Among the many, many questionable things the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee does — seemingly rewarding major-conference teams at the expense of mid-majors; remaining so beholden to geographic protections in only the first round that Duke ends up playing South Carolina in South Carolina because the Blue Devils’ customary cushy Tar Heel State landing spot was moved by politics; pitting mid-majors against each other and in the paths of juggernauts with uncanny frequency; quite possibly setting up brackets (supposed to be done for “reasonable competitive balance”) with an eye to what broadcast partners might want — is one truly good thing: It tries to avoid rematches between teams from the same conference, rewarding teams for their seasons by making sure they don’t have to play the same team that they just played a week or two ago again.
The Selection Committee’s rules in that regard meant that the Florida Gators and South Carolina Gamecocks, having played twice in the regular season, could not meet before the Elite Eight. This is why they were placed on opposite sides of the East Region bracket, as a No. 4 seed and a No. 7 seed, rather than on the same side — where a No. 8 seed for the seemingly fading Gamecocks would have made more sense.
That rule probably helped keep Florida away from the Vanderbilt team that swept it in the regular season, as the Commodores ended up on the No. 9 line, and helped protect them from seeing Kentucky, as South Carolina occupied the only spot that was available to an SEC team on the other side of the East bracket.
And, of course, no team other than Kentucky, South Carolina, or Vanderbilt has beaten the Gators since before Christmas.
But now the Gators and Gamecocks are set to face off in a third game this season, marking the first time Florida has ever, in 20 NCAA Tournament appearances and 64 NCAA Tournament games, faced an SEC team during March Madness.
This is more a product of the Selection Committee’s principles than a reflection on the SEC, to be sure. Kentucky, which has been to a few more NCAA Tournaments than Florida, has not played an SEC team in Tournament play since 1986, when it played Alabama and LSU in consecutive games, and its only other matchup against a current SEC team came in 1978, when it knocked off then-Southwest Conference member Arkansas en route to the national title. And the Selection Committee was not quite so sophisticated or measured in its bracketing in 1986 as it is in 2017.
But it’s still true that Florida will be playing an SEC team on this Sunday, something it has never done before in NCAA Tournament play, despite having played multiple games against Butler, BYU, UCLA, Villanova, and Virginia in March since just 2005.
And Florida’s history of NCAA Tournament rematches is also very short. The Gators topped Ohio State in December 2006, then topped the Buckeyes again for the national title in 2007; they fell to UConn in December 2013, then lost to the Huskies again in the Final Four in 2014.
Despite the Gators being in line to play another rematch in the 2014 national final against either Kentucky or Wisconsin had they beaten UConn, and various other near-misses over the years — like No. 2 seed Kansas failing to make it to Memphis for a regional final rematch in 2014 — Florida has only played two NCAA Tournament games against teams it saw previously in the year, and has never played a team it saw twice before.
That familiarity makes previewing the final piece of the Florida-South Carolina trilogy both easier and more difficult. You can see it in the questions I answered for Garnet and Black Attack, and those the site’s Sydney Hunte answered for us: There’s a lot of shrugging about whether this game might more like the 57-53 slugfest that South Carolina won in Columbia in January or the 81-66 bruising the Gators gave the Gamecocks in Gainesville in February.
Still, there are two major things that have changed since the last time these teams saw each other are South Carolina’s overall performance — especially on offense — and Florida’s rest.
The Gamecocks have, to put it simply, had a wholly phenomenal NCAA Tournament, and been even more amazing when it comes to putting the ball in the basket. An offense ranked well into the triple digits in efficiency when March Madness began — one coming off three straight games of scoring less than a point per possession, and having failed to hit that threshold in five of its previous seven contests — is now as hot as any in the Tournament, having poured in 1.06 or more points per possession on Marquette, Duke, and Baylor, and scored an average of 87 points per game in those wins.
For those first two games — in which Carolina managed its third- and seventh-best performances in terms of points per possession this season — that success was premised on doing virtually everything right. The Gamecocks made shots, took care of the ball, and hammered the offensive boards, and got to the free throw line with significant frequency, and could scarcely be stopped as a result.
And when turnovers mounted against Baylor, the ‘Cocks just kept shooting and making, sinking eight threes on 20 attempts and pulling down 11 offensive rebounds in 33 opportunities to fuel their attack. Steals, too, have helped Frank Martin’s team, as its aggressive defense is once again giving its offense more chances to get points in transition — an aspect of basketball that Florida knows the value of so very well.
But Florida has handled the Gamecocks’ offense quite well this year, both with and without John Egbunu — that 57-53 win actually featured South Carolina’s worst offensive showing of the season by points per possession, and it scored just 0.94 points per possession in its loss to the Gators. And Florida did just fine against the vaunted South Carolina defense in Gainesville, shredding it for 1.16 points per trip and making nine of 19 threes despite turning it over 16 times.
My primary fear for the Gators on this afternoon has to do with their energy, and where it is following the cardiovascular challenge of Friday’s overtime thriller with Wisconsin. If the Gators come out flat, or run out of adrenaline and focus after overcompensating to avoid a flat start, the Gamecocks’ largely rested and always restive defense could eat them alive, and the game could devolve into a grind that would seem to be in South Carolina’s wheelhouse.
Florida, though, has the firepower to break out of a grinding game, as it showed on Friday night as KeVaughn Allen went supernova on Wisconsin. His 35 points established a new school record for points in an NCAA Tournament game — and were his most since a 26-point explosion on the Gamecocks in Gainesville. Given that Allen also had zero points at Columbia, it’s tempting to say that his play alone could be the deciding factor — but he’s not alone in having no-showed Florida-South Carolina games, given that the Gators’ second-leading scorer, Canyon Barry, had no points in Gainesville while recovering from an ankle sprain that limited him as the regular season waned.
It’s been more than a month since Barry rolled that ankle, though, and his incredible chase-down block on Friday night is a pretty good sign that he’s once again back at full strength, or somewhere in its proximity. And if Florida can get Allen and Barry to score in double figures in the same game for the first time since its trip to Vanderbilt, that might be more than enough to make whatever the Gators can do against Sindarius Thornwell and the Gamecocks offense stand up.
A Final Four sits on the other side of the third 40-minute rubber match between the Gators and Gamecocks in Madison Square Garden on this Sunday.
And winner takes all.