Stifling Defense Leads South Carolina to Hot StartPosted by David Changas on November 30th, 2016
South Carolina was bitterly disappointed to not make the NCAA Tournament last season after posting a 23-8 overall record, and given the departures of three key contributors from that squad — Michael Carrera, Laimonas Chatkevicius and Mindaugas Kacinas — not much was expected this season. Based upon last week’s thrashing of two Top 25 teams, however, expectations in Columbia have quickly recalibrated. On Thanksgiving Eve, the Gamecocks allowed Michigan to make only eight two-point field goals on their way to a 61-46 trouncing of the Wolverines. For anyone who may have thought that home win was a fluke, South Carolina then waltzed into the Barclays Center on Saturday afternoon and similarly throttled previously-undefeated Syracuse — again giving up only eight two-point field goals — on its way to a 64-50 manhandling of the Orange.
Frank Martin clubs define themselves on the defensive end, and this team’s success in that regard has been staggering. The Gamecocks currently rank 11th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, per KenPom, and have had only one game — a season-opening 85-76 win over Louisiana Tech — in which they have given up more than a point per possession (PPP). In contrast, Michigan garnered only 0.74 points per possession while Syracuse’s output at 0.77 points per possession was only slightly less dreadful. The Gamecocks have routinely been one of the SEC’s most efficient defensive teams since Martin’s arrival four years ago, but given his roster’s attrition, no one saw this level of production coming. An overtime one-point win over Monmouth may have initially indicated that the Gamecocks could be in for a long year, but last week’s resume-boosters should serve them well on Selection Sunday. December games with Seton Hall, Clemson and Memphis should also help.
Lest anyone think that Martin’s squad is only getting things done on the defensive end, the play of senior forward Sindarius Thornwell should not be overlooked. The reigning SEC Player of the Week is leading in the team in scoring (20.0 PPG), rebounding (7.0 RPG), and assists (3.3 APG), and has clearly been the team’s catalyst for the surprising start. While he is getting plenty of help from fellow senior Duane Notice, sophomore PJ Dozier and Estonian freshman Maik Kotsar, the team thrives off of Thornwell’s experience and leadership. Maintaining impressive defensive play over an entire season is difficult, but if the Gamecocks continue to defend as well as they did against Michigan and Syracuse, the odds are good that there will be no disappointment when the NCAA Selection Committee announces its field of 68 in March. As for now, the Gamecocks will have to settle for a shiny new ranking of #20 in the AP Poll, the third ranked SEC team behind Kentucky and Florida.