Since John Calipari took over at the University of Kentucky, the Wildcats are 9-2 against the South Carolina Gamecocks. Calipari added to the history of the match up, so that the overall series record now has UK up 50 to 11. And it isn’t just that the Cats have been dominant record-wise since Coach Cal came to Lexington, more impressive is the winning margin. They’ve won by more than 30 multiple times and the average margin of victory in those 9 wins is over 23 points.
On the reverse side, this is South Carolina head coach Frank Martin’s fifth year calling the plays for the Gamecocks. Martin has done a tremendous job of attempting to turn around a struggling South Carolina program. He had the Gamecocks ranked as high as 15th in the country last season. In their game against the Cats, Coach Cal got ejected within the first three minutes, which lit a fire under the Wildcats who blew out the Gamecocks by the score of 89-62 behind scoring outputs of 27 and 26 from Tyler Ulis and Jamal Murray respectively.
This season, the #24 Gamecocks bring a 15-3 record to Rupp Arena, along with one of the best defenses in the country. While the Wildcats may be averaging over 93 points per game, good for 3rd best in the country, the Gamecocks’ defense is equally as stout. Then Cocks are giving up less than 60 points per game, a mark that makes them the fifth best defensive team in the nation. Let’s take a look at the starting lineup that Frank Martin should throw the Cats’ way tonight.
#0 Sindarius Thornwell, Senior Guard, 6’5″
Most certainly the most important player for the Gamecocks this season is Sindarius Thornwell. On top of starting every game of college career before this season, Thornwell is the most talented player on the squad and it isn’t even close. Thornwell was suspended for 6 games midway through this season. During those 6 games, South Carolina went 3-3. In the other 12 games this season, the Cocks are 12-0.
Thornwell is leading the team in scoring, rebounding, and assists, averaging 18.2 points, 6.9 rebounds, and 3.3 assists per game. On top of the three main statistical categories, Thornwell also leads the team in steals with 2.5 per which leads the SEC as well, free throw shooting at 80.5%, and is second in blocks at 1.1 per, and 3-point shooting at 40.9%. So, I’d say he’s probably the main focus of the Wildcat defense tonight.
Last season, Thornwell had 7 points, 3 assists, and 2 rebounds in the Gamecocks’ loss to the Cats. This year, he will be much more of a focal point of the Cock offense. Most likely, he will be guarded by Isaiah Briscoe; however, this is where the Gamecocks present a matchup dilemma for the Cats. The second-leading scorer for the Cocks is 6’6″, and Briscoe can’t guard both at the same time. Look for Monk and Briscoe to split the two throughout the game.
#15 PJ Dozier, Sophomore Guard, 6’6″
PJ Dozier was a top-20 prospect coming out of high school two years ago. In his first season with the Gamecocks, he started 28 of 34 games on the year. Last year, he started against the Cats, but was a non-factor in the game, finishing with 2 points, 3 rebounds, 4 turnovers.
The sophomore is the second-leading scorer for the Gamecocks this season. He’s putting up per game numbers of 14.6 points, 4.7 rebounds, 2.9 assists, and 1.9 steals per game. In the six games than Thornwell was suspended, Dozier saw his stats jump to 19.5 points, 5.5 rebounds, 3.5 assists, and 2.7 steals per game. His stats without the team’s best player show just how good he can be when he’s the main component of the offense.
As I mentioned earlier, the combination of Dozier and Thornwell create a bit of a defensive issue for the Cats. Usually, Briscoe would just defend the opposing team’s best scoring and biggest guard/small forward. However, the Cocks bring in two guys that are both bigger than all three starting guards for the Cats. My prediction is that Briscoe matches up with Thornwell, while Monk takes Dozier from the start. Would not be surprised to see Fox pick up either one along the way though.
#30 Chris Silva, Sophomore Forward, 6’9″
A second sophomore starter for Frank Martin, Chris Silva was a top-100 prospect coming out of high school, rated as the number 6 player out of the state of New Jersey. He was high school teammates at Roselle Catholic with the top prospect out of New Jersey in that class, Kentucky guard Isaiah Briscoe.
Starting just 6 games last season, Silva has become an every-game starter this season. He’s averaging 9.8 points and 6.3 rebounds per game. He leads the team and is the fifth best shot blocker in the conference at 1.9 blocks per contest. The issue for Silva is staying out of foul trouble. He’s averaging over 3.7 fouls per game and has had at least 4 fouls in 12 of 18 games this season, including fouling out four times.
At 6’9″ and 223 pounds, he matches up with Wenyen Gabriel and Derek Willis for the Cats. If you read my these posts every game, you know I’ve been really unforgiving on the duo at the four spot for the Cats. However, lately they’ve both been playing a ton better, especially Gabriel’s recent surge on the offensive end. It will be interesting to see how the two do against a very sound defensive player like Silva.
#10 Duane Notice, Senior Guard, 6’2″
Duane Notice was the SEC 6th Man of the Year last season. I think Notice showed great character in not quitting on his team after losing his starting spot. He was a two-year starter going into his junior year, lost his spot, but still played with a ton of confidence.
Notice is averaging 9.4 points, 2.3 assists, and 2.2 rebounds per game in 18 starts this season. On top of being a vocal leader on the floor for the Gamecocks, he has the second-most game experience on the team, which can be a calming presence in a game in Rupp Arena. Last year against the Cats he scored 10 points off the bench to be the second-leading scorer on the day for the Cocks.
The senior measures in at 6’2″, but 225 pounds, making him one of the heavier guards that the Cats have faced this season. His physical nature for the guard position may be something that De’Aaron Fox is not accustomed to with his slender frame. The advantage for UK here, I think, is how the speed of Kentucky’s guards will force Notice into defensive lapses.
#21 Maik Kotsar, Freshman Forward, 6’10”
The lone freshman in the starting lineup for Frank Martin, Maik Kotsar is a native of Tallin, Estonia. He wasn’t as hyped out of high school as most freshmen starters across the country. He was rated as a 3-star prospect by 247sports though.
Kotsar has been a really steady performer for the Gamecocks, giving them 7.3 points and 5.7 rebounds per game. However, where there are positives for Kotsar’s game, there are definite weaknesses at this point for the freshman. Kotsar is not a great rim defender, with only 9 blocks in 18 games this season. Also, you would think his size could lead to drawn fouls, but that is something the Gamecocks avoid, as Kotsar is only shooting 44% from the charity stripe this year.
Kotsar will be matched up with fellow freshman Bam Adebayo. In a game that could be dictated by the defensive pressure of South Carolina’s guards, the offensive game could flow through Bam a lot more than it has in the past. If Bam can stay out of foul trouble, which has been an issue for him, I think he could have a really big game against Kotsar, who assuredly has never defended a player of his physical stature and athleticism.
I’ve mentioned it a couple times in this post, but I really think that having Sindarius Thornwell is huge for the Gamecocks. The Gamecocks’ only three losses on the year came when the senior was out serving his suspension. On top of having their best player back and being at full strength, the defensive prowess of this South Carolina team will be something that these UK freshmen have not experienced this season or probably even for most of their young careers. How Malik Monk and De’Aaron Fox handle the pressure in the backcourt could be huge for the Cats. I think the Cats rely on Isaiah Briscoe a lot tonight to be the stable presence of the offense.
Go Cats. Beat Cocks.