By John Fanta, @John_Fanta.
Expect the unexpected.
That’s what March Madness is all about, and Sunday’s All-SEC East Regional Final carries that storyline with it as South Carolina takes on Florida.
Why is this unexpected? Yes, it’s a 4-seed and a 7-seed, but if you look at these teams’ results heading into the Big Dance, you would have never guessed that they both would be included in the Elite Eight.
Both the Gamecocks and Gators struggled entering the tournament, with UF losing starting center John Egbunu for the rest of the year with a torn ACL and dropping three of its final four games. Like the Gators, the Gamecocks also dropped their first SEC Tournament game and fell in four of their final six contests leading up to the Big Dance.
So, what’s been the biggest thing that’s changed for both teams in the tournament?
For the defensively-oriented Gamecocks, it’s actually been their scoring that’s been on a major upswing. Frank Martin’s team had reached 70 points just once in their final six games ahead of the Big Dance, and that effort came in a 75-70 defeat to Ole Miss on March 4. Through three March Madness games, the Gamecocks have exploded for an average of 84.6 points.
Even though SC has impressed on that end, Martin says that it still comes back to the Gamecocks’ defense, which is 30th nationally and second in the SEC in points allowed at 64.8.
“We don’t get out of the way,” said Martin of his defense. “We don’t let you push us. We’re constantly rotating, constantly talking.”
For a Gators team that has won its last two over a pair of the toughest squads in America in Virgnia and Wisconsin, success has started and ended with their mentality.
Head coach Mike White and his staff have put up a sign on Florida’s locker room.
“It says that you are not promised tomorrow,” the second-year head coach said.
Both teams mirror each other in many ways, and they both have a go-to star that has led them to this point.
For Florida, it’s 6-foot-2 KeVaughn Allen, who went off for 35 points in Friday’s 84-83 overtime win over Wisconsin. For South Carolina, it’s the SEC Player of the Year, Sindarius Thornwell. The 6-foot-5 wing has been a wrecking ball in the Gamecocks’ run, averaging over 25 points per game.
“We know he’s going to get his,” said Florida’s Chris Chiozza. “We just have to try to not let him get everybody else going as well.” There’s no question he’s capable of going off again, which has to be the Gators’ main concern. But, Florida has to worry about the supporting cast of the Gamecocks.
While UF had just KeVaughn Allen in double-figures with an impressive 35 on Friday, the Gamecocks were powered by four who reached double-digits. Not only did they score, but Martin’s team outmuscled a lengthy Baylor Bears team on the glass, 41-36.
While the Gators have made do without Egbunu, they will need their best effort of the tournament on the boards Sunday. Each South Carolina had at least five rebounds in Friday’s win over Baylor, with Chris Silva controlling the paint with 12 points and seven boards.
“They’re playing better,” said White when asked about the Gamecocks. “They’ve been incredible defensively. My guys have been as well. It’s two Top-5 defenses in the country. I think the difference in them, they’re just shooting the ball better.”
Sunday’s showdown, a rubber match of sorts after the Gamecocks and Gators beat each other on their respective home courts this season, tips off at 2:20 pm ET inside The World’s Most Famous Arena. It will be televised on CBS.
Follow @John_Fanta and @NCAAHoopsDigest for coverage from the Mecca.