7:00 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Florida -9.5, Over/Under: 138
SEC Rivals traveling in very different directions meet tonight at Exatech Arena in Gainesville, as the surging Thirteenth-Ranked Florida Gators host the struggling South Carolina Gamecocks in a contest that will likely go a long way towards deciding the Southeastern Conference. Whereas the Gators and Kentucky Wildcats continue to solidify their joint claim on the league, South Carolina (20-7, 10-4 in SEC) is simply trying to maintain their hold on Third Place, as they have fallen down the pecking order in recent weeks due to a drastic change in form. This program hasn’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 2004, and with four games remaining in the Regular Season they still have a shot at their firs SEC Title in twenty years and just their second in the history of the school. Losers of three out of their last four outings, Frank Martin’s charges are searching for answers at a time in the season where most teams do everything in their power to avoid pitfalls like these in lieu of the coming Postseason Tournaments. After falling to Arkansas last week (83-76), the Gamecocks let one get away from them in their trip to Nashville last Saturday, falling apart in the second half of their 71-62 loss to Vanderbilt. Despite leading 30-27 at the midway point, the visiting side went lifeless for a long stretch in the second frame, going without a field goal for a remarkable nine minutes of action. With that said, the game was still within their grasp; trailing by one with a little more than four minutes remaining, the ‘Cocks crumbled as the home side manufactured a 7-0 run to put the contest of reach. On the night, South Carolina shot just 42.9% from the field, including a dreadful 1-of-9 from beyond the arc (11.1%), while losing the battle on the boards (33-31), and committed ten turnovers to a minuscule seven assists. As has been the case for the majority of the campaign, thy relied far too heavily on the duo of Sindarius Thornwell (21.1 PTS, 44.4% FG, 41.1% 3FG, 7.3 REB, 2.9 AST, 2.2 STL) and PJ Dozier (13.8 PTS, 40.9% FG, 35.6% 3FG, 4.5 REB, 2.9 AST, 1.7 STL),who accounted for over half (thirty-six) of their team’s sixty-two points. Of course, this has pretty much been their M.O. this season: defend like hell for forty minutes, and hope that Thornwell and Dozier can make enough plays to tilt the outcome in their favor. Though it’s taken him five years to do so, Martin has rebuilt the program on the strength of relentless, defense, which can make the Gamecocks a very tough out for any opponent; South Carolina has allowed 68.6 points in league play (2nd in SEC) on 42.6% shooting from the field (5th in SEC), including just 30.9% from beyond the arc (2nd in SEC), while permitting 10.8 assists (2nd in SEC) and forcing a whopping 18.5 turnovers (1st in SEC), 7.9 of which are steals (1st in SEC). However, it’s quite clear that their focus on the defensive end has not extended to the offensive side, where this team can be quite vexing; out of 351 teams in Division I Basketball, these guys are among the worst in terms of shooting, netting a poor 42.0% of their attempts from the field (296th Overall), including a ridiculously horrible 45.5% shooting from inside the Three-Point Line (315th Overall). Granted, Martin’s teams have never been renowned for their offensive prowess, but even this kind of inefficiency has to be enough to give the veteran coach pause The biggest problem is that there is a distinct lack of ball movement, for South Carolina has averaged just 11.7 assists per game (12th in SEC) with not a single player on the roster distributing at least three helpers a night. What this group needs more than anything is to parlay their defensive pressure into opportunities in transition, which is precisely what they managed to do in their previous meeting with the Gators, a 57-53 victory at Colonial Life Arena back on January 18th. The hosts harassed Florida into fifteen turnovers that day, helping to overcome a seven-point halftime deficit, stealing a win in a game in which they managed to shoot just 29.4% from the floor, including 11-of-38 inside the arc (28.9%).
Meanwhile, much has changed for Florida (22-5, 12-2 in SEC) since that defeat at South Carolina back in mid-January, rising to the top of the Southeastern Conference on the strength of a eight-game winning streak, while also ascending to their highest ranking in the Polls, climbing their way to thirteenth in the country. Indeed, Michael White’s charges are peaking at the right time, for the Gators have won half of their last eight outings by twenty points or more, passing the century mark on two occasions, including an 88-66 emasculation of Kentucky, whom they remain tied for the SEC lead with. However, their last performance, a dogged 57-52 victory at 14-12 Mississippi State was little more than a defensive slugfest, in which both teams shot well below 40.0% overall. The difference ultimately proved to be free-throw shooting for the visiting side, who calmly netted 12-of-199 attempts from the charity stripe (63.2%), which while far from stellar earned them a six-point advantage over the hosts, who could muster just six. The Bulldogs let it fly from the perimeter all day, but rarely found the bottom of the net, missing all but two of their twenty-three attempts from downtown. With that said, the biggest takeaway from Saturday’s triumph wasn’t so much that they managed to win after scoring exactly half the amount points they posted earlier in the week against Auburn (114), but the fact that their depth was as apparent from the get-go. White lost Starting Center John Egbunu (7.8 PTS, 49.6% FG, 6.5 REB, 1.4 BLK) earlier in the week to a knee injury, and would go on to witness leading scorer Canyon Barry (13.2 PTS, 43.3% FG, 35.6% 3FG, 3.1 REB) leave the game prematurely with a lame ankle, but nonetheless saw his charges persevere all the same. Chris Chiozza (6.3 PTS, 38.7% FG, 3.0 REB, 3.8 AST, 1.5 STL) scored a team-high fourteen points on 6-of-8 shooting (75.0%) off the Bench, while Kevarrius Hayes (6.3 PTS, 63.0% FG, 4.0 REB, 1.6 BLK) stepped in for the fallen Egbunu to make a pair of huge plays in waning moments of play; first, the Sophomore broke the deadlock scoring the go-ahead basket with 1:57 left on the clock, before deflecting Mississippi State’s L.J. Ready’s potential game-tying attempt with thirty seconds to go. By the end of the game, the underclassman scored nine points on 2-of-3 shooting from the field (66.6%), with ten rebounds (three offensive) and four blocks, proving to be a worthy stand-in for Florida’s primary rim-protector. And speaking of protecting, South Carolina is far from the only team in the SEC to play staunch defense, for in most respects it the Gators who pace the league on that particular end of the court. Through fourteen conference games, they have yielded the fewest amount of points (66.6) on just 40.8% shooting from the field (1st in SEC), including a scant 29.5% from three (1st in SEC). while permitting it’s fewest assists (10.2) and tying for the lead in steals (7.9). With that said, where these guys differ from their opponent is that they aren’t exclusively dependent on their defense manufacturing opportunities in the open court. No, White’s kids can do fine on their own, averaging a stellar 77.6 points in conference play (2nd in SEC), while sporting solid shooting percentages (45.1% FG, 50.2% 2FG, 37.2% 3FG), and showcase the unique ability t0 actually SHARE the basketball, dishing out 13.3 dimes a night. Granted, at thirteen assists overall they’re rather low in comparison to the rest of the country (223rd Overall), but they’re still head and shoulders above South Carolina. In fact, Senior Point Guard Kasey Hill’s (9.7 PTS, 42.0% FG, 3.0 REB, 4.9 AST, 1.8 STL) 4.9 assists is greater than over a third of the Gamecocks’ rotation, with the aforementioned Chiozza helping out a great deal in that department.
Predicted Outcome: Florida 63, South Carolina 55