The Florida Gators men’s basketball team’s trip to Columbia to take on the South Carolina Gamecocks on this Wednesday night (6:30 p.m., SEC Network or WatchESPN) is a journey into the maw of a defense that just might be the nation’s best.
South Carolina ranks No. 2 in adjusted defensive efficiency per KenPom, and is No. 2 in effective field goal percentage allowed, No. 3 in turnover percentage and two-point percentage allowed, No. 5 in three-point percentage allowed, and No. 10 in steal percentage. Opponents average nearly 18-second possessions against the Gamecocks, suggesting that Frank Martin’s swarming man defense is forcing foes to work deep into the shot clock, and just three teams — Texas A&M, Louisiana Tech, and Memphis — have been able to post more than a point per possession against the Gamecocks this season.
The only team ahead of South Carolina in adjusted defensive efficiency is Louisville, which Rick Pitino has molded into the nation’s preeminent defensive powerhouse. The Cardinals have six consecutive top-five finishes in defensive efficiency, and are well-positioned for a seventh.
And yet their defense is allowing exactly as many points per possession — to two significant digits, anyway — as South Carolina’s is this year.
This is, to be clear, a monumental accomplishment for Martin, who has never before had a defense this good in nine previous seasons of coaching, despite a number of salty units at Kansas State and a rep for ferocious on-ball pressure. And it’s been a long time in the making: When Martin took over from the fired Darrin Horn at South Carolina in 2009, he inherited a defense that had given up a full point per possession, and couldn’t make it better over his first two seasons in garnet and black.
Most notably for Florida fans, that second season also had a spectacular nadir: The Gamecocks allowing Michael Frazier II to score 37 points and sink a school- and SEC-record 11 threes in a torching in Columbia in February 2014. The next day, I was completely flabbergasted by South Carolina’s perimeter defense:
I have never seen a team play worse perimeter defense than South Carolina played last night, and I genuinely doubt that I ever will.
Frazier's threes are statistically the best shots Florida gets in a game; at 42.6 percent, they carried an expected value of 1.277 points per shot entering Tuesday night. Twos taken by Casey Prather, who is an insanely efficient two-point scorer, and on track to potentially have his second straight season of top-10 field goal percentage in Florida history — Prather made 62.2 percent of his shots in 2012-13, good for 10th all-time, and is making 61.8 percent of his shots, and, hilariously, 62.2 percent of his twos in 2013-14 as of March 5 — were worth 1.236 points per shot coming into Tuesday night. Frazier's threes are unequivocally the worst shots to allow to Florida.
South Carolina allowed 18 of them. The Gamecocks allowed some of them without even contesting his shot — his 11th made three of the night was wide open. Florida was basically not even trying to do anything but feed Frazier at that point. The combination of spotty effort and "Huh?"-worthy scheme was the single most baffling thing I have seen in college basketball this season, and I have watched scores of college basketball games this season, dozens involving SEC refs essentially making shit up.
Like I said, if I were a South Carolina fan, it would be unforgivable. Today, I am very glad that I am not one.
We’re not even three years removed from that, and South Carolina might have the best defense in Division I. That’s thanks to Martin, mostly, who has developed two of the same players who were awful on that night into ace defenders, and added fine pieces around them.
Duane Notice and Sindarius Thornwell are the two South Carolina seniors who were freshmen for Frazier’s immolation of the Gamecocks, and both are now plus defenders instead of promising talents. The lanky Thornwell leads the SEC in steal percentage through his four games; Notice doesn’t foul nearly as much as a lead defensive guard typically does, and he can switch roles and assignments with the taller, longer P.J. Dozier as needed. (Given how South Carolina often extends its on-ball pressure out beyond the three-point line, though, those switches aren’t all that frequent.)
Those guards all funnel drivers toward Chris Silva, a foul-prone shot-blocker, and allow far fewer threes than they did a year ago, when Gamecocks opponents took more than 40 percent of their shots from distance. Now, that figure is down under 33 percent, and only Monmouth and thoroughly overmatched Division II opponent Lander University have been able to hoist more than 20 threes in a game against the ‘Cocks this year.
But South Carolina is not impregnable, and is vulnerable thanks to a relatively underwhelming offense. The Gamecocks have scored 0.91 points per possession or fewer in their three defeats, three of their five worst outings on the year, and struggled inside in those games, making fewer than 44 percent of their twos.
And while Florida hasn’t seen a defense like South Carolina’s, South Carolina also hasn’t seen a defense like Florida’s — and the only top-60 defenses the Gamecocks have seen, both of which pale in comparsion to the Gators’ No. 21 defense, belonged to Seton Hall and Clemson, teams that scored wins over South Carolina.
Thornwell, the Gamecocks’ leading scorer, didn’t play in those games, and Notice played exceptionally poorly, leaving Dozier and Silva — a decent scorer inside — to pick up the slack, which neither did all that well. (Silva also fouled out of all three losses.)
If Florida can give the Carolina guards a taste of their own medicine — with ball pressure and active hands that poke out steals, things that Kasey Hill and Chris Chiozza excel at, and KeVaughn Allen can do — it can very possibly beat a great defense at its own game.