Kentucky coach John Calipari entered Tuesday’s game with a legitimate concern. He said on Monday’s SEC teleconference that South Carolina “presents more of a physical, disruptive challenge than most other opponents.”
The worry was rooted in recent history. USC was the enforcer last season at Colonial Life Arena, finishing plus-eight on the offense glass. Chris Silva had 27 points as the Gamecocks beat the Wildcats by eight.
A year later, none of the above repeated itself. Kentucky was the bully en route to a 76-48 drubbing of Carolina. The Wildcats limited the Gamecocks to their lowest point total of the season, outrebounded them by more any other USC opponent in 2018-19 and held Silva to four points and four boards.
The script was flipped.
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“When you play a basketball game and you play in a physical game,” said Carolina coach Frank Martin, “you’re gonna get hit. But if you run away from it or run around, it’s like everything else, the opposing team smells it.
“And once a physical team smells that the other team doesn’t like it, they’re going to keep coming at you.
“Can you change it? I don’t know. But it’s my job to keep pushing it and get it better than it was today.”
South Carolina (11-11, 6-3 SEC) next hosts Arkansas (14-8, 5-4) on Saturday. The good news is the Razorbacks, last in the SEC in rebound margin, won’t present nearly the kind of challenge as the Wildcats, league leaders in rebound margin. The bad news is Carolina is still struggling for answers on the glass.
Georgia and Kentucky combined for 41 offensive rebounds against the Gamecocks their last two games. USC has been out-rebounded in 11 games this season. That happened just four times through the first 22 games of last season — and only 10 through the full 33.
UK was plus-23 on the glass Tuesday.
“Rebounding was just a stat that represented our lack of physicality,” Martin said Tuesday.
And, perhaps, a big absence.
Silva, a 6-foot-9, 234-pound bulldog who entered averaging 23.5 points and 9.8 rebounds over the previous four games, logged 15 minutes against the Wildcats. He picked up two fouls by the 15:43 mark of the first half. He had four by the 12:31 mark of the second.
The senior All-SEC forward never had much of a shot to impose his will and give USC any kind of physical edge.
“It’s kind of hard on me,” Silva said, “because when I go on the court, I try to be physical and fouls are being called on me. When I get too passive, it’s kind of not me so I feel out of my comfort zone. It’s just a big adjustment.
“In practice, Coach always tries to talk to me and mentor me to find a good balance so I can stay in the game and try to help my guys.”
Silva has committed four or more fouls 16 times this season — and 75 times over 124 career games.
“I need to probably bring an extra suit when we go on the road,” Martin said, “so (Silva) can just sit there on the bench and hold a clipboard.”
Yet in limited action Tuesday, Silva still co-led the Gamecocks on the boards, joining guards A.J. Lawson and Hassani Gravett and swingman Keyshawn Bryant. No post player — Maik Kotsar (three), Felipe Haase (three) or Alanzo Frink (two) — finished with more than three rebounds.
“Rebounding was the difference in the game,” Calipari said.
The Gamecocks dropped to 3-5 this season when Silva logs 20 or fewer minutes, including two SEC losses.
“Maybe we were a little more aggressive than them,” Calipari said, “I don’t know. Or the ball bounced our way, I don’t know. Silva only playing 15 minutes affects them.”
Who: Arkansas (14-8, 5-4 SEC) at South Carolina (11-11, 6-3)
When: 3:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Colonial Life Arena
TV: SEC Network