This is an odd matchup. South Carolina is known as a gritty power five conference team, but has lost to Boston University. Virginia is ranked ninth in the country, but has lost by twenty-nine points to an unranked team. It’s hard to know what either of these teams will be by season’s end.
So far this season, #102 (via KenPom) South Carolina is 7-4 with losses to Wichita State (#32 on KenPom), Northern Iowa (#73 KenPom), and Houston (#35 KenPom) in addition to Boston (#219 KenPom). While outside of the Boston contest, those matchups are ones you’d expect South Carolina to drop, both the Wichita State and Houston games were 20-point defeats. That said, the Gamecocks bounced back from the tough Houston loss with a solid 13-point win over Clemson (#91 KenPom). Other than that contest though, South Carolina is yet to beat a team in the top #190 (via KenPom).
South Carolina is led by sophomore guard AJ Lawson and senior big man Malik Kotsar, their two players averaging double figures in points at 16.1 PPG and 10.1 PPG. The Gamecocks boast what has been roughly an eleven-man rotation, with each of those eleven playing ten plus minutes per contest. Recently, the eleven has shrunken down closer to eight, with those last few guys rotating off game by game who gets the short end of the stick.
They are generally a smaller team down low, with Kotsar and freshman Wildens Leveque (who was essentially benched from the starting lineup last game against Clemson following a disappointing performance against Houston) the only rotational players taller than 6’7”. That said, Kotsar is a force on the interior and will take some stopping from Virginia. More on that later. The 6’7” Alanzo Frick is a bulky 260 pounds and can tough it out down low, especially on the boards. Like Virginia, outside of their star big Kotsar, the minutes down low are very matchup dependent.
The guards for the Gamecocks are in fact a bit lengthier. Namely, Lawson is 6’6” and could leave the Virginia guards susceptible to drives against the bigger player. I’d like Morsell to start on him and to perhaps let the first year see if he can stick with the more experienced, bigger player. It’s unclear how much of a role Braxton Key will play, but he could be a good matchup for Lawson as well. Frankly, Lawson is likely going to get his today, so it’ll be more about limiting his teammates than anything.
South Carolina currently holds a 101.4 offensive rating (151st via KenPom), along with a 95.1 defensive rating (83rd via KenPom).
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On defense for the ‘Hoos, it’ll be interesting to see how they decide to guard Kotsar. Despite an encouraging performance against Stony Brook, Jay Huff may start this game on the bench as Caffaro seems like the more natural defender for the 270-pound Kotsar. I expect Virginia to double Kotsar in the post from the get go and try to force South Carolina’s shooters to beat them. The good news for the Wahoos is that the Gamecocks have struggled from distance, shooting a lowly 28.8% from three so far this season. This means that when Kotsar kicks to his guards from the post, it should be difficult for South Carolina to take advantage of the space the Virginia double provides. Lawson and Jair Bolden can both hit outside shots, shooting 35.6% and 38.9% from deep this year. But, with only two legitamite scorers, South Carolina should struggle against the pack line.
It’ll also be important that Virginia keeps the Gamecocks off the offensive boards, as South Carolina rebounds 33.9% of their misses. Frick in particular is thirty sixth in the nation in this regard, rebounding 14.6% of his teammates’ misses when he’s on the floor.
When the Cavaliers are on offense, they’ll need to limit turnovers as best they can as South Carolina’s defense is predicated on going for steals, and then, accordingly, when the defense breaks down, blocking shots. They’ve posted a 10.5% steal rate (87th in the country) while also blocking 14.9% of their opponents’ shots (23rd nationwide). What’s the caveat? South Carolina fouls at a ridiculous 44.1% rate since they are so often reaching and swatting at the ball. Virginia needs to attack the inside to try and exploit that weakness. Getting Kotsar, a player who averages four fouls per forty minutes, in early foul trouble could give the ‘Hoos a chance to get out to a comfortable lead in the first half.
Virginia will win if: They take care of the ball and can limit Kotsar’s post points. They’ll want to curb those easy baskets that Kotsar can produce, so look for him to be the focal point of the defense’s attention. The offense will be what it is. As long as Kihei can keep a tight grip on the ball, I don’t see things getting out of hand.
South Carolina will win if: Kotsar can get the Virginia big men into foul trouble and the Gamecocks can nail a few threes. They’d also love to take advantage of some of Virginia’s inexperience in the backcourt to generate turnovers, and as a result a few easy baskets in transition.
Score Prediction: Virginia 52 – South Carolina 41
I just don’t think South Carolina can produce enough points to win this game. Yeah, Virginia’s offense hasn’t been pretty so far this season, but given how critical it is to shoot well against the Virginia defense, and how poorly South Carolina shoots, this should be another game in the win column for the Wahoos.