After losing to Austin Peay on January 22nd, you could have easily made the claim that the Gamecocks were one of the worst programs in Division I basketball. Jacksonville State was 1-14, 0-9 in the OVC, and hit 70 just twice. But then we saw some signs of life from the Gamecocks, winning their next 2, beating Tennessee State in overtime 2 weeks later, pushing league leading Murray State to a one point game, and dropping their last 4 games by just a combined 9 points. It was a season marred by the close loss: 11 of Jax State’s losses were by five points or less, 15 by seven or less. Six losses came after JSU held a double digit lead. It was too little, too late for the Gamecocks, who missed the OVC tournament, finishing last in the OVC at 3-15.
Next year’s team will feature 6 seniors, but there’s big shoes to fill, as two of the team’s top 3 scorers are graduating. That includes guard Nick Murphy, who led the team in points, rebounds, steals, free throws attempted and made, and minutes. Their best 3-point shooter, Jeremy Bynum, is also graduating, leaving another hole in an offense that only averaged 60.9 points a game.
As expected with a team that managed just 5 wins on the year, it’s hard to pinpoint just one area the Gamecocks need to improve to compete within the OVC. Turnovers did hurt Jacksonville State in those late season close losses, but the Gamecocks actually had a positive turnover ratio for the season. Rebounding was a clear weakness; Jax State averaged under 30 rebounds a game, and didn’t have a dominant big man inside. Shooting, another weakness: As a team, the Gamecocks shot just 42% from the field. Shooting less than 65% from the foul line won’t win you any games either.
Perhaps the biggest bright spot for the Gamecocks is freshman guard Brian Williams. Williams struggled as a shooter as a freshman (38% from the field, 29% from 3-range) but earned a starting role late in the season after the injury to Dominique Shellman, putting up the most assists per minute of playing time (yes, i did the math) than any other Gamecock. 2nd on that list was Shellman, who will be one of those 6 seniors next season. Without a dominant big man, I could see Jax State running a 3-guard lineup with Williams, Shellman, and Miller, although I’m not sure which guard you would put in the 3-slot. (All three are just over 6-feet) If not, Williams will probably be left coming off the bench.
Probably my biggest area of concern for the Gamecock next season is in the front court. Outside of Hall, I don’t see another good big man on this squad. Freshman Nick Cook should see more time next year, and possibly even a starting role. De’Andre Bynum and Frankie Bougher also should see increased time. If Jax stays with a traditional 2 guard lineup, Boughner might make a good player for the 3-slot; He hit 15 of 25 3-point attempts last season, but only dished out 4 assists in 20 games.
And then there’s 6’9″ redshirted freshman Jordan Cornelius, a highly regarded center coming out of high school, and Middle Tennessee State transfer David Murray, a high scoring forward who led his Alabama high school to a state title. Good talent, but both haven’t played competitive basketball for a year. Cornelius could be a force by his senior year, (there’s aren’t a lot of 6’9″ players in the OVC after all) but time will tell how he performs this season. Murray, a 6’7″ forward, played in 18 games for the Blue Raiders a season ago, but only 2.9 minutes a game.
The loss of Murphy is a huge hole to fill, but there is talent on Jax State’s team. Stephen Hall had some of his best games in the last few weeks of the season, but is going to have to find a way to be more dominant inside without fouling. (he lead the team in fouls last season, fouling out of 4 contests) Much like hall, B.J. Miller improved throughout last season, earning a starting spot for most of conference play.
This team is probably a year away from really competing in the OVC. They do have the talent to make the tournament, but a low seed is probably the best-case scenario for the Gamecocks in 2011-12. There’s a lot of young talent in Jacksonville, but still need a year or two of refining before they’re ready to make a deep run.