Though familiarity might not quite breed contempt when it comes to South Carolina and Florida, it’s clear it fosters a healthy respect. And maybe a slight sense of dread.
These two unexpected party crashers will duke it out Sunday at Madison Square Garden for a spot in the Final Four, but no introductions are necessary between the Gamecocks and the Gators, two SEC teams that know each other almost as well as they know themselves.
With Kentucky advancing, it’s the first time since 1986 that the final eight has boasted three teams from the conference.
“The familiarity is fortunate for both of us to come down to concentrating on ourselves as much as the opponent and doing some of the little things, executing some of the stuff that South Carolina knows is coming, and vice versa,” Florida coach Mike White said. “[It’s a] great opportunity.”
It’s also something of a daunting one for the fourth-seeded Gators, who are favored over seventh-seeded South Carolina but are anything but a lock.
They play similar, hard-nosed defense. They both identify as “blue collar” teams that pride hard work and attitude over superstars and cache. And in case all this talk of intangibles is too much, they also split the season series: South Carolina beat the Gators by four in January and Florida beat the Gamecocks by 15 in February.
South Carolina beat third-seeded Baylor by 20 on Friday and Florida eked out a one-point win over Wisconsin in overtime later that night. On Saturday afternoon, White said Chris Chiozza, who hit the buzzer-beating winner, hadn’t even slept yet.
“It’s hectic,” Chiozza said of the Gamecocks’ defense, whose adjusted defensive efficiency is ranked second in the country after that Baylor win, according to kenpom.com). “They have guys flying all over the court any time you try to get a shot off. You have two or three guys on you. They’re just energetic, especially at the beginning of the game. They don’t give you any easy looks in the paint. The best bet is to go inside-out and just move the ball around until you get an open outside shot.”
The key for each team is closing down on the other’s dynamic scorer. For South Carolina, that means controlling KeVaughn Allen, who dropped 35 points against Wisconsin, a program record in the NCAA Tournament. Florida will have its hands full with Sindarius Thornwell, the SEC player of the year.
“He can shoot it,” Thornwell said of his Florida counterpart. “He can shoot it pretty good. We’ve got to try to stop him — making shots hard, making shots difficult. You’re not going to stop good players. You just have to make everything tough.
“That would be the easiest way, to play someone who doesn’t really know our defensive pressure because they don’t really know what to expect. Playing Florida is going to be good. It’s going to be tough for us.”
The plan of action for both teams is the same: be physical, limit touches and know you’re not going to find a way to stop Thornwell or Allen completely.
“We’re not playing the moment, we’re not playing a building, we’re not playing the NCAA Tournament. We’re playing the Florida Gators,” Gamecocks coach Frank Martin said. “And our focus should be playing a team that we have played twice . . . So we’ll be humbled because of the opponent, because there’s respect there . . . The guys didn’t hide when we couldn’t beat the chairs you’re sitting on. They’re definitely not going to hide now that they have confidence that we’re a good team.”