Madison Square Garden is the mecca of basketball in the United States. The host of the NIT tournament and the Big East tournament for decades, it is the epicenter of basketball in the largest city in America. Friday night the Baylor Bears play against the South Carolina Gamecocks for the right to keep their dream seasons alive, and to reach the college basketball haven known as the Final Four.
Just two victories separate either of these teams from being one of the quartet of teams still alive to hoist the championship trophy as "One Shining Moment" gloriously rises in the background. The Gamecocks and Bears would be reaching new heights, at least in the modern basketball world. Baylor, twice stopped 1-game short of the Final Four in the last 7 years, has not reached a national semifinal since 1949-50, when the NCAA was still a second tier championship to the NIT.
South Carolina has even less history, not even winning an NCAA tournament game since 1973, losing 5-straight first round games before their victory over Marquette. The Gamecocks didn't stop there though, they were only getting started. With one of the nation's best defenses and the SEC player of the year in Sindarius Thornwell, SC upset the 2nd seeded Duke Blue Devils in pretty much a home game.
Thornwell averages 21 points, 7 rebounds, 3 assists and 2 steals per game for South Carolina. He finished the Duke game with 24 points, 6 rebounds and 5 assists. Against Marquette, he was even better totaling 29 points and 11 rebounds. A true small forward, Thornwell has solid height at 6-foot-5 when on the wing. They do play him as a very small ball power forward at times, but his true ability is on the wing. He is just under 40% from 3-point range, doesn't turn the ball over, is their best passer and play maker, and is a very good offensive rebounder.
Defense is where the Gamecocks make their living with the 4th best defense in the nation according to Kenpom.com. They are tremendously athletic at the guard and wing positions, loaded with perimeter defenders. Teams make just 30.4% of their 3-pointers against SC. They steal the ball on 11.3% of their defensive possessions, the 18th highest rate in the nation.
This is an aggressive trapping defense, one coached by Frank Martin previously at Kansas State. Coach Scott Drew and his staff should be very well aware of the defensive tenacity that Martin demands of his players. This year is no different. They attack the ball, and are very aggressive on their challenges. This sometimes leads to offensive rebounds (267th in rebounding percentage) as they challenge shots right or wrong.
For most of the season, this was a putrid offense, one that ranked near the bottom of all major conferences in terms of shooting percentage and offensive effeciency. They ranked 11th in the SEC in offensive efficiency and 12th in effective field goal %. So what do they do in the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament? Score 93 and 88 points and shoot 52% from the field against Marquette and explode for 65 second half points against Duke. This was a team that averaged 73 points per game (180th in the nation). They were a hot team in Greensville.
Can they carry over their hot shooting to New York against a much more efficient Baylor defense? The Bears ranked 13th in the nation in adjusted defense, easily besting Duke (48th) and Marquette (165th). The Bears also have a significant height advantage down low, with Malik Kotsar (6-foot-10) and Chris Silva (6-foot-9) being the only true size in the South Carolina rotation .They primarily play 6-foot-6 PJ Dozier at the power forward position, next to Kotsar, with Silva flipping back and forth between the two front court positions.
Against Marquette, who started a 6-foot-6 Sam Hauser, and Duke, who started more of a small forward in 6-foot-8 Jayson Tatum, that wasn't an issue. With Johnathan Motley, Terry Maston and Nuni Omot playing almost every single power forward minute for the Bears all being over 6-foot-8 and more traditional post players, it is something to watch.
- Baylor faces South Carolina in the 2017 NCAA Tournament East Regional semifinals Friday on TBS.
- Baylor is appearing in the NCAA Tournament for a school-record fourth consecutive season.
- Baylor is 13-12 in 11 NCAA Championships trips, including 10-6 in the Scott Drew era.
- Drew has led Baylor to two Elite Eights (2010, 2012) and four Sweet 16s (2010, 2012, 2014, 2017).
- Baylor is one of 13 teams nationally to make four or more Sweet 16 appearances since 2010.
- Baylor's No. 3 NCAA Tournament seed ties its best-ever (2010, 2012, 2015).
- Baylor is 31-15 in postseason tournaments (conference, national) over the last nine seasons.
- BU is seeking its 28th win, which would tie the 2nd-most in program history (30 in 2012, 28 in 2010).
- Friday is the 7th series meeting, all since 2006. Baylor leads 4-2, including 3 straight wins.
- Baylor and South Carolina last met in Columbia on Nov. 18, 2014, a 69-65 BU win.
- Baylor is 9-1 against SEC teams since the 2012-13 season, including two wins over South Carolina.
- BU held opponents to an average of 9.4 ppg below their scoring averages in Big 12 play.
- Baylor is appearing in its fourth NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 since the field expanded to 32 teams in 1975.
- Baylor is one of 13 teams to play in four or more Sweet 16s since 2010 - Arizona, Baylor, Duke, Florida, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisville, Michigan State, North Carolina, Ohio State, Syracuse, Wisconsin and Xavier.
Keys to the Game
- Win at the Free Throw Line - The Gamecocks will foul, foul and foul again. They will also force nearly as many fouls with their aggressive drives. Their games drag on and on as trips to the free throw line stop the action. In each game for South Carolina this year, they have seen an average of 47 free throws. In contrast, Baylor games have seen only 35 free throws per game. SC is an average free throw shooting team, just under 70%, while the Bears are over 72%. Baylor needs to keep pace at the free throw line, in terms of visits and production.
- Hit the Offensive Glass - South Carolina is a bad defensive rebounding team, allowing 357 offensive rebounds on the season, 228th in the nation. They are just 267th in offensive rebound rate allowed at over 31%. The Bears are the 3rd best offensive rebounding team in the nation, grabbing 40% of their misses.
- Strong with the Ball - The Bears will turn it over against South Carolina, we know this. They have struggled with turnovers all year at times, turning it over 20% of their possessions. The Gamecocks are a tremendous defense at causing turnovers, second only to West Virginia in teams Baylor has faced. They are 4th in turnover % forced in the nation, and are incredible at getting their hands on passes. Baylor, especially their guards, need to be strong with the ball. Finish with under 17 turnovers, and they will put themselves in solid position to win this game.