The Cats are riding a seven-game win streak in SEC play and next up is a date with Frank Martin’s South Carolina squad in Rupp Arena. After an ugly non-conference run, the Gamecocks have played really well in SEC action and are setting themselves up to receive a double-bye come SEC Tournament time.
SEC Network will be in the house for the call and we’ll see if Kentucky can continue their winning ways on the first Tuesday in February.
Nuts and Bolts
Following a very disappointing four-year run under former WKU head coach Darrin Horn, South Carolina athletic director Ray Tanner pulled off an absolute coup by getting Frank Martin to make the move from Kansas State to Columbia. Now in year seven, Martin has the Gamecocks on pace to have their best year in the SEC since 1997.
South Carolina is off to a 6-2 start in league play despite an ugly 5-8 non-conference record. The Gamecocks have three KenPom sub-100 losses so they’ll likely need to win the SEC Tournament to earn a NCAA Tournament bid, but they already have wins over Auburn and Mississippi State in SEC action. Despite the ugly start, Martin has righted the ship.
The former Miami high school coach and Bob Huggins assistant has a 124-100 record at South Carolina with a 51-65 mark in SEC play. The Gamecocks made a miraculous run to the Final Four in 2017, but haven’t made the NCAA Tournament since and have only made the NIT once under Martin. However, this has been a historically bad program. The Gamecocks have only made four NCAA Tournaments since joining the SEC in 1992. You could make the argument that Martin is exceeding expectations.
This year South Carolina has morphed into a team that wants an up-and-down game. The Gamecocks are averaging 72.1 possessions per game and this ranks 35th in the country. Only Auburn and Arkansas play faster in the SEC. They don’t shoot it at a high level, but this group does a great job on the offensive glass. On the other end, Carolina has struggled to rebound the ball, but Carolina gets very good rim protection from its plethora of bigs.
This will be the 64th meeting between the two programs with Kentucky owning a 51-12 series lead. John Calipari is 10-3 against the Gamecocks with each defeat occurring at Colonial Life Arena. Frank Martin is 2-5 against Kentucky since arriving in Columbia. The Gamecocks have just two wins all-time (1997 and 2009) in Rupp Arena.
Out in the desert, Kentucky is a 15.5 point favorite with a total of 146.5. That’s a projected final score of 81-65.5. The Wildcats are 12-9 against the spread and 6-3 in conference play. The Gamecocks are 8-12 against the spread and 6-3 in conference play. The over is 9-1 in South Carolina’s last 10 games while the under is 5-2 in Kentucky’s last seven outings.
In Frank Martin’s seventh season, the Gamecocks have a nice mix of youth and experience on the perimeter. Headlining the group is true freshman A.J. Lawson.
The former three-star recruit from Canada leads the team in minutes and is putting up over 13 points per game. The lanky 6-foot-6 and 172-pound combo guard has been a very pleasant surprise for this basketball program. The rookie does a great job at drawing contact and getting to the free throw line. He’s been very inefficient from the floor (only shooting 39.4 percent on 236 shots) but he’s been a solid rebounder, a plus-defender, and is this team’s leading assist man. He looks set to have a very successful career in Columbia.
In the offseason, Frank Martin dipped into the grad transfer pool and pulled in Georgetown’s Tre Campbell. The six-foot point guard is very safe with the basketball and has been a productive addition. Off the bench, Martin brings in senior Hassani Gravett and the senior from Georgia has played a lot of basketball for the Gamecocks.
The former junior college transfer was a full-time starter last season, but this year Frank Martin is bringing him off the bench. It’s resulting in the best basketball of his college career. The 6-foot-2 combo guard is shooting over 40 percent from three and 50 percent from two-point range. He is the team’s best free throw shooter (86 percent) and is second on the squad in assists. Gravers is a senior that’s playing at a high level. He’s been an integral piece for the Gamecocks.
In the paint, South Carolina has one of the most productive bigs in the SEC. Chris Silva is finally a senior and the former high school teammate of Isaiah Briscoe at Roselle Catholic in New Jersey has been flat out awesome this season.
The 6-foot-9 and 234-pound big has been outstanding on the glass and does a great job at drawing contact. The post player has shot 136 free throws (6.5 per game) and completely developed his offensive game. The back-to-the-basket player can now step away from the paint and hit a three-point shot.
The senior leads the team in scoring and has three double-doubles in conference play. Foul trouble has been an issue for him in the past, but while on the floor he will be a challenge for UK’s interior.
On the wing, there is another freshman who has been able to make an immediate impact for the Gamecocks. Keyshawn Bryant is a versatile 6-foot-6 player from Florida who is putting up over nine points per game. The skinny wing is an excellent defender and does most of his offensive damage in the paint. Frank Martin has a nice collection of young talent on this team.
In the post next to Silva is another experienced big. Maik Kotsar started on the Final Four team during his freshman year in 2017 and has now recorded 83 starts in his career. The five-man from Estonia is a good offensive rebounder and an excellent post defender. Off the bench, Felipe Hasse provides minutes and the Chile native is a very good three-point shooter.
The Gamecocks always play two traditional bigs and most of them have been productive.
Keys to Victory
- South Carolina will enter Rupp Arena tonight with a lot of confidence. After a brutal non-conference start, the Gamecocks are 6-2 in league play and just two games out of first place. They already scored a couple of signature wins and beat Kentucky in a down season last year. They will play with confidence and it will be important for Kentucky to match their intensity.
- The Gamecocks are very sloppy with the ball on offense and are a below average shooting team. This could mean a lot of fast break opportunities for Kentucky if they can keep Carolina off the offensive glass. Don’t be surprised if tonight is UK’s highest scoring output of the SEC slate.
- On offense, Kentucky really should have their way this defense. The Gamecocks play two traditional bigs but they are not a great rebounding team. Expect for UK to get plenty of great scoring chances in the paint.
Since Frank Martin’s arrival, there has been a couple times when both of these teams met while at the top of the SEC standings. In each instance, Kentucky was able to house the Gamecocks. However, in 2016, they had to do it without John Calipari on the sidelines.
The Cats played 37-plus minutes without their coach that Saturday afternoon in Columbia on their way to an impressive 89-62 win behind Tyler Ulis’ 27 points and 12 assists. Can UK deliver another knockout punch to a contending South Carolina tonight?
John Calipari was not a fan of Doug Sirmons on that day.