The Gators’ quest for their first conference win of the season hits the road on Saturday when they take on South Carolina.
While the Gamecocks (10-5, 1-2 SEC) are considered one of the bottom-feeders in the SEC – they’ve lost to Princeton and Coastal Carolina and lost two conference games by a combined 35 points – this could be a tough matchup for a Florida team that is admittedly not playing with a ton of confidence and is trying to rediscover itself on the fly.
You know how those Big 12 football games where there’s about 800 yards of passing and 90 points are sometimes referred to as “basketball on grass”? Well, this game should be the opposite of that. South Carolina coach Frank Martin loves to turn his basketball games into extremely physical, defensive-oriented affairs with very little flow to them.
It might not always make for great television, but he has used this style of play to go 6-3 against Mike White’s Gators.
The Gamecocks are only allowing their opponents to make 38.7 percent of their shots (third in the SEC), and they rank 33rd in KenPom.com’s defensive efficiency metric. They’re also the third best team in the SEC at blocking shots (5.27 per game), and they’re fifth in rebounding margin.
“They turn you over, of course,” White said. “They’re going to change defenses occasionally. Their man defense, I want to say it was last year, [Martin] made some adjustments to it where it’s a little bit different than it was five years ago. But they’re always going to be one of the better rebounding teams and defensive teams in our league. They’re always going to be very, very sound and disciplined, take good shots offensively. They’re going to be physically tough; they’re going to be mentally tough.
South Carolina isn’t very good at the offensive end, as they rank just ninth in the league in field goal percentage (44 percent) and 10th in scoring. KenPom has them ranked a whopping 207th in offensive efficiency. That’s 151 spots below a Florida team that’s had its own problems with putting the ball in the basket.
They do play at the 33rd-highest tempo, though. That, combined with their proficiency on defense and the glass, makes this an effort game for the Gators. If they play hard for all 40 minutes and have even an average day offensively, they’ll win. If they allow South Carolina to push them around for any length of time, they could be looking at the program’s first 0-4 start to conference play since 1951.
Nobody jumps off of the stat sheet for the Gamecocks. Their leading scorer, guard Erik Stevenson, is averaging just 11.3 points and 2.6 assists and is shooting 36.3 percent from the field. His backcourt mate, James Reese, is their only other player averaging double figures in scoring at 10.2. Guard Jermaine Cousinard is just below that mark at 9.9 points per game.
Nobody on the team is averaging more than six rebounds per game.
While they might not have one or two star players, they try to make up for it with depth. They have 13 players who are averaging more than 10 minutes per game, six who are averaging more than seven points per game and seven who are averaging more than seven rebounds per game.
“Frank’s always played pretty deep, and this team is no different,” White said. “One of the deepest teams in our league. They’re really good. I think they’re a very good team that’s got a chance to win a number of games in this league.
“They’ve got a bunch of guys that they can throw out there that are productive in a lot of ways. [Wildens] Leveque’s having a great year, of course. In Reese and Stevenson, they’ve got some high-level shot-makers. Cousinard, of course, a veteran who’s been at it for a while.”
While following the scouting report and executing their offensive sets is important as always, this game is about the Gators changing their mindset more than anything else. They’re shooting just 29.6 percent from three over their last five games, and they went just 11-for-22 from the free throw line in the loss to LSU on Wednesday. They also had some issues with getting critical stops when they needed them toward the end of their three conference games.
The Gators (9-6, 0-3) are more talented than what they’ve shown in league play so far. Now they’ve got to find a way to turn the corner and start piling up some wins.
“We just have not found that hurdle that we’ve jumped to gain some momentum and gain some mojo back,” White said. “I know it’ll come. When? I don’t know, but I’ve seen this team be a really good team. This is not a team that’s not working. It’s not a team that doesn’t care. We got after it [on Friday]. Guys are locked into what we’re doing. These guys like each other. We’ll be kicking them out of this lunchroom here in a little bit because, after they down their burgers, they’ll be wanting to hang out with each other for a while. We’ve got a lot of good things going.
“Nobody’s going to give you confidence. You’ve got to take it. You’ve got to take it yourself.”