The Florida Gators and South Carolina Gamecocks have both shocked the world to get to the Elite Eight, where they will meet for the right to play in the 2017 Final Four on Sunday afternoon.
While Florida’s shocking arrival is mostly tied to a lightning strike of a buzzer-beater by Chris Chiozza to beat Wisconsin on Friday that instantly became maybe the biggest play in Florida basketball history, the Gamecocks have stunned the college basketball world, first crushing Marquette and then upsetting Duke and Baylor with double-digit routs to make their first Elite Eight ever as a No. 7 seed.
We spoke with Garnet and Black Attack’s Sydney Hunte to preview Sunday’s game from the Florida angle on Saturday, and he was kind enough to answer our questions, too.
There was a point on Friday when South Carolina trucking Baylor looked like it might have been the story of the night. Then, well, other things happened. How did it feel to watch your team make its first Elite Eight in that fashion?
It was really a feeling of shock and disbelief that they'd win a tournament game, much less make it this far. If you were to tell me two weeks ago that they'd be a win away from the Final Four, I'd think you were crazy. South Carolina? Really? A team that lost six of its last nine and fell to Alabama in the quarterfinals of the SEC Tournament? There was even an inkling that their hiccup at the end of the year would see them miss the NCAA Tournament again.
As it turns out, they got in, and I'd be lying if I didn't think that Marquette would give them fits on the way to a first round win. Yet here we are. And looking on Twitter and Facebook and seeing the response the country has had to this group is unbelievable. This is a fanbase that has rallied around this team in a big way, and I feel they (and the team) want to ride this thing as much as they can.
Sindarius Thornwell is amazing, and has been amazing throughout this NCAA Tournament. But he's been amazing in losses, too, and South Carolina's run, to my eyes, has more to do with players around him stepping up. What have the non-Thornwell Gamecocks done to enable this run?
There are other names I can give you (i.e. PJ Dozier), but I'll give you two in particular that have really impressed me this tournament: senior Duane Notice and sophomore Chris Silva.
Notice has risen to the occasion and is simply playing his best basketball when it matters most. What he's given this team on the defensive side of the court (where he can take his opposing matchup out of the game) has been a gigantic plus, but he's also found his scoring touch (3-4 from three against Baylor and 6-8 from the floor against Duke).
For Silva, the maturity he's shown from only a few weeks ago to today has been incredible. He's been more aggressive inside and has shown a great deal of discipline; he's been able to not only keep himself out of foul trouble, but simply keep from making dumb fouls.
Unsurprisingly, this team has come together with Notice, Silva, and Dozier providing supporting roles to Thornwell, and they'll need to do it again in the Elite Eight.
Frank Martin's style and, er, animated sideline persona have made him a polarizing figure in college hoops. What has he done to get Carolina here, and what don't those who don't see him often get about him?
It's very interesting to watch Frank from a personality standpoint because, to me, he's actually dialed it down somewhat as time has gone on. That's not to say he's not going to get into the ear of a player when they miss a defensive set or won't challenge an official when he feels a call has been missed. I think that, with him, there's a method to how he coaches, and when you've told a player time and time again to not do something repeatedly, that frustration tends to come out; he's not exploding on someone for no reason at all.
I've not had the chance to have a prolonged conversation with him away from a game setting (I did have an opportunity to sit in one of his postgame pressers a few years ago when they played in the Charleston Classic), but a) players genuinely love playing for him and b) everything I've heard about him points to him being just a terrific, engaging person to be around away from the court. He's not a Bob Knight type who exudes misery everywhere he goes.
I think when you see the Gamecocks play, you're seeing a team that's bought into Frank's philosophy of playing a solid, frustrating brand of defense, and while they've struggled offensively many times this year, it's no accident that defense has been key in getting them to this point.
Florida and South Carolina have met twice and played two very different games. Which do you think is more likely to happen again on Sunday? And if there's a third, different game, how could it go?
I'm expecting this to be more like the first game between these two teams. I know you mentioned in the Q&A you did for us that you're expecting Florida to come out of the gate strong due to the adrenaline from Friday, and I agree. However, I think that adrenaline could run out and, if the Gamecocks can weather the storm, they can force the Gators into playing their brand of basketball.
Now, there's absolutely no way whatsoever that you all will shoot 17 three pointers and miss them all, but if South Carolina's perimeter defense does its job, locks down on Allen, and stays out of foul trouble (in short, basically keeps doing what they've been doing), they should be able to get out of The Garden with a win.
Honesty hour: Would you trade Will Muschamp never equaling even what he did at Florida for making this Final Four?
I guess that's going to be part of the narrative, isn't it? Muschamp's current school facing his former employer, Steve Spurrier returning to Florida in an ambassador's role after leaving South Carolina, and so on.
This tournament run has, I think, helped Gamecocks fans take their minds off the state of the football program for just a little bit, and will have a trickle-down effect when it comes to the future (especially on recruiting). The fun thing is that the football team might be showing incremental improvement (getting to a bowl in Muschamp’s first year), and hopes to get itself to a good spot before long, and we’re seeing this sort of hoops success.
This is kind of a long-winded answer, but I'd have to say that when everything is clicking at the same time, that's the most ideal scenario, so I'd have to say no.
What is your prediction for the game?
I've been reading where the expectations are that it will be a low-scoring game, so (including what I said above) I'm going to go with that and say that the Gamecocks pull out a 65-61 win to advance to its first Final Four. I'm expecting Thornwell and Allen to go at it this afternoon, and watching the two of them battle to get their respective teams over the hump will be a lot of fun, I think.
Thanks again to Sydney for answering our questions.