Five things to know about Kentucky basketball’s next opponent, the South Carolina Gamecocks:
1. After a Final Four trip, the Gamecocks have fallen back to earth
Led by Sindarius Thornwell, Frank Martin’s team executed a memorable 2017 NCAA Tournament run, shocking Duke in the Sweet 16, then squeaking past fellow SEC member Florida to reach the Final Four before Gonzaga ended the Gamecocks’ dream season.
With Thornwell now playing for pay with the NBA’s Los Angeles Clippers, South Carolina has suffered the inevitable letdown. The Gamecocks are 11-6 overall and 2-3 in the SEC heading into the Super Tuesday clash with Kentucky. They had lost three of their last four before beating Georgia 64-57 in Athens on Saturday.
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The win over Georgia, plus the addition of former Louisville signee Brian Bowen and the suspended Rakym Felder to practice — neither will play this year — has lifted Martin’s spirits.
“I think we had some great practices leading up to the Georgia game, which we were able to pull through,” said the coach. “Rah and Brian, the addition of them to practice, just helps all of us get better each and every day.”
2. South Carolina still plays a physical style of basketball
As UK assistant coach Kenny Payne said Monday, the Gamecocks will try to rough up the Cats. That’s the way Martin’s teams play. They put their bodies on you under the glass, in the passing lanes, on offensive schemes.
“To me, I call it South Carolina basketball,” said forward Chris Silva after the win in Athens.
“We anticipated it would be a slugfest and when you have a game like that you have to rebound and make free throws and we didn’t do that,” said Georgia Coach Mark Fox.
South Carolina has had struggles shooting the ball (more on that later), but the Gamecocks are still excellent on defense. Ken Pomeroy’s numbers rank South Carolina 69th in overall efficiency, but 17th nationally in defensive efficiency.
3. South Carolina has had trouble shooting the basketball
Even in the victory at Georgia, South Carolina shot 27.1 percent. And still won the basketball game. According to ESPN, that was the lowest shooting percentage of a Division I basketball team in a win since St. Francis of Brooklyn shot 26.6 percent in beating LIU Brooklyn on Feb. 26, 2015. It was South Carolina’s lowest shooting percentage in Martin’s six seasons as coach.
It was not unusual, however. Carolina has shot below 40 percent in each of its five SEC games. It shot 37.9 percent in a 74-69 loss at Ole Miss. It shot 38.6 percent in a 79-68 loss to Missouri. It shot 38.9 percent in a 71-60 win over visiting Vanderbilt. It shot 36 percent in a 76-62 loss at Alabama.
As a team for the season, the Gamecocks are shooting 41 percent, slightly below the 41.9 Vanderbilt was shooting before its 74-67 loss to visiting Kentucky last Saturday. As NCAA rankings go, South Carolina is currently 322nd out of the 351 Division I teams in field goal percentage. And Kenpom has Carolina ranked 171st in adjusted offensive efficiency.
4. Chris Silva is South Carolina’s best player
The 6-foot-9 junior forward from Libreville, Gabon, in Central Africa leads the Gamecocks in scoring at 14.2 points and 7.9 rebounds per game. He’s shooting 48.9 percent from the floor and 76.4 percent from the free throw line.
Silva has four double-doubles on the season — 10 points and 10 rebounds vs. Western Michigan; 26 and 10 at Florida International; 19 and 10 vs. Wyoming; 21 and 13 at Ole Miss.
He made nine of 15 shots on the way to a season-high 27 points in the win over Vanderbilt. He scored 14 points, grabbed nine rebounds, made four assists and blocked two shots in the win at Georgia.
Martin has seen improvement from Frank Booker, a 6-3 graduate transfer who played for Florida Atlantic last year after spending his first two years at Oklahoma. Booker scored 17 points and grabbed seven rebounds in the win at Georgia. His season high was 21 points in the SEC opener at Ole Miss.
5. Frank Martin is still the lovable Frank Martin
The fiery 51-year-old Martin went 117-54 in five seasons after replacing former boss Bob Huggins at Kansas State. He is now 107-80 at South Carolina, going 14-18, 14-20, 17-16, 25-9, 26-11 and 11-6 this season. His teams have had a 40-55 SEC record, but 23-13 over the last two seasons.
Earlier this season, Martin got into a little controversy when he appeared to blame his school’s marketing department for the disappointing attendance at home games. He quickly made amends.
And Martin raised some eyebrows by taking Bowen, the former Louisville Cardinal whose family is allegedly involved in the FBI investigation that caused U of L basketball coach Rick Pitino and athletic director Tom Jurich to both lose their jobs.
“Brian is an exceptional young man and a basketball player with a very high IQ for the game,” said Martin in a statement released by the school upon Bowen’s enrollment. “He brings a high-level skill set to the court and will make an immediate impact on our team with him joining us on the practice courts this week. He is a strong, athletic small forward, who can really shoot the ball and rebound.
“Brian deserves a fresh start and I would like to thank our university administration, President (Harris) Pastides, our Board of Trustees and Ray Tanner for their hard work and guidance in helping Brian become a member of our Gamecock family.”
Said Tanner, ““What better coach is there to help Brian grow as a student-athlete and more importantly as a young man than Frank Martin and his staff? Over the coming months, we will work diligently with the NCAA through our compliance office to ensure that Brian is eligible for competition.”
Kentucky at South Carolina
When: Tuesday, 9 p.m.
Where: Colonial Life Arena in Columbia, S.C.
TV: ESPN with Joe Tessitore, Sean Farnham and Laura Rutledge
Radio: UK Network with Tom Leach and Mike Pratt
South Carolina men’s basketball