Florida Looks To Start SEC Play With Win Over South Carolina

There aren’t going to be any easy SEC games for the Gator basketball team this year but speaking in relative terms South Carolina is probably the team you want to kick off your league schedule with, especially at home. Coming into Gainesville at 5-7 on the year (albeit with a difficult schedule) the Gamecocks are still searching for some rhythm but the Gators will be looking to continue the trauma for a team that has lost 4 of their last 5 games with their only win coming against Division-II North Greenville. With the Gators looking to gain some momentum in their season with a win to kick off the SEC schedule here are some of the storylines to keep in mind.

What Has Happened To South Carolina?

It seems like just yesterday when Frank Martin’s Gamecocks knocked off the Gators in the 2017 Elite Eight, a particularly upsetting result for Florida considering their previous matchup in conference play saw the Gators win 81-66. Weirdly enough, the South Carolina program didn’t seem to gain any bump from the Final Four run. Last year saw the team go 17-16 and miss out on any postseason tournament and it looks like unless they can pull off something miraculous this season could go the same way. The influx of talent Coach Martin pulled in for that 2017 run hasn’t been recreated since (it should be noted that 5-star PJ Dozier who played on that team was named in the FBI scandal and may have received some financial incentive to go to Columbia) and we’re seeing teams that play tough, physical basketball but just don’t have the skill to compete at the highest level.

Familiar Foe

For the final time before he graduates the Gators will have to take on big man Chris Silva, a player who has caused them fits with his physicality down low and the savvy to draw fouls at will. Though he hasn’t had a big jump in production from his junior to senior year he’s still averaging 12.5 points and 6.8 rebounds per game and you better believe he’ll be ready to try to stick it to the Gators one more time. Statistically he’s still one of the best in the nation at drawing fouls and a few of his pump fakes and side steps could put Kevarrius Hayes or Keith Stone in foul trouble and could really obscure the Gators’ rotation. They’ll have to try to play him straight up without fouling and live with the results. If Coach White decides to send a double team he should be able to without much consequence as South Carolina is 305th in the country from the 3-point line at a dismal 30.1%.

Player To Watch

The biggest recruiting splash of the last few years for Frank Martin has been guard AJ Lawson, the 147th ranked player in the 2018 class. Instantly asked to shoulder the bulk of the offensive load for the Gamecocks he has stepped up to the challenge with 13.8 points, 4.8 rebounds, and 3.4 assists. Considering the difficulty the Gamecocks have scoring these are impressive numbers and he could provide another matchup challenge for the Gators. Pretty skinny at 6’6” and 160 pounds he isn’t a bulldog when driving to the hoop but he has a great change of direction that can leave defenders in his dust. He’s also been a decent 3-point shooter and he’ll be one of the perimeter players to keep an eye on if the ball goes into Silva on the post and they need to send a double. Being 6’6” also allows him to make a lot of passes that a smaller guard couldn’t and if the Gators fall asleep guarding away from the ball Lawson could look to punish them. That size also helps him generate turnovers and the 1.7 steals per game he averages is big for a South Carolina team that isn’t potent offensively and can use all the extra possessions they can get. He also happens to be Canadian and from a city not too far from where Andrew Nembhard is from so I look forward to the matchup of tall Canadian point guards on Saturday.

Possible X-Factor

I talked about Chris Silva being a tough matchup for the Gators but they’ll also have to watch out for his frontcourt mate Maik Kotsar, another noted Gator killer. I’m not sure what it is about this guy’s game but he has bullied the Gators in every matchup and was a key player in the Gamecocks’ Elite Eight win over the Gators in 2017. He’s a great shot blocker and moves his feet pretty well allowing Frank Martin to play both him (at 6’11”) and Chris Silva (6’9”) at the same time without getting punished defensively. Watch for how the Gators battle these two down low and see who comes out on top.

A Tale Of Two Paces

There is an idea out there that South Carolina plays slow.

That is untrue.

I’ll admit, I too was guilty of thinking Frank Martin liked to slow things down and work the shot clock but this year they are the 23rd fastest team in the nation in terms of time of possession and have been getting shots up quickly most of the time they get the ball. On the flip side, they’ve been doing an excellent job of slowing down their opponents when they have the ball. Opponents are 298th in possession length when taking on the Gamecocks and have been forced to use the shot clock against Frank Martin’s set defenses. The Gators are currently 352nd in opponent possession length (2nd best) so this should be an interesting clash between a defense that slows you down and a South Carolina attack that wants to put up shots quickly.

South Carolina’s Defense

Frank Martin has built a reputation on defense and this year we’re seeing a bit of a different look from him than he’s used in the past. Normally the Gamecocks would pressure passing lanes on the perimeter, denying ball reversal and making it difficult for teams to run offense. This year we’re seeing a bit of the opposite with the team dropping back into the paint, packing things in to protect the rim and conceding some jumpers. Has it worked? Yes and no. Currently 27th in 2-point defense they’ve been great at protecting the hoop like their scheme is built towards. Unfortunately, the three-point shots they’ve been willing to concede have been falling at a high rate and South Carolina’s 3-point defense is 316th in the country. For the Gators, that means they should have chances for Noah Locke, Keith Stone, Andrew Nembhard, and KeVaughn Allen to get threes up. If they’re falling, this game shouldn’t be close. However, if those shots don’t fall for the Gators it could be a major challenge for them to score. They haven’t been good at all at getting the ball in the paint against most teams and that means they should REALLY struggle to get it inside against South Carolina. A lot will hinge on the three-point shot but with the game being in Gainesville let’s hope they get some friendly rims.

Outlook

This is a game the Gators need to win. More accurately it’s actually a loss they need to avoid. This is a South Carolina team that plays tough but just doesn’t have a lot of skilled pieces and with this game being in Gainesville it’s not a game the Gators can afford to drop. My one fear is that if shots don’t fall for the Gators they could be really challenged to score but if they can see some fall early to get the confidence up they should be in good shape. Florida’s frontcourt has been good defensively this season but Silva and Davis are a physical tandem that could give them issues and that will be another potential snag to keep an eye on. Let’s hope the Gators have some of that shooting that had against Butler and can open up SEC play with a win.

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Eric Fawcett
Eric hails from Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. His blend of sports and comedy has landed his words on ESPN, Bleacher Report, CBS Sports, Lindy's and others. He loves zone defenses, the extra pass, and a 30 second shot clock. Growing up in Canada, an American channel showing SEC basketball games was his first exposure to Gator hoops, and he has been hooked ever since. You can follow him on Twitter at @Efawcett7.