Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Gamecocks Continue to Build on Their Season With a Win Over Drexel

If you live around or work in downtown Columbia, South Carolina, you know there is a lot of construction going on in the city.   Lots of new student housing is being built, along with a new law school.  Finally around the Colonial Life Arena, there is the Innovista Greene Street Corridor project, which looks to turn Greene Street into a more friendly area for pedestrians and bicyclists.

So it stands to reason that inside Colonial Life Arena, there's a lot of building going on as well, as in Frank Martin building a successful men's basketball program.  In Martin's first three seasons, the Gamecocks have slowly improved.  In 2012-13, they were 14-18 and 4-14 in the SEC. In 2013-14, the Gamecocks went 14-20 and 5-13 in the SEC, but they also knocked off Auburn and Arkansas to make the SEC Tournament quarterfinals.  Last season, South Carolina finished over .500 for the first time since the 2008-09 season.  The Gamecocks went 17-16 and 6-12 in the SEC.  They won two games again in the SEC Tournament before losing to Georgia in the SEC quarterfinals.

This season, Martin's Gamecocks are off to their best record since the 1970-71 team that made the NCAA Sweet Sixteen (back when it was incredibly difficult to make the NCAA Tournament).  That 1970 Gamecocks team was coached by the legendary Frank McGuire and had terrific players like John Roche, Tom Owens, Kevin Joyce and Tom Riker.

There are several reasons for the Gamecocks' terrific start.  One, balanced scoring.  They have five players averaging in double figures scoring; Mindaugas Kacinas 13.3 ppg, Laimonas Chatkevicius 13.0 ppg, Michael Carrera 12.2 ppg, Sindarius Thornwell 11.7 ppg and Duane Notice 11.6 ppg.  Second, they have depth.  The Gamecocks have added two terrific freshman in PJ Dozier and Chris Silva.   Throw in sophomore Marcus Stroman and you have eight players that average fifteen or more minutes per game.  Third, they have increased their average points per game by nineteen points from the previous season.  Entering the game against Drexel Tuesday night, South Carolina was averaging 84 points per game.

I had seen two of the Gamecocks' games on CBS Sports Network in the Paradise Jam; the 94-84 semifinal win over Hofstra and the 83-75 win over Tulsa.  In the ten point win over the Pride, despite Hofstra hitting a school record seventeen 3 pointers and shooting fifty percent from the field, South Carolina shot 54 percent from the field and had eighteen offensive rebounds, which led to eleven more field goal attempts than Hofstra.  The Gamecocks had shown much better ball movement in both their Paradise Jam games than I had seen any Martin coached team since he came to Columbia in 2012.

Drexel on the other hand had struggled entering the game on Tuesday night vs. South Carolina, having lost six of their first seven games.  In fact the Dragons only won their first game of the season in their previous game, a 66-53 win over LaSalle.  Outside of a nineteen point loss to UNC Asheville in the Great Alaska Shootout, Drexel had been within single digits in all of their other losses.

Under Bruiser Flint, the Dragons have been long known for a defensive style of game.  They try to slow the pace, work the clock on offense, play physical, rebound the ball and keep opponents within the sixty point range. To Colonial Athletic Conference fans, aka #CAAHoops fans, everywhere, they are known for rock fight basketball, often ugly to watch low scoring games.   In fact, the Dragons have not averaged seventy or more points per game since the 2004-05 season when Phil Goss, Sean Brooks and Dominick Mejia were leading Drexel.  Scott Bier has an excellent take on Dragons Speak what Drexel needs to do to adapt to the new NCAA rules.

The problem is with the new freedom of movement rules in the NCAA, unlike the Gamecocks, the Dragons seem to be set in their ways.  After last night's game. they average sixty eight points per game and are only shooting forty percent from the field and thirty two percent from beyond the arc.  And they are fouling like mad.  Their FTA/FGA defense is 350th in the nation at 59.6.

After I purchased a ticket at the ticket office in the lower level of Colonial Life Arena, I met up briefly with my good friend Mike Brodsky who flew down to see the game.   We caught up a bit and then I headed to my seat up in Section 104.   Not quite as good as my women's basketball season tickets, but a perfectly fine view for the game.   I also got to catch up with fellow former Mid Majority 800 Games Project writer and friend Ian McCormick, whose excellent photography work will come into play later in this article.

Unlike the crowd of 13,000 plus at Sunday's women's game, there was about 8500 fans in the seats on Tuesday night.   Mind you, USC is on winter break so seemingly the only students there was the band, the cheerleaders and the dance team.  Plus the men's team is not anywhere the #2 ranked women have been for the past several years so the fan base is slowly warming up to this team.

The game started out in classic Drexel CAA rockfight fashion.  It took only nine seconds for the Dragons to pick up their first foul and then another nine seconds later, they had their second foul, a foul of a three point attempt by Dozier.  Dozier then hit two out of three free throws, a harbinger of things to come, to start the scoring for the game.  South Carolina went out to an early 6-2 lead before Drexel scored the next seven points, including a Rashann London three pointer to go up 9-6. The Gamecocks responded to take back the lead 10-9 on, what else, two Thornwell free throws.

The game was briefly stopped after Rodney Williams was injured on a play by the announcers table.  Two Drexel teammates had to help a limping Williams off the court.   He would appear on the bench in the second half but not play again.

After Sammy Mojica buried one of his three 3-pointers on the night to put Drexel back up 12-10, the teams did not score a basket for the next two plus minutes  Mojica would hit a jumper to put Drexel up 14-10 with 11:38 left in the half.  Drexel would be up by many as six, 21-15 with 8:23 left in the half.

Up till then, the Gamecocks looked sluggish on offense, None of the crisp ball movement I had seen at the Paradise Jam on TV.  South Carolina had six turnovers in the first ten minutes of the game and only had nine field goal attempts.  They went to the free throw line thirteen times and only made seven of them.   The pace heavily favored Drexel and the fans in my section were none too pleased, especially with the officials.

Suddenly, the Gamecocks awoke, scoring eight straight points, capped by the six foot eleven Chatkevicius burying a three pointer to put South Carolina up 26-21, forcing an unhappy Bruiser Flint to call timeout with a little over five minutes left in the half.  Drexel would eventually get the deficit within one, 28-27, before South Carolina took a 32-28 lead at the half.

I happened to turnaround and sitting behind me was John Humphries and his son Stan.  John is one of my fellow board members at Trenholm Little League and as I was talking to John, I noticed Steve Stanton, former Trenholm Little League President and current Trenholm Little League
umpire.  So we all caught up on Little League and Women's basketball at halftime.  Pretty cool.

Whatever Frank Martin said to his team at halftime worked, because the Gamecocks sped up the pace immediately at the start of the second half.  Kacinas and Thornwell each nailed three pointers, both assisted by Dozier.  Then off a bad turnover by Terrell Allen, where he tried a behind the back pass in the lane with traffic, Dozier hit a layup and one.  Dozier hit the free throw for the old fashioned three point play and just like that, South Carolina was up thirteen, 41-28 with a little less than nineteen minutes left in the game.  Sadly my iPhone battery died in the middle of my tweet that I was about to send noting the run.

It went bad to worse for Drexel.  The Gamecocks ramped up the D and the Dragons ramped up the bad shot selection, despite South Carolina only scoring one more basket for the next several minutes.  Tavon Allen and Tyshawn Miles each chucked up a bad shot.  Mohamed Bah had chance to hit a couple of free throws at the line and badly missed.  Mojica missed an open look at a three.  The Dragons didn't score a basket for five minutes and twenty second until six foot seven Kazembe Abif, who reminds me of a lefthanded Greg Washington, buried a nice three pointer to make the score 43-31.

Unfortunately for Drexel, that's as close as they got the rest of the way.  South Carolina scored the next seven points to extend the lead to nineteen 50-31.  The Gamecocks showed much better ball movement with twelve assists in the second half after having only two in the first half.

There were two highlights in the second half, one on the offensive end for the Gamecocks and one for Drexel, which featured Bruiser Flint.   With about five minutes left in the game, Notice shot a three point jumper.  No one on the Dragons blocked the lane as Notice's shot bounced off the rim and the freshman Silva quickly ran the lane, leaped and in one motion one handed the rebound and slammed it back down for an emphatic dunk!  

Picture by Ian McCormick (@HPUfan on Twitter)
As for Bruiser, well midway through the second half, Bruiser got a little too far out of the coaches box arguing a call with a referee.  The referee stopped play and gave Bruiser a warning for being out of the coaches box.  Mike Brodsky appropriately tweeted the play, while Ian McCormick took this outstanding picture.

What was left was both teams emptying the benches as Ian McCormick, who joined me in the second half, noted for different reasons; South Carolina was emptying the bench to get some of their players minutes while Drexel was emptying their bench because they had so many players foul out, plus Rodney Williams was out for the rest of the game due to his first half injury. Austin Williams, Terrell Allen and Myles all fouled out.  Andrew Cartright, a six foot six freshman from Maine, who hadn't played all season, had to come in and played three minutes.  South Carolina would score forty seven second half points to win the game 79-54.

Once again, South Carolina had balanced scoring with five players with at least nine points.  Dozier led the Gamecocks with sixteen, Thornwell had thirteen, Carrera added ten points and Chatkevicius and Silva each had nine points.   With Drexel fouling so much, the Gamecocks had THIRTY NINE free throw attempts.  South Carolina needs to take advantage with that many free throw attempts, as they only hit on twenty two in the game.

Tavon Allen led all scorers with eighteen points for Drexel, but he was only six of eighteen from the field and his shot selection left a lot to be desired.  Mojica added thirteen and was three of six from beyond the arc.  Abif had nine points and honestly should have got the ball more.

South Carolina now has eight double digit margin of victory wins. Their only win not by double digits was the eight point championship victory over Tulsa in the Paradise Jam.  They haven't had the strongest of non conference schedules.  But that will pick up in the next few weeks as they play at Clemson, then vs. St John's and a home game vs. Memphis before SEC conference play starts.

As previously noted for Drexel, they seem to be still stuck in pre 2015-16 season mode of play.  Mike Brodsky heard the referees on several Drexel fouls noting "...hands on the waist", which the NCAA is really trying to cut down on with their freedom of movement rules.   The classic rock fight strategy of Drexel's past no longer holds up today.

The Dragons have not had a twenty game winning season since the the 2011-12 team nearly made the NCAA tournament with a 29-7 record (lost in NIT Quarterfinals to UMass).  In fact, two of the last three seasons, Drexel has had a losing record.  Bruiser may not need to change his style of dress, because he is a dapper dresser.  But if Bruiser doesn't adapt to the new style of play, he may have to take his wardrobe somewhere else after this season.

As for Frank Martin, a very sharp dresser in his own right, he's got his team moving in the right direction.  The ball movement is light years better than the last three seasons, the team has balanced scoring and depth.   A few more good wins, especially in conference and the Gamecocks Men's Basketball team will start drawing as well as the women's team.

That's something to build on.

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