Gators Search For First SEC Win At South Carolina

After beginning SEC play 0-3, their worst start in 40 years, the Gators (9-6, 0-3) will get a slightly easier opponent in the South Carolina Gamecocks (10-5, 1-2). Not to make any excuses for Florida’s 0-3 start, three games where they didn’t put together 40 minutes of good basketball in any of them, but they were three games against teams projected to finish at the top of the SEC standings. South Carolina is definitely not in the same boat, a team that in recent years has regularly been picked to finish near the bottom of the league. Of course, head coach Frank Martin has usually been able to outperform expectations slightly, but it’s still a team that hasn’t been to the NCAA Tournament since their run to the Final Four in 2017 as a 7-seed.


South Carolina’s non-conference schedule saw them get stung a couple of times by opponents they probably should have been able to take care of. Princeton was able to outlast the Gamecocks in a 66-62 grind-it-out game, and Coastal Carolina was able to inexplicably blow them out 80-56. 

In SEC play the Gamecocks have performed to expectation, suffering double digit losses to Auburn and Tennessee while narrowly edging out Vanderbilt for their first win.


Despite the fact that the South Carolina program is in a bit of a downturn, the Gators can’t exactly afford to take the Gamecocks lightly. Last season saw the Gamecocks struggle mightily all season long, but they came into Gainesville and beat the Gators 72-66.


They went on to lose 9 of their last 10 games to end the season.


So, no matter how poorly the Gamecocks seem to be playing, they have shown they can take care of business against the Gators. With Florida on a three-game losing streak the Gamecocks could be seeing blood, and if they were able to beat the Gators the heat is going to be really cranked up in Gainesville. Given Florida’s less than stellar non-conference performance featuring an albatross loss to Texas Southern the Gators don’t really have much room on their resume to take another bad loss. Currently they’re probably on the outside looking in of the NCAA Tournament picture and another bad resume loss without getting remedied by some huge wins could be a dagger.


Currently South Carolina is 103rd in the NET and since the game will be played in Columbia this will be a quadrant-2 opportunity for the Gators. That means this game will, in some ways, be equally as valuable as playing some of the better SEC teams in Gainesville which will also be technically Q-2 games, so Florida has a chance to artificially boost their numbers with a win Saturday.


Frank Martin has a pretty well established culture at South Carolina and this team is no different–it’s rugged, tough-nosed, defensive basketball. The Gamecocks aren’t looking to sit back or passively switch or give up anything easy–they play aggressively and try to make it difficult for their opponents to run offense. They’ll trap a bit, they’ll ice ball screens, they’ll overplay to keep the ball on one side of the floor–just whatever it takes to make the offense a bit more uncomfortable. Despite some overall troubles to their season the Gamecocks are 33rd in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency so they have been effective on that end. 


Looking at what has made their defense successful, it’s all about taking away high-value shots near the rim. Teams have struggled to get the ball in the paint against South Carolina due to their frantic help in the gaps on drives, and if they do get there they’re met by Wildens Leveque or Josh Gray, wide-bodied, physical centers that get vertical and bounce driving players off their path to the rim. Longtime Gamecock Keyshawn Bryant has also been an outstanding shot blocker, and while only 6’6” and a wing he has great anticipation to rotate over to the ball and swat it away, something that is made easier by the defensive scheme of Frank Martin that can make driving lanes predictable and help defense easier. 


Something the Gamecocks have started to do more in recent years is play 2-3 zone and teams have been seeing it a lot in early SEC play. The zone is a change of pace from South Carolina’s aggressive man to man defense and it still plays into their core defensive principals–taking away the paint as much as possible. Martin’s backcourt is also a bit less long and athletic than some of the recent teams he has had, so the zone also offers a bit of protection against their lateral limitations.


One thing that South Carolina does that could give the Gators issues is their pick and roll coverage. They play aggressive drop pick and roll coverage, something the Gators haven’t seen much this year and something that has given them issues in previous years. In the drop, South Carolina lowers the big man guarding the screener to protect the paint while the player guarding the ball chases overtop of the screen to eliminate the chance at a pull up three. The other players on the floor stay connected to shooters, making it so that the offense is now all about the player with the ball creating for himself. The Gators, lacking an elite scoring guard, could definitely get slowed down by this style of defense. 


Offensively, things don’t come quite as easily to the Gamecocks. Frank Martin has had a reputation as someone who excels on the defensive end as struggles offensively but truthfully it’s not an opinion I agree with. The Gamecocks have always run a pretty good offense–but they rarely have talented offensive players. Martin values toughness and defensive ability over everything in recruiting, and as we have seen, oftentimes those players aren’t particularly talented offensively. Martin will scheme up a lot of good actions to free up players for shots but they haven’t had the best talent for making those attempts and if teams take away the set plays they don’t have individual creators who can create a bucket out of nothing. 


Because of the half court offensive limitations that the Gamecocks have often had they have always been a transition heavy team and this year’s squad is no different. 21% of South Carolina’s total offense has come in transition and it has been a much more efficient offense for them than their half court possessions, so it’s a real key to their ability to put points on the board. You’ll see pretty much every time down the floor South Carolina’s center will try to seal for a post up, and if it’s not there a wide pindown will occur for a guard. They do this like clockwork, and it’s a big part of their offense. 

Usually, that pindown is for South Carolina’s leading scorer, veteran guard Erik Stevenson. Stevenson started his career at Wichita State before transferring to Washington and now ending up at South Carolina. He’s a career 29% three-point shooter so he hasn’t been great from behind the arc but he has some nice touch in the midrange and can create space for a pull up jumper. The wide pindown is perfect for his skill set to get him attacking in the midrange and it’s something that Florida will need to be aware of as it’s one of the best weapons in South Carolina’s arsenal.


For the Gators the key to this game will be the same as it has been for a lot of their recent games–trying to figure out how to score. When you’re struggling to put the ball in the hoop South Carolina isn’t the team you want to see, but luckily the Gamecocks struggle offensively which might give the Gators their chance to figure some things out. A loss Saturday would be disastrous for the Gators so they’ll need to keep their composure and come with some new sets that could attack South Carolina’s defense whether in man or zone.


This game is on January 15th at 1 PM ET and will be televised on SEC Network.


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.