4-Seed Florida Gators (27-8) vs. 8-Seed South Carolina Gamecocks (25-10)
New York, New York; Madison Square Garden
Sunday, March 26, 2017; 2:20 p.m. (ET)
The two teams know each other well, having played each other once in January in Columbia, South Carolina and one in Gainesville, splitting the two games, each team winning on their home court.
Now, the deciding game will be played on a neutral court and with much more on the line. One thing for sure is that both teams really know each other.
“Just happy to be here, proud of these guys… great opportunity for us tomorrow against a team we're very familiar with, of course,” Florida head coach Mike White led off the Elite 8 press conference on Saturday. “The South Carolina team's had a tremendous year. A program we have a lot of respect for, of course.
“I just think it's fortunate for both of us with the quick turn, because they have a quick turn as well, that we're very familiar. That said, they're playing better. I think it's an offensive thing.”
South Carolina has stepped up their offensive game that relies a lot on SEC Player of the Year Sindarius Thornwell. They have been a big time defensive team all year and continue to play well on that side of the ball as well.”
“Somebody asked me earlier, both teams seem like they are really defending lately,” White said. “Since the first game of the season, Frank's had his guys in the Top-5 in defensive efficiency in the entire country… the entire year. Every time you look at this, they're second, they're third, they're first. They have a really tough week, they drop to fourth. They've been incredible defensively all week. These guys have been as well. It’s two Top-5 defenses in the country. I think the difference in them, in the tournament, just looking at their numbers, they're just shooting the ball better. For whatever reason, they seem to be playing with a lot of confidence led by Thornwell and the way he's scoring it in the tournament. PJ Dozier has been tremendous in the tournament. They have five guys averaging double figures in the NCAA Tournament.
“So now to complement their unbelievable defense with the way, with the way they're scoring the ball, it makes for a tough out.”
Florida ran into a buzz saw defense in Columbia in January, something that hadn’t seen and something three teams in the NCAA Tournament have fallen victim to so far. White was recollecting about the game and that at the first official time out, neither team had scored.
“The first media, 0-0,” he said still in disbelief. “I remember talking to our guys, looked up at the scoreboard, and I turned around to one of my assistants and said, ‘is the score right? Has no one scored yet?’ Incredible. We were 0-17 from three (on the night) and shot 50 from the foul line and had a chance.”
At that time, South Carolina was struggling offensively, and even in the game in Gainesville last month, but they have since stepped up their offensive game, led by Thornwell.
“We actually defended better at their place,” White said. “And then at our place we just made shots. We made shots. We struggled to guard Thornwell and in both games, their physicality, it's similar to Virginia and Wisconsin. Now they're quicker and faster, they throw more guys at you, there's more athleticism, they pressure the ball more, it's a different brand of defense. It's unique. They overplay everything. Everyone knows that. I'm not giving away any secrets. You can't run offense against South Carolina, against Frank Martin. You can't. They take you out of everything that you want to do. They make basketball players make basketball plays. We’ve got to play with poise, we have got to play within credible mental toughness offensively, which is a little bit different than most defenses that you see, to give ourselves a chance.”
With the aggressive defense and the conference player of the year, there is more for White to worry about before Sunday’s contest. Are there too many distractions for his team as they continue on the trek in the NCAA Tournament.?
“Already worried, not going to lie to you, about where our emotions are and our level of mental and physical fatigue,” White said. “And first thing I asked the guys this morning at breakfast, hey, how do you feel? Man, my legs are killing me, I'm tired. And I'm sure South Carolina feels that way as well. Our game was a little bit different, of course, and our guys got to sleep a little bit later. And that's what's going on in their head today. So, rest today, hydration, we'll -- our guys will do massages, our support staff's off the charts. We'll get at their legs a bit and try to get that lactic acid out. We can't do a ton physically.
“The goal will be by tomorrow morning to have some normalcy with that mental and physical fatigue. But it started on the bus last night. As soon as we pulled up to the hotel, guys we're not going to go watch film right now, we're not going to meet, and I want you in bed as soon as possible. I don't want to threaten you to take your cell phones away, but we got to turn them off. We all have a couple hundred texts, let's return them on Sunday night. Let's go to sleep. And if you keep your phone on, you're not going to go to sleep. That was the message and our guys have had a business-like approach we have had a lot of success outside of home this year with our unique schedule and I'm sure we did a pretty good job of trying to lay it down as much as possible last night.”
Sunday will tell the tale, but whatever happens, it is going to be a war.