1. Two man show
The two best players taking the floor for South Carolina tonight are the only two players scoring in double-figures on the season, AJ Lawson and Maik Kotsar. Lawson is a 6’6″ sophomore from Toronto who is leading the team at 14.5 points per game. He’s also averaging 3.1 rebounds, 2.4 assists, and 1.3 steals per game. Lawson shoots 33.3% from three-point land and a team-high 77.9% from the free throw line. Despite averaging less than 15 per game, Lawson does have the ability to score in bunches, having gone over 20 five times already this season.
Kotsar is a senior from Estonia, who mans the paint for the Gamecocks at 6’11” and 270 pounds. He’s averaging 10.7 points, a team-high in rebounds at 6.3, steals at 1.5, and blocks at nearly one per game. The big man has led the Gamecocks in scoring for the last three consecutive games and six times overall this year. Kotsar is as much of a back to the basket post player as you’ll see, with little to no perimeter game. He’s made just nine threes in his four-year career at South Carolina, with zero of them being this season. His real struggles come at the free-throw line, where he’s a career 49.4% shooter for the Gamecocks. This season he’s hitting just 57.5% of his free throws, which is a career high.
2. Opposite of Alabama
The big focus all of last week leading up to Saturday’s game against Alabama was how Kentucky was going to slow down the three-point onslaught from the Crimson Tide. Tonight’s game against South Carolina will be the exact opposite. The Gamecocks struggle immensely shooting from the perimeter, so we may see Kentucky pack it in defensively to try to force non-shooters to take bad shots. As a team, South Carolina shoots 27.9% from three, which ranks second to last in the SEC and 341st in the country. The only two players on the team shooting over 30% are AJ Lawson’s 33.3% and Jair Bolden’s 37.3%
The struggles to shoot don’t stop once the Gamecocks get inside the three-point line. South Carolina hits just 61.4% of their free throws, which ranks last in the SEC and 344th in the nation. AJ Lawson is the leader again at 77.9%, but he’s the only Gamecock averaging over 69% from the charity stripe. Most players on the team are in the low-60s or even 50s for their free throw percentages. If this game stays close late, look for this to be a major factor.
3. Size does matter
Kentucky has played a myriad of teams already this season who only have one or two true bigs on the roster and South Carolina is no different. This size discrepancy allows for Kentucky to score at the rim, both on the dribble-drive and with interior post players. South Carolina’s best and biggest post presence is Maik Kotsar, standing at 6’11” and 270 pounds. The problem for the Gamecocks is that Kotsar averages more than 3 fouls per game and they only have two other players on the entire roster bigger than 6’7″.
Freshman forward Wildens Leveque is 6’11” and 230 pounds, but plays just 10.8 minutes per contest, averaging 2.2 points and 2.8 rebounds. He’s taken less than 20 shots on the season, so he hasn’t been an integral part of the game plan. The only other player with size on the roster is 6’9″ – 235 pound senior, Micaiah Henry. Henry’s only checked into 5 games this season for 27 minutes total on the year.
4. Playing to your competition
When one takes a look at South Carolina’s schedule so far this season, you’ll see an 8-7 overall record, including an 0-2 start to Southeastern Conference play. Diving deeper, you see some games that will be damning if the Gamecocks want to make a run at being a bubble team come Selection Sunday. Home losses to Boston University, Houston, and Stetson are all going to be bad losses on the résumé.
However, there are some quality wins mixed in that 8-7 record as well. South Carolina traveled to Virginia and knocked off the Cavaliers on their home floor, putting up 70 points against the best defensive team in the country. South Carolina is the only team to have scored 70 on Virginia this season. The Gamecocks also won at Clemson, a team that knocked off the Duke Blue Devils on their home floor less than 24 hours ago. While South Carolina clearly doesn’t have the talent to match up against the nation’s best on a nightly basis, the Gamecocks are definitely capable of playing with a team for 40 minutes to try to pull of the upset.
5. Ranked in hostile territory
Games in Colonial Life Arena in Columbia always seem to have a raucous crowd when Kentucky comes to town. Tonight is the 8th consecutive time that Kentucky has come to South Carolina as a ranked team, and almost every game is a black-out, t-shirt night, or pom-pom night. The bad news for Kentucky is that they’ve lost three of the last seven instances.
The Wildcats come to Columbia tonight as a 6-point favorite, trying to extend their series lead over the Gamecocks to 53-12 all-time. John Calipari is 11-3 against South Carolina in his time in Lexington. Outside of getting used to hearing the horrible Gamecock screech and Sandstorm play during timeouts, South Carolina can be a tough place to play simply because Head Coach Frank Martin is the most intimidating man on the planet.
Go Cats. Beat Gamecocks.