Although he constantly stays on his team about living in the moment, Billy Donovan is hoping the memory of what happened against Auburn a couple of weeks ago hasn’t been erased when #1-ranked Florida (27-2, 16-0 SEC) travels to Columbia to face a South Carolina (11-18, 4-12 SEC) team fresh off a stunning upset win over Kentucky. Although the Gamecocks’ win over Kentucky certainly qualifies as an attention grabber, Donovan would rather the Gators remember the Auburn game, a close call at the O-Dome that wasn’t decided until the final 30 seconds of the game.
South Carolina is a much-improved team from the one the Gators beat in their Southeastern Conference opener back on January 8. All four SEC wins for the Gamecocks have come at Colonial Life Arena. Of their 12 SEC losses, seven were games decided by eight or fewer points.
“Outside of a game here and there South Carolina in a lot of ways have given themselves a chance to win and nothing could be clearer than what happened on Saturday,” Donovan said at his Monday morning press conference. “They were right there and found a way to close out and win.”
South Carolina found a way to win. Two weeks ago against Auburn, the Gators got a gift.
“I’m always talking to our guys hopefully what would be even the bigger lesson for our basketball team would be the fact that we played Auburn at home after coming off of two road games and were as clearly outplayed,” Donovan said. “If it wasn’t for a Michael Frazier three that gave us a one-point lead with 30 seconds to go, maybe an ill-advised foul on a missed free throw that allowed Patric to put us up three and a pass that went out of bounds – stuff that we had no control over … clearly for about 39 minutes and 30 seconds we were outplayed. So I hope that’s a bigger message for our team in terms of going on the road and playing against a team like South Carolina that our guys can learn through their own experiences.”
Donovan makes a legitimate point. South Carolina is figuring out how to win. Because Auburn lacked the experience of knowing how to win tight games, the Tigers let one slip away and the Gators escaped. Therefore, remember what almost happened against Auburn and take South Carolina very, very seriously.
Since the Gators played South Carolina in early January, the Gamecocks have morphed into a more better and more physical defensive team.
“They’re doing a lot more defensively,” Donovan said. “They’re playing box-and-one, they’re playing triangle-and-two, they’re playing zone, they’re playing zone, they’re playing man, they’re playing three-quarter court and they’re playing full court pressing. We’re going to have to deal with a lot of changing defenses.”
When the two teams met earlier, Villanova transfer Tyrone Johnson was the leading scorer but he was lost for the season when he broke his foot. That opened the door for senior Brenton Williams to emerge as an offensive force. Williams is average 15.0 per game but he has scored at least 23 points in six of the last 11 games. Williams leads the nation in free throw shooting at 95.3%.
“He plays with a really good motor,” Donovan said. “He’s shooting the ball extremely well; he’s right around 44% from the 3-point line. He can do it a lot of different ways. (South Carolina coach) Frank (Martin) puts him in situations in the half court where he’s using a lot of different screens and a lot of different ways. You’ve got to obviously really do a good job.”
Sindarius Thornwell has evolved into one of the SEC’s top freshmen this season, improving his scoring average to 13.5 per game. Although he’s only 6-5, sophomore Michael Carerra is South Carolina’s leading rebounder (5.8 per game).
Donovan believes the Gamecocks have become a far better offensive team in the last two months.
“This is a team that I think offensively continues to execute better and better,” Donovan said. “They understand where shots are coming from, guys understand their roles. I think Frank’s teams always play to an identity that I think he wants them to play to they’re gonna be aggressive on defense, they’re gonna be extremely physical at the basket, they’re gonna chase balls at the backboard, they’re gonna do a lot of those things and they’re gonna do ‘em as well as anybody.”
GAME NOTES: The Gators are two wins away from SEC history. No SEC team has ever gone through an 18-game conference schedule undefeated … The Gators are a win away from becoming just the fourth team in SEC history to win 17 league games … Florida is 13-2 in games decided by nine or fewer points. The Gators were 0-6 in close games last year … South Carolina was fined $25,000 by the SEC league office because its students stormed the floor of Colonial Life Arena after the win over Kentucky … South Carolina coach Frank Martin and Donovan go back many years. Martin was the head coach of former Gators Brent Wright and Udonis Haslem … Patric Young, who is in 35th place on Florida’s all-time scoring list, is 11 points away from cracking 1,200 points for his career … DeVon Walker has hit eight of his last 14 3-point shots coming off the bench … In his last six games, Scottie Wilbekin has handed out 28 assists and has turned the ball over only nine times … In his last two games, Dorian Finney-Smith has scored 35 points off the bench while hitting 7-14 from the 3-point line.
PROBABLE STARTING LINEUPS
FLORIDA (27-2, 16-0 SEC): Will Yeguete (6-8, 230, SR); Casey Prather (6-6, 212, SR); Patric Young (6-9, 240, SR); Scottie Wilbekin (6-2, 176, SR); Michael Frazier (6-4, 199, SO)
SOUTH CAROLINA (11-18, 4-12 SEC): Brenton Williams (5-11, 172, SR); Mindaugas Kacinas (6-7, 210, SO); Sindarius Thornwell (6-5, 205, FR); Michael Carrera (6-5, 214, SO); Denetrius Henry (6-9 215, FR)