It’s been an interesting tournament this year. For the first time since 2007, we didn’t have a 13 seed or higher win a game in the opening round. Bad on my wallet, as there were several prime candidates to pull off the upset (upset picks). However, upsets are bound to happen, this tournament they just came later. Particularly of note are Wisconsin dropping Villanova (not too much of a surprise given Wisconsin’s tournament prowess), and South Carolina’s second round defeat of Duke, a perennial favorite to win it all. What is captivating here is not that a 7th seed upset a 2 seed, its how a team with below average shooting (the most important of the four factors) can pull off a string of victories against superior opponents, at least on paper.
There are a few defensive specialist teams that found there way into this years tournament. Northwestern, South Carolina, and probably most notable “Press” Virginia. The latter of which has gotten the most attention, and rightfully so for leading the nation in turnovers forced by a good margin. However, following close behind them is South Carolina, with an almost equally stifling defense. It has won them games all year, especially considering their offense is doing them little favors. Their shooting percentages are towards the league bottom. They make up for this by collecting offensive rebounds and getting to the foul line quite a bit, to only once again be average free-throw shooters.
So how did a team who lost 6 out of 9 games leading up to the tournament, with an average at best offensive, pull out 4 straight wins over superior opponents? Lets take a look.
South Carolina consistently was on the boards getting rebounds after their misses. They have done this all year, but in the tournament are averaging slightly higher than their season average in offensive rebounding. Defensively they have not let up on forcing turnovers. In the last four games, they have forced their opponents to turnover the ball over 23.3% of the time in every game, that’s almost 1 in every 4 possessions the opposition is not even getting a shot. Again this is just slightly higher than their season averages. So what really changed for South Carolina this year? They found their shot. Whether its a streak of good luck or stepping up at the right time, a team that has shot an average of 46% of 2 pointers on the season has stepped up to making just below 55% of them. On par with the elite shooting offenses in college basketball. 4 games is a very small sample statistically, it could fall into the realm of random luck, or it could be the start of an uptick in shooting efficiency. The question is how long it will their shooting touch last? With two games to go, can they hold on to their touch, or will they fade away into final four history?
It call comes down to their next opponent. Ironically enough Gonzaga has seen and beat the other notable defense-minded teams of Northwestern and West Virginia earlier this tourney. They excel in shooting defense and have a potent offense of their own. Odds are South Carolina regresses to their mean, especially against a team with excellent man coverage that hardly fouls the shooter, something the Gamecocks have come to rely on. If they don’t find their shot, expect the Zags to have a similar performance as they did against Xavier, and turn this game into a blowout.