Just like we all expected, the South Carolina Gamecocks and the Florida Gators are in the Elite Eight. This has been a remarkable run for the Gamecocks, who have knocked off Marquette, Duke, and Baylor. Florida was the benefactor of Wisconsin’s upset over Villanova in the second round, but the Gators have still knocked off Virginia and Wisconsin to get to the regional finals at Madison Square Garden. The Gators are favored to push into the Final Four in this SEC rematch on Sunday afternoon with a 2:20 p.m. tip in New York City. The Gators are favored by three points with a total in the mid-130s.
South Carolina had such an interesting NCAA Tournament resume. The Gamecocks started extremely hot, much like the previous season, but had done enough to be safely in the field when things took a turn late in the year. This is a Gamecocks team that lost five of its last seven games and got beat by 11 against Alabama in the first round of the SEC Conference Tournament. This is also a South Carolina team that has two 20-point wins in the NCAA Tournament and beat the pre-tournament favorite Duke Blue Devils in the second round. South Carolina is now 25-10 on the season. They are 3-0 ATS in the NCAA Tournament.
Florida was clearly the second-best team in the SEC throughout the season, but the conference was viewed as the weakest of the major conferences and took its fair share of abuse from the pundits. Three of the last eight teams standing are from the SEC and one of them is guaranteed to go to the Final Four. Like South Carolina, Florida struggled going into the tournament as well. The Gators lost three of their last four games, including two to a Vanderbilt team that couldn’t get out of the first round. Say what you will about how fortunate Florida got that their second round matchup was a Virginia team with serious offensive deficiencies and that their Sweet 16 matchup was against a #8 seed. Wisconsin didn’t play like a #8 seed and was thoroughly underseeded by the Selection Committee.
This was the first Sweet 16 appearance for South Carolina since 1973. There were only 25 teams in the field back then and that was the last time that the Gamecocks won an NCAA Tournament game. They had been 0-5 up until this year. The Gamecocks lost in 1997 as a #2 seed to Coppin State by 13 and in 1998 as a #3 seed to Richmond. Frank Martin has the team in its first Elite Eight and everything from this point forward would keep rewriting the school’s basketball history. After playing a couple of high-scoring affairs, the Gamecocks got back to what they do best against Baylor. Their relentless defensive pursuit led to a 15-point halftime lead and the Gamecocks never let up on the gas pedal. Baylor shot 30.4 percent from the floor and 3-of-13 from 13. The unfamiliar and challenging backdrop of Madison Square Garden may have played a minor role, but South Carolina shot 46 percent and 40 percent from deep, so it was a lot more than that.
A blowout at this stage of the game is huge. While Florida went to overtime in an emotionally-draining game against Wisconsin, South Carolina was able to spread playing time around a bit in the second half. Sindarius Thornwell had 24 points and six rebounds in 34 minutes of action. PJ Dozier got to sit and observe for a good chunk of the game with his 12 points and six rebounds. Duane Notice had 11 points on 4-of-6 shooting in 34 minutes. Maik Kotsar was in foul trouble and eventually fouled out, but he was limited to 23 minutes. Adrenaline can help these players overcome a lot and they’re all young guys, but there’s something to be said about being able to put a game in cruise control. It seems like teams should realize by now that they can just lock in on Thornwell and make somebody else beat them, as Thornwell averages 21.4 points per game, but he’s had 29, 24, and 24 in three NCAA Tournament games.
One of the interesting wrinkles about this game is that there doesn’t need to be a whole lot of preparation over the off day. The Gamecocks and Gators have already played twice this season. Normally, coaches are scrambling to make adjustments and put game plans together, but these two teams already know all about each other. That would have been an interesting dynamic because Frank Martin has a lot more experience than Mike White, but the playing field on the coaching side is leveled a bit because both teams already have some good scouting reports on each other. South Carolina won 57-53 at home and Florida won 81-66 at home, so it is a challenge to figure out how things will go in a neutral setting. It’s also tough to figure out how Florida will respond to Chris Chiozza’s buzzer-beater three that sent the Gators to the next round. Both teams blew leads in the deciding minutes and Florida had to feel like the game was won in regulation.
KeVaughn Allen finally snapped out of it for Florida. After a couple of lackluster performances in the first two rounds, Allen went off for 35 points against Wisconsin. Nobody else for Florida was in double figures. Allen was 11-of-24 from the field and 4-of-12 from deep. He’s been Florida’s leading scorer all season, but had just 11 points in the first two games of the NCAA Tournament on 3-of-21 shooting. Chris Chiozza hit one three-pointer on Friday night, but it won the game. Canyon Barry wasn’t much of a factor with just 16 minutes played. The Gators will be in search of more balance, but it was great to see Allen go off, especially in such a tough setting for shooters. Allen only played 18 minutes in the first game against South Carolina with one point. He had 26, 13 from the free throw line, in the rematch in Gainesville.
College Basketball Free Pick: South Carolina Gamecocks +3
The Gamecocks should be able to keep this one close and things should really tighten up in a spot like this. Familiarity is a good thing for the under in this game as well, as neither team is going to push the pace and both squads know each other’s strengths and weaknesses. With Florida coming off of such an emotional game and South Carolina getting the chance to rest easy, we’ll have to see if there’s any sort of hangover effect. The Gamecocks are riding a nice wave right now and have the best player in the floor in Sindarius Thornwell, so we’ll take the shot here.