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THE BIG PREVIEW: Virginia at South Carolina

Virginia heads to Columbia after the exam break to take on the Gamecocks.

NCAA Basketball: South Carolina at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

The No. 5 Virginia Cavaliers come out of the exam break with a trio of non-conference tests before heading into ACC play. The first is a road game against the South Carolina Gamecocks, which is a nice appetizer for fans looking forward to the Belk Bowl matchup between these two schools on the 29th.

Like the Hoos’ previous opponent, the Gamecocks surprisingly went to a Final Four a few years ago. The Gamecocks did it as a 7-seed just two years ago. Last season didn’t go quite as well as they finished 17-16 and did not play in the postseason. This year, they are 4-5 and coming off a tough road loss against Michigan. It’s tough for the Gamecocks as Michigan and Virginia in back to back games has to be one of the toughest stretches any team will play this season. On KenPom, Michigan is currently ranked as the #3 defense in the country and Virginia is #4.

This year’s Gamecocks are led in scoring by Canadian freshman guard A.J. Lawson. He’s a combo guard who looks more like a wing. He’s 6’6, but weighs just 172 pounds. He leads the team in shot attempts by a wide margin, but isn’t particularly efficient. He’s shooting just 41% from the field and 30% from three, where he’s taken nearly half (46-of-99) of his shots for a team that’s 254th nationally in three-point shooting. He also leads the team in assists by a wide margin. They don’t shoot a ton of outside shots though, preferring to score either in transition or down low with their various big men.

The best of those big men is Chris Silva, who led the team in scoring last year. This year, he’s second in scoring and first in rebounds. At 6’9, 234, he can score inside a bit, but that isn’t really his game. He loves to get up and down the floor and score in transition. He can also shoot it a little bit (38% career from three on just 21 attempts), but that isn’t his game, either. Instead, he gets a lot of his points off dunks and layups, usually created by other people.

This is basically the same play twice. Silva fakes a screen and then slips into the paint, almost uncontested. Silva’s quickness makes this happen. He’s simply too quick for Michigan’s big men. One would think that Tony has seen this on film and the Hoos will be prepared for it.

Frank Martin’s squad is one of the fastest in the nation (20th right now in adjusted tempo). Historically, his teams have not been this fast, but there are a number of guys on this roster who want to run. Chances are, they’ll slow down in conference play, but they’ve been playing very quickly so far. Even against Michigan, a very slow team, they played 71 possessions, more than Virginia has played in any regulation game in over five years. The speed is almost entirely on offense. They are 20th in the nation in shortest offensive possessions, but 232nd in defensive possessions. They aren’t pressing or playing high-pressure defense. They’re just running every time they get the ball. Here’s an example.

This is against a very good Michigan defense. Freshman TJ Moss gets the rebound and immediately pushes the basketball. Lawson is open on the wing and gets moving before his man is ready to defend, leading to an easy layup.

Bennett will have the guys ready to play transition defense, especially coming off such a long break. Don’t expect the Gamecocks to get those looks too often.

This fast pace may not be working out for the Gamecocks. They opened the season ranked 41st on KenPom. They are currently ranked 107th. They are 4-5 and their best win is over 189th ranked Coastal Carolina (by six, at home), while they’ve lost to 169th StonyBrook (at home) and 201st Wyoming (on the road). The only common opposition with Virginia is GW. Virginia beat GW 76-57, while South Carolina beat them 90-55.

The hero for Gamecock basketball this year has been Hassani Gravett. The senior has been about the only above average offensive player. He’s knocking down 47% of his treys, after being just a 33% shooter for his career. He’s third on the team in scoring, but just fifth on the team in FGA. Prior to this year, he saw a lot of time at PG, but now he’s playing exclusively off the ball. He’s more dangerous there, because he moves well without the ball, and he can also spot up on the outside. At 6’2, 188, he’s a good matchup for Kyle Guy. Here’s a clip of him knocking down a contested three against Coastal Carolina.

He had a career high 23 points in that contest. He was also 3-for-3 against Michigan for nine points in just 20 minutes, so he’s not just doing it against lesser competition. Definitely a guy to key on. Maybe THE guy to key on, because so many of the Gamecock players simply aren’t going to hurt a good defense.

One guy who can is Estonian big man Maik Kotsar. At 6’11, 264, he’s a tough cover inside, but is exactly what Jack Salt is around for. Here’s an example of Kotsar’s inside game:

That’s too much dribbling for a big man in the paint. He won’t be able to bully Salt in that situation. However, Kotsar can also face up his man.

That would be tougher for Salt to stop man-to-man, but the Pack Line is basically designed to prevent that from happening.

The strength of this team is their length. They generate a lot of turnovers with their length and block a lot of shots. Four Gamecocks are in the top 350 nationally in block rate and four are in the top 350 in steal rate. For comparison, Virginia has just one player in the top 500 in block rate (Salt, though Mamadi Diakite would be there if he played more) and three players in the top 500 in steal rate (with Jerome and Key both in the top 25). Kotsar is in the top 350 in both categories. He’s a strong interior defender, but struggles defending quicker guy like Diakite or Jay Huff.

South Carolina’s defense is very disruptive. The big men inside allow them to gamble for steals without giving up a lot of easy buckets. They rank eighth nationally in two point defense, but those big men don’t do a lot to prevent open treys when the gamble fails. They rank 317th in three point defense. Overall, they are 61st in defensive efficiency. Michigan, however, scored 1.25 points per possession. That’s despite 16 turnovers (22.5%). Michigan simply couldn’t be stopped offensively when they didn’t turn it over. They shot 60% on the inside and 42% from outside.

Virginia will be without starting point guard Kihei Clark, who is out after getting wrist surgery for a fracture. He’s been a solid ball handler that allows Ty Jerome to move off-ball, so the Hoos will have to figure out a way to make it all work without Clark.

On the other hand SC scored 1.1 points per possession against Michigan’s stout defense. Most of that damage came on the inside, as Silva and Kotsar combined to score 34 points on 13-for-22 shooting from the field. SC also got a lift from freshman Keyshawn Bryant, who had 13 points on 6-for-13 shooting. The high-flying lefty isn’t much of a shooter, but can do things like this:

Frankly, that’s just poor defense, giving up the backdoor cut. Michigan doesn’t have the interior depth that Virginia has with Salt, Diakite, and Huff all capable defenders on the interior.

Assuming Virginia’s big men can handle the Gamecock’s interior scoring, Virginia won’t need to be quite as efficient as Michigan was. And given South Carolina’s struggles defending outside the arc, Virginia should be able to knock down enough treys to come away with the road win.