point guard on this team is Bruce Ellington, the football-playing sophomore who was part of Steve Spurrier's "wild rooster" formation when the Gamecocks' quarterback situation was in flux due to Connor Shaw's late-season injury against Florida. Ellington is South Carolina's quickest player, but he lacks the jump shot that can make him a particularly devastating point guard. Devan Downey, he's not; Ellington averages just 8.2 points and 1.6 assists per game.
In addition to Ellington, who is essentially plays starter-level minutes but is currently consigned to the bench, Horn uses forward R.J. Slawson, a 6-8 banger who gets 6 points and 5 boards per game, and tall guard Damien Leonard, who averages 7.5 points per game. There's no one dynamic sixth man on this bench; it's hard to classify Ellington as such since he plays most of the game in place of Smith. Horn needs his bench to become more of a factor since he lacks scoring punch from his starting five.
Keys to the Game
1) Boards, boards, boards. South Carolina doesn't possess a lot of shooters, but the Gamecocks can get on the glass with their mid-size forwards who try to make their energy – not their skill sets – work for them. If Vanderbilt can at least match South Carolina's effort on the glass, it's very hard to see how the Gamecocks can possibly win this game.
2) Attack Jackson. As noted above, Lakeem Jackson is South Carolina's weakest starting defender. The other Gamecocks are solid defenders, but Jackson is more vulnerable because of his lack of quickness. So much of basketball – particularly in a halfcourt context – is about recognizing favorable matchups and exploiting them. Vanderbilt needs to make Horn and the South Carolina staff adjust to the reality that Jackson – a starter – might not have much of a place on the floor. If VU renders Jackson ineffective, South Carolina becomes a seven-man team, and it will be hard for the Gamecocks to keep pace over the full 40 minutes.
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