NO BASKETBALL expertise or particular insight into the game is necessary to figure why the South Carolina men’s basketball fortunes have turned during the Gamecocks’ recent seven-game win streak.
Frank Martin’s team is playing sensational defense.
The latest example came in USC’s victory against Iowa State on Saturday. Iowa State carried a No. 9 national ranking into the game largely because it was one of the better offensive teams in the country. The Cyclones were making 50 percent of their field-goal attempts and averaging 85 points per game.
Fred Hoiberg, Iowa State’s coach, admitted Monday that his team had not previously seen the kind of defensive pressure applied by USC, which held the Cyclones to 60 points on 35 percent shooting.
“It’s tough to simulate that type of pressure in practice situations,” Hoiberg said at his weekly press conference. “You can’t do it. ... Seeing that kind of pressure for the first time, just coming out of the gate, we didn’t handle it well. ... That pressure forced some of our guys out a little bit and affected our legs.”
It was not the first time USC’s defense has forced an opponent out of its offense and, really, out of its game. Iowa State joined Oklahoma State and Clemson among those who had no answers for a defense that quickly has become suffocating.
USC fans who have become accustomed to seeing opponents race to the basket for easy dunks and put on 3-point shooting exhibitions will not recognize this USC defense. The Gamecocks do not allow easy baskets.
USC ranks third nationally in field-goal percentage defense, allowing the opposition to have success 33.8 percent of the time. The two teams ranked ahead of USC are unbeatens Kentucky and Virginia.
The defensive prowess starts in the backcourt, where USC has gone to a three-guard alignment that is big and bulky and plays with an attacking, nasty demeanor. Sindarius Thornwell is 6-foot-5 and weighs 215 pounds. Ty Johnson is 6-3 and 195, and Duane Notice is 6-2 and 212. Those are NBA-type bodies.
“Duane Notice guarding point guards, he is a bear on people up there,” Martin said after USC held Clemson to 29.8 percent shooting and 45 points. “Now you’ve got Ty Johnson and Sindarius Thornwell, two big, strong, long guards just getting in passing lanes and being aggressive.”
That type of aggressive play on the perimeter prevents opposing teams from passing the ball to the wings or into the post, taking them out of their offensive sets. The only counter move is to drive to the lane, where interior players Laimonas Chatkevicius (6-11) and Demetrius Henry (6-9) have become adept at protecting the basket.
“People try to drive, and now you need your last line of defense,” Martin said. “We funnel everything to guys who play fast and at the rim.”
Clemson coach Brad Brownell took note after USC administered a 23-point whipping on his Tigers.
“It’s hard to run offense against South Carolina the way they play,” Brownell said. “They make it really hard to make passes. So, you almost have to become a little bit of a play-making team.”
Being a play-making team means relying more heavily on your best playmaker and/or scorer. USC has had an answer defensively for that strategy as well, eliminating the presence of that player in its wins against Oklahoma State, Clemson and Iowa State.
Guard Phil Forte leads Oklahoma State in scoring with a 17-point average and is a career 40 percent 3-point shooter. He was 1-of-10 shooting on 3-pointers and scored five points against USC. Clemson’s Rod Hall is one of the ACC’s top point guards, yet scored four points and managed three assists with five turnovers. Iowa State’s Georges Niang is a terrific scoring threat, yet managed 10 points on 3-of-13 shooting.
Add it all up, and USC possesses a defense that gives it a chance to win any game, regardless of what happens on the other end of the court. It is a defense that has taken the past two seasons to develop, according to Martin, and one that will continue to get better.
The word Martin likes to use in describing his team’s defense is “connected.”
“That means if Player A moves to the left, B, C, D and E also move to the left,” Martin said. “We’re not there yet, but we’re migrating that way, and it’s fun to watch.”
It does not take a basketball genius to recognize that.