Two defending tournament champs will go at it Saturday when the Gators take on South Carolina in Columbia. Florida, of course won the NCAA Tournament, while the Gamecocks claimed a second straight NIT Crown.
OK, so there’s a little difference in the titles being defended, but indications are both teams will be trying to do it again. Florida is racing towards a ninth straight NCAA bid with its 15-and-2 record while Carolina is 10-and-4 and again likely to be bubble bound.
Carolina was a pain in Florida collective butt last year, beating the Gators twice during the season, 68-62 in Columbia and 71-67 in Gainesville. Those point totals were the lowest of any team that beat UF last year. They did it by controlling the tempo and forcing Florida to defend for the entire shot clock. Florida got even at the SEC tournament, winning another bore-a-thon 49-47. It’s a style of play the Gators would like to avoid if at all possible.
This year the Gamecocks are led by Tre Kelley who had 25 points, nine rebounds and 15 assists in last year’s wins. This season Kelley has to not only be the point guard (64 assists); he also has to be a scorer (15.7). Big man Brandon Wallace is making progress, and is averaging 11.6 points and 9.4 rebounds. Four others average between eight and nine a night. Depth is an issue with those six players averaging at least 26 minutes of playing time a game. Florida has just two players (Green, Humphrey) playing that much.
The two teams have played three common opponents. Both beat Jacksonville (UF 90-61, S.X. 80-73), and both lost to Kansas (UF 80-82, SC 54-70). The Gators beat Georgia 67-51 while the Gamecocks were clobbered by the Bulldawgs 56-80. Using comparative scores, Florida has been on average 25 points better than South Carolina against common competition.
One thing working against Florida is the location of the contest. Home teams have won ten of the first eleven SEC games with Kentucky’s win at Ole Miss the only exception to the rule. On the plus side, Carolina has already lost two home games this season. I spoke with Billy Donovan, Joakim Noah and Taurean Green about the first SEC road game of the season.
LV: You guys got the Gamecocks in the SEC Tournament last year after losing to them twice in the regular season. Do you feel like you still owe them something?
Noah: Do we owe them something? Definitely. But you owe everybody something, even someone you’ve beaten before. It’s going to be exciting. My father’s coming down for that game. But every game in the SEC matters and every games counts. That’s the only thing we haven’t won, that SEC regular season (championship). We’re off to a good start, but we gotta keep it up and stay strong.
Green: Yeah, we do owe them something because they beat us twice last year and we lost those games ourselves. We know it’s going to be a tough game on the road but we just gotta come out ready to play and play 40 minutes of basketball
LV: How important is tempo when you play South Carolina? Do you need to make the pace quick?
Donovan: They’re a very good transition team, and if they don’t get you in transition early they are very good “end of clock” players. So what happens is they are constantly probing and stuff (in the half court) and they’re not afraid to go deep in the shot clock. They get two on the ball, the get shots up on the board and they’re very good at tipping it in. A lot of times when teams get deep into the shot clock they get really poor shots. They are one of those teams that get up really good shots because they have great one-on-one ability. They’re a good team and they’re playing at home and they have a style that’s unique and difficult to play against.
Green: If they can get it in transition they’re gonna get it. If not they’ll slow it down, run the offense and move the ball around using up the shot clock. We just want to get the game up and down and dictate our tempo.
Noah: I remember last year it was so annoying having to wait and them trying to slow the game down. It’s annoying, but it’s part of the game. To tell you the truth I see that as a sign of respect, really. Teams that don’t think they can play up and down with us are going to do whatever they can to try and beat us. Last year they got us twice. It’s a tough place to play, a tough environment but we’re looking forward to it.