Final Four 2017: South Carolina preview

Mar 26, 2017; New York, NY, USA; South Carolina Gamecocks guard PJ Dozier (15) celebrates after beating the Florida Gators in the finals of the East Regional of the 2017 NCAA Tournament at Madison Square Garden. Mandatory Credit: Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 26, 2017; New York, NY, USA; South Carolina Gamecocks guard PJ Dozier (15) celebrates after beating the Florida Gators in the finals of the East Regional of the 2017 NCAA Tournament at Madison Square Garden. Mandatory Credit: Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports /

It’s Final Four week and we’re taking a look at the South Carolina Gamecocks, the Cinderella of the group

Frank Martin and his crew have crashed the Final Four party. Considered somewhat lucky to grab a 7th-seed on Selection Sunday, Sindarius Thornwell and Co. have put on a show, winning four straight games against teams whose ‘adjusted efficiency’ considered them underdogs against. Making new history for the program with every step forward they take, this is the most fun team left in the Final Four.

RELATED: Updated 2017 NCAA Tournament Bracket

An idiosyncratic, fun bunch that leans on its physical, defensive style to win games, it’s tough not to root for them. Here’s what you need to know about Frank Martin and the South Carolina Gamecocks.

Player to watch

The breakout star of this NCAA Tournament has been Sindarius Thornwell. The SEC Player of the Year has had his plaudits, but it’s now playing out on a national stage. The best player for the Gamecocks all regular season, Thornwell has taken it to another level during the NCAA Tournament. He’s averaging almost 26 points per game in the tournament, and hasn’t scored less than 24. Thornwell’s doing it very efficiently, on .500/.423/.820 shooting splits. Though he never sits — just 25 possessions this tournament have happened with him on the bench — the offense craters in his absence, playing almost 50 points per 100 possessions worse in those few short minutes he takes a breather.

And he continues to lead the charge on defense. Every game, he teams with PJ Dozier to press and harass the other teams’ best ballhandlers. He already has 8 steals and 4 blocks this tournament, and has hit the board on both ends with aplomb, averaging 7.5 rebounds per game. Thornwell’s senior year has been one to remember, and he’s even playing himself into NBA Draft consideration. The only thing that can make it sweeter would be a trip to the championship, with a chance to win it all.


This is one of the best defenses in the country. Frank Martin’s bunch makes sure nothing easy comes to their opponents on the offensive end. PJ Dozier and Sindarius Thornwell set the tone at the point of attack, with their length, physicality, and tenacity creating difficult paths for opposing ballhandlers. But everyone on the team buys into their mentality on the defensive end. No ground is given. Forays to the rim are blocked by swiping hands and a minimum of two bodies. Post-ups are aggressively doubled, and with Chris Silva and Maik Kotsar starting at the back, there’s enough physicality to hold up one-on-one. And the team rotates on a string when the ball is passed around the perimeter. There’s always a hand in a potential shooter’s face, and the team rotates as one when opponents try to swing the ball around. It’s incredible to watch.

They’re best at forcing turnovers and difficult shots. Their 3-point percentage ‘against’ is incredibly low — teams manage to hit just 30.1 percent of their attempts from deep against the Gamecocks. When combined with solid rim protection and a 45.3 percent mark from 2 (29th in the country), South Carolina is one of the toughest teams in the country to make a shot on. Since they also force turnovers on just about 25 percent of all possessions — 4th in the country — they’re a difficult nut to crack on the defensive end.


They can be exploited at the free throw line and on the boards, though. Their commitment to forcing turnovers and difficult shots leads to a lot of fouling, and players out of position for the (many) misses forced. Their defensive free throw rate is bottom 20 in the country, meaning their ratio of free throws to shots allowed is huge, and they’re among the worst 100 defensive rebounding teams in D-I.

But those details on defense pale in comparison to their weaknesses on offense. The Gamecocks came into the tournament at 149th in adjusted offensive efficiency, which literally qualifies as the lowest (in the KenPom era) to ever make the Final Four. They can’t shoot from three (33.3 percent on the year), and take way too many mid-range shots — around 40 percent of their total shots. Spoiler: they can’t hit those either. Put it all together with a middling turnover rate, and you’ve got the ingredients for the ‘worst’ offense to ever make the Final Four.

South Carolina has been much better than ‘worst,’ of course, on their way here. They’ve stepped it up from the mid-range and put a big emphasis on getting to the rim, which has created a lot of opportunities at the free throw line for them. But their problems from three have lingered — they’re at around 33 percent for the tournament so far. If they’re too cold from deep, or Gonzaga packs the paint to force threes, their offense could catch up to them.

Biggest key to victory against Gonzaga

Both Gonzaga and South Carolina are excellent defensive squads — they’re currently at 1-2 in the KP defensive efficiency ratings. But while Gonzaga pairs their defense with a top 15 offense, South Carolina can struggle at times on the offensive end. They’re going to need ways to exploit Gonzaga’s few defensive weaknesses to make up for it.

Luckily, they’re decently well set up to do it. One of Gonzaga’s few defensive weaknesses is its relative lack of size on the defensive wing. Every player in its main guard rotation — 1 through 3 — is 6-foot-4 or under. Both Thornwell and Dozier, South Carolina’s main offensive threats, are much bigger than their wing defenders. Though Gonzaga unleashed the athletic Johnathan Williams on Xavier’s Trevon Blueitt in the last round, he can only cover one of the two. And if South Carolina keeps two big men out there, that can help create mismatches for their bigs. Dozier and Thornwell will have to win their individual battles against smaller defenders to punish Gonzaga for this.

And, as I looked at in another article, South Carolina has been excellent this tournament in exploring their transition opportunities. They’re currently scoring nearly 1.3 points per possession on transition chances during the tournament, and they should have the chance to generate a few of them. Gonzaga struggled offensively against West Virginia’s press in their Elite Eight game, and South Carolina has a similarly aggressive, physical style on that end. In transition appears to be one of the few areas Gonzaga is even sort of weak on D. They’re allowing nearly a point per possession on transition opportunities this year, as opposed to 0.81 PPP in the half-court. Attacking the defense before their bigs — Karnowski, Collins, Williams, or Tillie — can get set in the middle will be extremely necessary for South Carolina’s offense to thrive in this matchup.