Women's Hoops Scouting Report: South Carolina

The Vanderbilt women's basketball team has had a week to get ready. How will this team perform when given one of the hardest tasks in college hoops this season: Beat South Carolina.


And so, the moment arrives: Vanderbilt, with a week of rest, gets its shot at South Carolina, by most accounts the second-best team in the United States (Connecticut being the best). The Gamecocks have never made a Women’s Final Four – they reached the Elite Eight once and gained a No. 1 seed for the first time in school history last season, under head coach Dawn Staley, but only now do they seem poised to make such a breakthrough. Hardened by last March’s failure against North Carolina in the Sweet 16 and seasoned by experience, the Gamecocks now look like a much more complete team than the one which achieved richly last year. This group has carried itself like a juggernaut and produced juggernaut-level results… with the sole exception of this past Monday’s decisive loss at the hands of Connecticut, a team with a penchant for making No. 2 (or No. 3, or No. 4) teams look bad.

UConn might be the ruler of the college basketball kingdom, but if one team figures to meet the Huskies in early April for the whole ball of wax, it’s still South Carolina. The Gamecocks will force Vanderbilt to display every last bit of resourcefulness, every final ounce of energy and inspiration, just to stay close in Columbia, S.C. This is daunting for the Commodores and coach Melanie Balcomb, but it’s also exactly the kind of game a player expects to play in when she enrolls at Vanderbilt and signs up to be a member of this program. This can easily be a game that should elicit fear in its competitors, but it will hopefully be a game that draws forth boldness and creativity from the Dores. If nothing else, this team will know a lot more about where it stands and what it needs to improve on after facing South Carolina for two real-time hours.

SOUTH CAROLINA AT-A-GLANCE

There’s only one thing South Carolina isn’t good at, and that’s beating UConn. Everything else, this team knows how to do, and it hopes that its overall excellence will lead to an elusive Final Four trip.

The stats tell the story with this team: South Carolina is first in the SEC in field goal percentage, two-point percentage, three-point percentage, effective field goal percentage, offensive points per possession, defensive points (allowed) per possession, assists per game, assist-turnover ratio, defensive field goal percentage, defensive two-point field goal percentage, rebounds per game, and blocked shots per game.

The Gamecocks are also remarkable in this respect: With the sole exception of the loss to UConn this past Monday, South Carolina has allowed no more than 63 points in any of its other 23 games, all wins. There is a relentless consistency about this team, and when you think about it, being relentlessly consistent (at a high level, of course) is what separates an elite team from merely a really good team. South Carolina possesses that characteristic, and Vanderbilt is going to try to get the Gamecocks to be erratic and uneven on Sunday.

It’s rather conspicuous that South Carolina’s offensive points per possession average is 1.084 points, and that its defensive average is 0.724 points, a difference of 0.36 points, more than a third per game. That’s a lot… and it includes a blowout loss to UConn. In the SEC, only Tennessee emerges as a top-tier contender to South Carolina, but even then, it would seem hard to give the Vols the nod over the Gamecocks. South Carolina is so proficient at both ends of the floor, giving the team the ability to win games in different ways. That bit of flexibility, combined with the team’s evident depth, makes the Gamecocks the force they in fact are.

Starting Lineup

Center – Elem Ibiam – Senior, 6-4; 2014-15: 6.9 ppg, 4.1 rpg

Ibiam doesn’t receive starter-level minutes. She often gets under 20 minutes per game. Therefore, her per-game averages are more like half-game averages, at least when measured against a full-game number of 40 minutes. Per 40 minutes, Ibiam’s averages would be much higher.

Forward – Aleighsa Welch –
Senior, 6-0: 2014-15: 9.2 points per game, 6.2 rebounds per game, 1.9 assists per game

Welch is the third-best rebounder on this team, and since six boards per game is nothing to sneeze at, that gives you just a little hint of how formidable the Gamecocks really are. Welch would almost surely have much better numbers on lesser teams, but at South Carolina, her modest numbers represent meaningful contributions shared by many in a widely-distributed workload.

Forward – Asia Dozier – Junior, 6-0; 2014-15: 4 ppg, 1 rpg, 1.9 apg

Like Ibiam, Dozier doesn’t get starter-level minutes. She played only 11 against LSU in South Carolina’s most recent game this past Thursday. On a team this deep, Staley is able to play 10 players for at least 10 minutes, but none of them more than 30 – at least, that’s how Staley likes it.

Guard – Khadijah Sessions – Junior, 5-8; 2014-15: 4.5 ppg, 2.5 rpg, 2.9 apg

Sessions might average under five points per game, but she hit 5 of 6 field goals, 2 of 2 threes, against LSU. Vanderbilt will need to respect her – just not more than is absolutely necessary. To be honest, if Sessions is hitting jumpers, very few if any teams will be able to stay with South Carolina.

Guard – Tiffany Mitchell – Junior, 5-9; 2014-15: 14.8 ppg, 2.9 rpg, 2.8 apg

Mitchell is the member of the starting five who loves and expects to have the ball in her hand in a crunch-time situation. Mitchell hits 48.4 percent of her threes but has a quick first step as well. Her ability to shoot well enables her to break opponents down off the dribble… and vice-versa.

Bench

Staley has a very deep bench, with five players joining a 10-player rotation. Each of the next five players received at least 10 minutes against LSU, if not a lot more: Center Alaina Coates, forward Jatarie White, and guards A’ja Wilson, Bianca Cuevas, and Tina Roy. Coates is an imposing center who averages 10.7 points and a team-best 8.4 rebounds per game. White averages 2.8 boards per game. Wilson plays starter-level minutes (around 25 in recent games) and averages 13.5 points plus 6.9 boards per contest. Cuevas averages 6.5 points per game. Roy averages 4.5 points per game. South Carolina does not suffer in terms of needing various lineup combinations to create a spark when things aren’t working out.

Keys to the Game

1) Late-clock shooting.
Vanderbilt is almost certain to lose a prolonged rebounding battle against South Carolina’s size and depth. VU has to be very effective on offense, and that will mean hitting shots at the end of the shot clock… repeatedly. Making the extra pass while gaining a firm idea of “good shot-versus-bad shot” will give the Dores the roadmap to victory. It’s easy to say and hard to do, yes… but let’s at least say it, then.

2) Possessions. Rebounding, shot selection, and turnovers (the problem in the loss to Kentucky last Sunday) all factor into the (un-)wise use of possessions. Vanderbilt has to maximize the quantity and quality of its possessions. Without that, no great takedown is realistically possible.

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