Previewing Florida Versus South Carolina

Following Saturday’s miracle comeback against Alabama the Gators have a bit of a difficult situation on their hands preparing to take on the Frank Martin coached South Carolina Gamecocks on short rest, something that can be a difficult task considering the complicated actions they often run offensively.

Coming down from the emotional high of winning a double-overtime thriller at home to then head on the road to Columbia to play in front of a hostile crowd will be another test, one that Mike White will have to have his guys prepared for.

The Gators are yet to win a true road game this season and this could be a great opportunity for them to get their first. South Carolina has some nice pieces and some good continuity from last season but currently sit at 123rd in the NET, suggesting the Gators should be the favorites despite being on the road.

Here is what you need to know entering Tuesday’s contest.

Season To Date/The Wildest Two Game Turnaround You Might Ever Hear About

The Gamecocks are currently 8-5 with one of their best wins coming against in-state rival Clemson on the road.

However, when it comes to their best win and their worst loss, there is a story that seems like it could happen to only South Carolina.

Rewind to two weeks ago. The Gamecocks went on the road to play defending National Champion Virginia. Now, this definitely isn’t the same team that just won it all but they are still a talented group that are the best defensive team in the country by whatever measurable you want to use.

South Carolina went into town and stomped them 70-59. Scoring 70 points on Virginia is one of the hardest things to do in college basketball and South Carolina, despite being 159th in the country in adjusted offensive efficiency, went into Virginia and did it. In getting this win South Carolina instantly made noise as a team that could be underrated in the SEC and a team that could go on a bit of a run in March. If you can score 70 on Virginia you can score on just about anyone so this looked to be a defining win.

After beating the Cavaliers, South Carolina welcomed Stetson into their home building. Stetson is 320th in KenPom and 316th in the NET. They have lost to Purdue Fort Wayne, Iona, Virginia Military Institute, UNC Asheville, Florida International, Lipscomb, and Longwood. They also just barely edged out a one-possession win over Kennesaw State, a team with the illustrious honor of holding the last-place ranking in KenPom for a few days this week.

Coming off a win on the road at Virginia this should be a slaughter for the Gamecocks, right?

Nope. The Stetson Hatters came into Columbia and beat the Gamecocks. Not only did they beat them, but they controlled the game winning 63-56.

There probably won’t be a two-game turnaround as crazy as this in college basketball this year with a team beating Virginia on the road and then losing to Stetson at home. It shows the crazy different in possibilities of what you could get from South Carolina and the Gators will have to be ready for one of the most enigmatic teams in college hoops.

The South Carolina Myth

When people talk about South Carolina basketball under Frank Martin there are a few buzzwords that normally come up. Tough, physical, defensive, methodical, grinding.

A few of those are definitely accurate, but the thought out there that South Carolina is a slow-paced, grinding team is entirely inaccurate.

The Gamecocks are currently one of the fastest teams in the country at 34rd in average possession length. A year ago they were 25th and years prior have seen 94th and 63rd. Additionally, 23.5% of their shot attempts come in transition, a number that’s even higher than Alabama’s 21.5% and we just saw against the Gators how much they ran.

The myth that South Carolina plays slow and ploddingly, while not true now, is rooted in fact as when Frank Martin first went to the Gamecocks they played extremely slow with teams in the bottom 200s of average possession length. Clearly he has changed his philosophy and what we’ve seen in the last 5 years is a team that really wants to push it.

This may be favorable for the Gators as it relates to their short time of preparing for the Gamecocks after their spirited battle with Alabama as there are a lot of similarities in the way they play. Both Alabama and South Carolina look to push in transition after makes and misses and the transition defense Florida was focused on for Alabama will translate against South Carolina. South Carolina also pressures defensively in man in a similar fashion to Alabama as both teams want to make it difficult for their opponent to run offense. South Carolina’s pressure is the greater of the two opponents as they really sell out in denying one pass away and instead try to force the ball handler to go one-on-one or make a difficult skip pass. Because of the defensive pressure against Alabama the Gators had to rely a lot on their ball screen offense and that’s likely going to be the case again when they play South Carolina.

Player To Watch

Leading the way offensively for the Gamecocks averaging 15.5 points (their only double digit scorer), 2.4 assists, 3.1 rebounds, and 1.3 steals is 6’6” guard AJ Lawson. A former 4-star recruit with some NBA buzz he’s got the frame of a pro guard and a silkiness in his game similar to fellow Canadians and former high school teammates of Lawson’s Shair Gilgeous-Alexander and Nickeil Alexander-Walker.

Lawson provides the Gamecocks with something that isn’t normally on Frank Martin’s rosters and that’s one-on-one scoring ability. Martin always recruits players with a particular mindset and work ethic, and unfortunately the toughness he requires doesn’t always make for the most talented scorers. Now with Lawson he has a guard with electricity, someone who can make space with the dribble and then shoot over anyone with his long 6’6” frame.

Where the Gators have to be most aware of Lawson is in screen and roll where he is tough to guard. Since he is so long he gets major distance on his crossover, which in a screen and roll setting means he can look to be running off the screen one way only at the last minute to cross over 7 feet to the other direction to deny the screen and mix up a defense that wasn’t expecting it. Once he attacks and gets into the paint he’s a threat to pull up off the dribble where no one is going to be able to block his shot. If he gets all the way to the hoop there isn’t much you can do either because his length allows him to make all kinds of creative finishes around the rim shot blockers can’t get to.

In terms of South Carolina’s transition attack Lawson is also the most important player. His footwork when driving to the rim makes him incredibly difficult to guard as a euro-step or pro hop from him covers tons of space that you aren’t used to seeing from a guard and finding a way to stop that while running backwards is a challenge for any defender. In transition the Gators will want the ball in anyone’s hands but him and if they can deny him the ball early their transition defense will be in much better shape.

Preparing For Contact

There are no easy buckets when you go up against South Carolina and they are willing to give some hard fouls before giving up a layup. This is evidenced by the fact they are 344th nationally in free throws allowed and you know they’re going to play hard at home against the Gators. With the game being at South Carolina you can’t be sure exactly what the officiating will be like but the Gators will have to be ready for contact on every play. Refs are never going to call every foul and the Gamecocks have always taken advantage of that concept being extremely physical on and away from the ball knowing the refs won’t foul out 13 players on a team.

The player who is likely to get the brunt of the South Carolina foul fest is Kerry Blackshear Jr. who the Gators will be trying to feature. The Gamecocks play surprisingly smaller than what you’re used to seeing from them and their could be some favorable matchups for Florida’s star big when Maik Kotsar leaves the game and 6’7” Alanzo Frink enters. He’s going to have to show some toughness on the inside however because you know fouls are coming.

Florida is near the middle of the pack nationally in free throw shooting at 71.3% (143rd) but what has been really big is the 84.4% being shot by Blackshear on heavy volume. He’s the Gator that gets to the line most so having him convert is massive. Putting together two solid free throw shooting seasons at Virginia Tech in the 74% range, his 84.4% with the Gators is another step up and it’s given Florida some valuable points.

Matchup Outlook

South Carolina has given Florida some tough games in recent history, primarily due to the way they have pounded the ball inside with bigger, more physical frontcourt players than the Gators could roll out. Most of the frontcourt weapons are gone for the Gamecocks and Florida now sports a revitalized post rotation so it doesn’t look like the frontcourt battle is going to swing in South Carolina’s direction.

Even though Florida isn’t outsized in the matchup anymore they are still taking on a team built on toughness that will be playing on it’s home floor and that could be a challenge for the Gators. Florida has had it’s issues this year with teams that have pressured passing lanes and deterred ball reversal and historically South Carolina has done that better than anyone so the Gators could have some difficult possessions offensively.

Bouncing back from an emotional win at home could present an issue and it will be up to Florida’s leaders on the court as well as the coaching staff to keep the team grounded and focused. If that’s the case, the Gators should be able to handle the Gamecocks and get a valuable road win they need.

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.