If history provides any indication, this could be a special season for South Carolina.
The Gamecocks on Sunday beat Missouri, 85-75, to run their winning streak to four and to remain unbeaten in SEC play. USC is 3-0 against league competition, matching the 1996-97 and 2016-17 seasons for the best SEC starts in school history. Twenty-two years ago, the Gamecocks went from 3-0 to 15-1 and were crowned league champions. Two years ago, Carolina ended up in the Final Four.
The 2018-19 team is different from the above squads in several ways, but most notably for its overall record. These Gamecocks have stormed back from a 5-7 non-conference showing to get here. That’s getting easy to forget after watching them top Florida, Mississippi State and Mizzou over the last nine days.
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Here’s from what we learned from Sunday’s performance:
Chris Silva remains dominant
After a win over North Greenville on New Year’s Eve, Frank Martin was asked if he pays attention to plus-minus numbers. It’s a statistic that measures how a team did while one player is on the floor.
The Carolina coach quickly made clear that he’s not a plus-minus fan. His reasoning centered around USC’s best player.
“If you’re in the game when Chris is in the game,” Martin said, “nine times out of 10 your plus-minus is going to be better than when you’re in the game when Chris is not in the game just because he’s that good of a ball-screen defender, that good at protecting the rim. You don’t give up bad baskets and then you have a guy that can score at the rim. Things are easier.”
Chris Silva scored 14 points against Missouri, a total he’s now reached 34 times his his career, not that all reflective of a dominant afternoon. Keyshawn Bryant (15) scored more for the Gamecocks and Javon Pickett (21) scored more for the Tigers.
But most observers would tell you no one out-played Silva on Sunday afternoon. A number to back that up? The Gamecocks outscored the Tigers by 29 points when their All-SEC forward was on the court.
“He plays the same way regardless of who the opponent is,” Mizzou coach Cuonzo Martin said of Silva, who added four rebounds, four blocks, three steals and two assists while helping foul out Tiger center Jeremiah Tilmon. “Give him credit for being tough, aggressive. He’s not a dirty player. He’s not a wild player. He plays a hard, physical brand of basketball.”
USC has outscored opponents by 78 points with Silva on the floor this season. That’s tops among Gamecocks.
Gamecocks keep piling up the points
A Hassani Gravett free throw with 51 seconds left gave the Gamecocks something they failed to achieve all of last season. They were at 80 points in regulation for the sixth time in 2018-19. That happened just five times a year ago.
USC is playing quicker this season and it’s showing in the final scores. The Gamecocks are averaging 75.5 points per game, threatening to top the 2015-16 team (76.0 ppg) for Martin’s highest scoring bunch since he arrived in Columbia seven years ago.
“I like tempo,” Martin said. “I like playing fast, aggressive. I can’t ask our guys to play defensively, to disrupt and create open court opportunities, the way we try to play defensively, and then say, ‘All right, don’t run. Let’s walk it up.’
“Turn A.J. (Lawson) loose, turn Keyshawn (Bryant) loose, Hassani turn him loose.”
Missouri entered Sunday No. 322 nationally in tempo, while South Carolina was No. 21. USC’s style won out. The Tigers averaged 18 seconds a possession, nearly a full second quicker than their average.
Bench rules again
Jason Cudd didn’t play much, but his injury cuts another bench option for Martin for the foreseeable future. Bad luck has struck the Gamecocks this season. Yet the bench continues to produce.
USC’s bench players outscored Missouri’s reserves by 20 points Sunday. The Gamecocks have now won the bench points battle 12 times this season and have tied once. It’s a fairly remarkable note considering Martin, because of injuries, often can’t go beyond a rotation of seven players.
Gravett, who scored 12 points against the Tigers without making a field goal, could be in consideration for SEC Sixth Man of the Year. Reserve forward Felipe Haase, who had a season-high 14 Sunday, is averaging 10 points in SEC play after reaching double figures in just one non-conference game.