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NCAA Tournament Semifinal Game Preview: Gonzaga face South Carolina’s suffocating defense

A game of two of college basketball’s defenses to decide who plays in the championship

Xavier v Gonzaga Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

This preview was written a couple hours before I squeezed into a car with four other Zags Thursday afternoon. By the time it’s posted, I might be getting out of the state of Utah and begin seeing road signs for the final destination: Phoenix. The Sonoran Desert is the final destination for this iteration of Gonzaga basketball as well. A season that served as a microcosm for where this program stands ends sometime between tip-off at 3:09 pm on Saturday and Monday night.

For a large contingency of the Gonzaga fanbase, everything following last Saturday feels almost like an epilogue. We made it. But there is still much basketball to be played, and an opportunity to win one more tournament. Why not win the darn thing? Standing in their way for a chance at one more game is the Gamecocks of South Carolina, representatives of the East bracket.

Meet our opponent

University of South Carolina Gamecocks 26-10 (12-6), KenPom 25

The Gamecocks are resilient. That much is evident not only in looking at their season, their coach, their star player but also their road to Arizona. Led by fiery Frank Martin, South Carolina plays a brand of defense that is unparalleled. A disciple of Bob Huggins, Martin has implemented a defense-first style in Columbia. The Gamecocks are second in KenPom in adjusted defense (behind only the Zags).

The resiliency in their defense is apparent in every possession. Their half-court defense contests every pass, every shot, every dribble and chase every loose ball and every rebound. Their best defender, senior guard Sindarius Thornwell, is also the team’s best overall player. The SEC Player of the Year averages 21.6 points, 7.2 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game. Thornwell is by most accounts the most valuable player left in the tournament. He’s averaged 25.75 points and 7.5 rebounds during the Gamecocks run in the dance.

South Carolina relies heavily on transition points off of turnovers and stops on the defensive end to make up for what is a pretty average offense. Ranking 105th in adjusted offense on KenPom, the Gamecocks have shot 42 percent from the field and 33.7 percent from three on the year. Thornwell is joined by three other guys that average double digit points, fellow guards PJ Dozier and Duane Notice and sophomore big Chris Silva.

Silva will have plenty of work Saturday night, as he and Malik Kotsar will be given the duty of guarding the rotation of Gonzaga’s front court. Silva is 6-feet-9-inches and weights in at 223 pounds, with Kotsar at 6-feet-10-inches and 245 pounds. These are the only bigs that get noticeable minutes for South Carolina (expect an appearance from 6-feet-9-inches Sedee Keita, who averages nine minutes). To make up for this lack of depth, Martin implores his guards to denny entry passes inside.

What to watch out for

The lack of size

Silva maybe the X-factor of this game when you consider the forward’s foul history. The big has fouled out of 10 of the 36 games played this season. He’s racked up four fouls in all but the Duke game in this tournament. If Silva is pinned with fouls, the Gamecocks’ job gets a lot harder. Relying on a freshman with limited minutes like Keita to go up against Przemek Karnowski, Johnthan Williams, Zach Collins and Killian Tillie is less than ideal.

Thornwell’s undisclosed illness

Writing this Thursday, news came out that Sidarious Thornwell didn’t make media sessions on the first official day for teams at the Final Four. Don’t get your hopes up for Thornwell’s absence, as Martin didn’t seem all too concerned, and it would take a hell of a lot to keep a player like him off the court in the biggest setting. It will be interesting to see if whatever is going on affects Thornwell and South Carolina, as he is the focal point to their system and chances.

How will the guards play?

South Carolina’s defense is grueling and the closest parallel to their physicality would be that of West Virginia’s press defense. Though perhaps not as hectic, it is surely as suffocating. Nigel Williams-Goss did not have his best showing in that matchup and will no doubt need to perform better for the Zags to operate against such a stifling opponent. The Zags can’t afford Josh Perkins to not take a shot like he failed to do against the Mountaineers in the Sweet 16. How the back court responds to the pressure will decide how well the Zags chances are to survive Saturday.

Expect ugly

Two top ranked defenses will make for some stomach turning offensive performances and possessions. Add that to South Carolina’s bottom-half of Division I offensive numbers and their proneness to foul and we are looking at perhaps yet another Gonzaga-West Virginia style game. Oh yeah, and the game is in a freaking football stadium. Enjoy that skewed depth perception.

Game info

Time: 3:09 PM PT
TV: CBS (Jim Nantz, Bill Raftery, Grant Hill and Tracy Wolfson)
Radio: Gonzaga IMG Radio Network (Tom Hudson and Matt Santangelo)
Online: March Madness Live