Women's BB Scouting Report: South Carolina
Any league win is an important one, but a season-opening conference victory feels even more substantial. Taking down a Georgia, a team that came within a whisker of making the 2013 Final Four, must feel even better for Melanie Balcomb and her players. It is known just how important these next few weeks are for Vanderbilt. The Dores could gain a substantial amount of leverage in the SEC race if they can beat South Carolina on the road.
As any coach or athlete will tell you, the best evidence of a successful team is not found in one night, but in the ability to back up one quality result with another, to replicate strong performances and make excellence a part of a locker room's DNA. That's what Vanderbilt is pursuing as much as anything else in this clash with the Gamecocks, which should be a typical SEC street fight.
SOUTH CAROLINA AT-A-GLANCE
The Gamecocks were drifting in 2008 when former Olympian and three-time Final Four participant Dawn Staley was hired from Temple to turn around the South Carolina program. Staley, just elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame, is the most iconic player in the history of Virginia women's basketball. She carried the Cavaliers to three Final Fours in the early 1990s before embarking on a highly successful professional career in various leagues, including the WNBA.
Staley's transition from playing to coaching was a fairly seamless one. She accepted the Temple job in 2000 at a time when the Owls had not made the Big Dance since 1989 (the program's only NCAA appearance at that point). Staley, who was able to earn instant and total respect from her players due to her substantial accomplishments on the court, quickly gained momentum in Philadelphia, leading Temple to the NCAA tournament on six separate occasions. Staley never escaped the first weekend of the NCAA tournament, though, and she felt – rightly, as it turned out – that she could climb higher in the SEC. She came to Columbia, S.C., in 2008, to take over a moribund program that hadn't been to the NCAAs since 2003. Staley endured three rough seasons without an NCAA berth, but in year four, she broke through, guiding the Gamecocks to the Sweet 16. Stanford – one of the elite programs in the United States – needed to work very hard to fend off South Carolina in the regional semifinal round. South Carolina gained a No. 4 seed in the 2013 NCAA Tournament, making the round of 32 before losing to Kansas. South Carolina, like Vanderbilt, is a program that's intent on making the second weekend of the Big Dance, with outside hopes of making the Final Four.
When looking at South Carolina's team profile this season, you might be terrified by the Gamecocks' defensive efficiency. South Carolina is giving up just 0.699 points per possession, which is ridiculously good. However, that statistic is built on the back of three overwhelming performances against cupcakes from Charleston Southern, North Carolina Central, and South Carolina State. The Gamecocks allowed under 30 points in each of those three contests.
If there's a reason to doubt the legitimacy of the Gamecocks, it is that they haven't scored high-value wins out of their conference. A win over Southern California (RPI of 39) is the best on the slate to this point in the season. Yet, the consistency of this program over the past two and a half seasons under Staley offers every indication that the Gamecocks will be right in the middle of the SEC hunt and gain a very good seed in March.
Let's get back to an analysis of this team's defense: What's more noticeable about South Carolina's defense is that this team conceded fewer than 52 points in six other games this season. That's frighteningly good. Any strong defensive team gives its opponents a very small margin for error. Vanderbilt has to accumulate more possessions against South Carolina.
Forward – Aleighsa Welch – Junior, 6-0; 2013-14: 14 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 2.1 apg
Welch isn't the tallest player on the Gamecocks – not even close. Yet, she's the most effective rebounder Staley has. An obvious but undeniably important challenge for the Dores is to match Welch's energy on the glass and prevent her from changing this game with her leaping ability.
Forward – Elem Ibiam – Junior, 6-4; 2013-14: 10.1 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 2.3 blocked shots per game
Ibiam is a formidable low-post presence. Her size poses an obstacle for opposing bigs and for guards or wings who want to attack the paint with the dribble. South Carolina will probably need to get a little more offense from Ibiam as the season goes along. More precisely, the Gamecocks will need her to score within original offensive sets, as opposed to getting putbacks and cleaning up others' misses.
Guard – Tiffany Mitchell – Sophomore, 5-9; 2013-14: 15.1 points per game, 5 rebounds per game, 3.5 assists per game, 2.4 steals per game
Mitchell doesn't block shots at 5-9, but she does just about everything else. An active rebounder-defender and an alert passer, Mitchell finds many ways in which to contribute to a team. She's the Gamecocks' leading scorer, but she's anything but a one-note player. Vanderbilt must devote most of its attention to Mitchell at both ends of the floor.
Guard – Asia Dozier – Sophomore, 6-0; 2013-14: 8 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 2.3 apg
Between the frontcourt and Mitchell, South Carolina gets double-figure scoring from multiple sources. Dozier doesn't have to be a primary scoring presence. Her ability to help with the facilitation of the offense (through her passing) is quite valuable to the Gamecocks. Becoming a better rebounder will enable her to grow on this team and make it that much more competitive in the cutthroat SEC.
Guard – Tiffany Davis – Freshman, 5-7; 2013-14: 2.9 ppg, 1.5 rpg, 1.2 apg
The key point to make about Davis is that she was not the team's starting point guard at the beginning of the season. Original starting point guard Khadijah Sessions – who had been averaging 8.2 points and 3.8 assists per game – was injured just before Christmas, forcing Davis to step into the starting role. This is where Vanderbilt can attack South Carolina at both ends of the floor. The Gamecocks just want Davis to run the offense with a high assist-to-turnover ratio, and play competent defense so that she's not exposed at that end of the floor. As things stand, though, South Carolina scored just 55 points in its SEC opener against Arkansas because Davis, and not Sessions, was running the show at the point.
The loss of Sessions has shortened South Carolina's rotation, but the Gamecocks have an elite reserve in the middle: center Alaina Coates. The 6-4 freshman is the third-best scorer on the team (11.6 points per game) and is pulling down 7.6 rebounds per game despite averaging only 17.1 minutes per contest. Coates' staggering productivity relative to her minutes on the floor makes her a primary force for South Carolina. As Coates grows in both stamina and her understanding of the game, South Carolina should improve. Moreover, Coates' power in the paint will help offset the loss of Sessions.
South Carolina's other reserves are guards Tina Roy and Olivia Gaines. Neither player owns a substantial statistical footprint.
Keys to the Game
1) Rebound with commitment at all five positions. South Carolina, given the loss of Sessions, is in a position where it must win with defense and effort plays, not offensive elegance or precision. The Commodores must know that the Gamecocks will want to make this game an ugly one. Therefore, Vanderbilt needs to be willing to play a rugged and physical game – expecting smooth sailing on the road is just not reasonable. If Vanderbilt matches South Carolina in terms of effort plays, VU probably has enough skill to win. If the Dores suffer a deficit on the "hustle board," they will be in trouble.
2) Value the ball. Giving South Carolina more possessions and plenty of cheap baskets is the easiest way for Vanderbilt to lose. If the Commodores play cleanly on offense, they don't have to shoot a high percentage.
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