February 22, 2024

The Most Surprising Men’s College Basketball Conference Contenders in 2024 | News, Scores, Highlights, Stats, and Rumors

South Carolina's Ta'Lon Cooper

South Carolina’s Ta’Lon CooperBryan Lynn/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Preseason Projection: 14th in 14-team SEC

Currently: 8-2 (Tied for 1st place)

Preseason Outlook: “The Gamecocks finished 11-21 overall, the worst record in the SEC, and 12th out of 14 teams in league play. They were, by far, the lowest rated team in the conference on KenPom. There was a lot of work to be done once the season ended. … There might not be enough here for the Gamecocks to play their way into the NCAA Tournament—that’s a big ask—but there is enough for this group to make a run at a spot in the NIT and a top-10 finish in the SEC.”—The Almanac’s Rob Dauster

This is the fourth year that I’ve done this “surprise contenders” piece in February, and at this point, it’d be more surprising if we didn’t have at least one major conference team vying for a league crown after being predicted to finish in either last or next-to-last place.

Washington State also fits that bill in the Pac-12, but South Carolina is the biggest one, already in possession of wins over Kentucky and Tennessee in the process of climbing to the top of the SEC ladder.

For the Gamecocks, the big surprise has been the most basic element of basketball: Making shots. After 14 consecutive years with an eFG% of 48.6 or lower, they are presently at 51.5 percent. That’s still only marginally better than the national average (50.4), but a night-and-day improvement for this program.

And the surprising star in that department has been Ta’Lon Cooper.

He was never a bad shooter at Morehead State or Minnesota, but he was also never this absurdly efficient. Cooper had a 49.3 eFG% in his first four seasons of college hoops, and now he’s at 63.4, making 47.5 percent of his three-point attempts and 56.0 percent of shots inside the arc.

Cooper is also leading the team in assists, largely responsible for putting the rest of the team in good position to score. And that has been a huge help for Meechie Johnson, who last year had to basically set himself up for his seven three-point attempts per game. His offensive efficiency has gone up considerably, too.

But, of course, South Carolina is going to get after you on defense. The Gamecocks are 19-0 this season when holding their opponent to 69 points or fewer, which includes completely shutting down both Kentucky (62) and Tennessee (59).

That defense will travel in the NCAA tournament, for which the 20-win, supposed-to-be-dead-last Gamecocks are virtually a lock.