No. 24 South Carolina has had a really nice season so far. But now it needs to go about proving itself against tougher competition.
The Gamecocks dropped their second road game to a middle-of-the-pack SEC team in 10 days, falling to Tennessee 78-69. Guard Kevin Punter, who entered the game second in the league in scoring (22.6), threw up a career-high 36 points against the vaunted South Carolina defense. He knocked down six 3s, made 14 of his 15 free throws, and was the driving force in the second half by scoring 28.
The 78 points are the second most that South Carolina has allowed in a game this season, but the bigger problems came on offense. Tennessee’s defense came into this one 173rd in the country in defensive efficiency, and the Gamecocks could just never muster a consistent attack. Largely, that came down to the guards just never quite being able to create enough in the halfcourt. Sindarius Thornwell went 1-of-8 with five turnovers. P.J. Dozier was 2-of-5 with three turnovers. Marcus Stroman turned the ball over three times.
That’s where the Gamecocks need to improve: offensive efficiency from guards. It’s been an issue all season, and it’s why they’re currently sitting at 198th nationally in effective field-goal percentage and 248th nationally in turnover rate. If they can get better, more consistently efficient play from their backcourt, particularly Dozier and Thornwell, they’ll be able to compete near the top of the conference. And even beyond that, they need it to continue making the push for their first NCAA Tournament bid under coach Frank Martin.
After all, that bid is a long way from being locked up despite their lofty 17-2 record. South Carolina has only played one game against a top-50 opponent, a win over Vanderbilt, and is now 5-2 against top-100 teams. Its best win is arguably a road victory over Clemson, another team with a bubbly resume. Plus, the team is only on pace to play against four top-50 opponents for the entire season. That’s two fewer than even Gonzaga will play due to the Bulldogs’ ambitious non-conference scheduling outside of what is a down WCC.
Basically, the margin for error here is small in their final 12 regular season games. South Carolina needs to avoid losses to lesser opponents in the coming weeks or else it’ll find itself in a more precarious position than anticipated come March. The best way to do that? Finding a way to get better offensive production.