With the SEC becoming such a dominant league in recent years there aren’t many “easy” games on the schedule but the Gators will have a rare opportunity for a lighter game on Wednesday when they take on the South Carolina Gamecocks.
While the Gators (11-8, 4-3 SEC) will take no opponent lightly, it’s hard not to look at how the season has gone for the Gamecocks (8-11, 1-5 SEC) and think this is a game that is a must-win for the Gators. Things haven’t gone according to plan for the Gators so far this season who see themselves outside of the NCAA Tournament picture as things currently sit (of course, there is a ton of season remaining) and a loss to the Gamecocks would not do them any favors and could be a semi-fatal blow to their resume.
South Carolina has suffered some tough losses to teams outside of the high major power structure so far this season to teams such as Davidson, Colorado State, Furman, George Washington, UAB, and East Carolina, and they have suffered some lopsided losses to Texas A&M (94-53) and Tennessee (85-42) in league play. They do have a pair of quality wins, beating a quality Clemson team early in the year and then taking down Kentucky in Lexington, though those wins are nowhere near close enough to hold up the bad losses they have suffered.
Currently the Gamecocks sit 279th in the NCAA’s NET Rankings, making this a very low-quality quad-4 game for the Gators who can’t afford to suffer such an anchor of a loss. Right now the hole on Florida’s resume is the lack of quality wins–but a strength is that they haven’t taken any poor losses. A loss to South Carolina at home, and suddenly the Gators would find themselves with a whole lot of work to do.
According to KenPom the Gamecocks are ranked 244th in the country, and projects a 17-point win for the home Gators.
Is there such a thing as a must-win game in January? Potentially not–but the Gators would be doing themselves a huge favor by taking care of this game.
South Carolina is in their first season under Lamont Paris who came following a successful run at Chattanooga. Joining him is a former Gator great–point guard Eddie Shannon who was an assistant under Paris who was able to follow him to South Carolina. Coach Paris talked about Shannon’s experience as an SEC player making it a no-brainer to bring him along, while also talking about Shannon’s ability as a developer of talent. As a player, Shannon helped lay the building blocks of a tremendous coaching tenure from Billy Donovan who will always speak of the intelligence Shannon showed as a player at Florida. This will be Shannon’s first time returning to Gainesville as the coach of an opposing team, and he deserves a warm welcome for all he did for Florida basketball.
Paris and his staff inherited a South Carolina team that finished 9th in the SEC last season but lost several of the key pieces from that squad to graduation and the portal. This made for a difficult rebuilding job and in year one he hasn’t exactly been able to bring in elite SEC-level talent, making for a bit of growing pains.
While the overall roster might lack talent, the Gamecocks are led by one player who certainly doesn’t lack for it–GG Jackson. Jackson was the 6th rated player in the 2022 class, and he chose to stay in his home state to play for the Gamecocks and play a huge role as a freshman. The 6’9” forward is averaging 16 points and 7 rebounds per game, a bright spot on a team that has a lot of players playing bigger minutes and larger roles than they have in recent seasons. Jackson has been known as an excellent physical specimen with tons of physical ability but he wasn’t known as an offensive initiator–and part of the reason he went to South Carolina was to be able to become a primary option and work on those skills. There have been some growing pains in that area but he has been able to create shots at a level a lot of draft analysts weren’t expecting and has helped his draft stock with his expanded skill set. While his athleticism and size will make for some huge defensive plays at times he still is a freshman–and there are some issues he’s having on that end that opponents have been exploiting and the Gators will almost certainly look to attack him as well.
Meechie Johnson is another player to be aware of, South Carolina’s primary ball handler who looks to balance the floor and get GG Jackson shots where he can be effective. Johnson started his career at Ohio State where he was mostly a bench player and came to South Carolina to be a starter and he has been effective as a distributor and occasional scorer, averaging an effective 12 points, 4 assists, and 4 rebounds per game.
One of the reasons the Gamecocks have struggled so far is the lack of shooting to provide space for Jackson and Johnson to operate. The Gamecocks are 298th in the country in three-point efficiency and outside of one excellent gunner (Chico Carter, 46% from deep) there aren’t a lot of threats that draw defenders to the outside and give Jackson the opportunity to operate around the rim without double teams. South Carolina is 240th in the country in adjusted offensive efficiency and considering how well the Gators have played defensively in recent weeks, this could be a tough game for the Gamecocks to try and find their offensive rhythm.
Unfortunately, the defensive side of the ball hasn’t been kind to the Gamecocks either as they sit 244th in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency. South Carolina doesn’t have great athleticism, and despite having several juniors on the roster many of those players haven’t actually played a lot of minutes in their careers and their inexperience hurts them on the defensive end. Coach Paris has mixed in some different defensive looks to try and find something that will work, and he’ll likely try some different defenses against the Gators to catch them off balance.
South Carolina is a team focused on development with nothing to lose, and the Gators are a team that can’t afford to take a quad-4 loss right now, making this game Florida will have to be careful with.
This game takes place January 25th at 7 PM ET and will be televised on ESPN 2.