South Carolina is one game away from reaching the SEC Tournament semifinals for the first time in 13 years.
One winnable game.
It’ll be fifth-seeded Auburn that faces the No. 4 Gamecocks around 3:30 p.m. Friday. The Tigers beat Missouri, 81-71, on Thursday to advance to the quarterfinal round of the league’s marquee event at Bridgestone Arena. While Auburn (23-9) seems like a safe bet to play in next week’s NCAA Tournament — and South Carolina has plenty of work to do — it’s USC (16-15) that perhaps enters this particular contest with an edge.
Just ask Bruce Pearl.
“When you say it’s all about matchups, and sometimes that’s kind of a canned praise, I think there’s a lot to that,” the Tigers coach said earlier this week. “And I would say that our matchup against South Carolina with Frank (Martin) has been a difficult one. I’d go as far to say his system, matching up against what we do, they’ve been more successful than we have.”
Since Pearl took over on The Plains in 2014, his Tigers have two wins against the Gamecocks. That ties for their fewest against any SEC foe over that span, minus Florida.
“Frank Martin has my number, not just my phone number but my number,” Pearl said Thursday. “I think he’s won three out of the last five, something along those lines. What they do defensively bothers us. They extend. Makes it hard to run your stuff. You overplay. They’re physical, they’re tough.
“(Chris) Silva is a major factor, how the officials referee him is huge. He’s so active, athletic, bouncy. He gets himself into some trouble, he draws a lot of fouls. Draws a lot of contact.”
USC’s taken four of the last five matchups, including an 80-77 thriller at Colonial Life Arena on Jan. 22. Chris Silva, with 32 points and 14 rebounds, was dominant that night as Auburn had no post answer with Austin Wiley sidelined with a lower leg injury. The 6-foot-10 Wiley, who entered the tournament averaging 8 points and 5 rebounds, has been in and out of the lineup the majority of SEC season. He missed his fifth straight game Thursday and he’s doubtful to play Friday.
Without Wiley, Silva played a pivotal role in Auburn’s other bigs — 6-7 Anfernee McLemore and 6-8 Horace Spencer — fouling out in the first matchup.
“They got like short guards, a couple guards play bigs and their bigs aren’t that tall, so I find my way to the rim,” Silva said. “My teammates try to find me every time because of the mismatch. I try to use my athleticism, too.
“The way they play allows me to be aggressive and get open down low. And during those games, I guess my teammates pass me the ball.”
Silva, an All-SEC first-teamer for a second straight season, is averaging 20 points and 10 rebounds over his last four games against Auburn.
“So whether it’s the way they defend the physicality (that hurts us), obviously Frank does a great job,” Pearl said. “If we get to that point, we’re going to have to evaluate what is is what we do and how we do it and find some things that are gonna be more effective than what they’ve been historically over the last five years.”
Who: No. 5 seed Auburn (23-9) vs. No. 4 seed South Carolina (16-15)
When: Approx. 3:30 p.m. Friday
Where: Bridgestone Arena in Nashville
At stake: Spot in SEC Tournament semifinals
Radio: 107.5 FM The Game in Columbia area
Series: Auburn leads 24-19
Last meeting: Jan. 22, 2019 — South Carolina 80, Auburn 77
Streak: South Carolina’s won four of five
Auburn projected starters: G Jared Harper (15.2 ppg), G Bryce Brown (15.7), G Samir Doughty (7.3), F Chuma Okeke (11.9), F Anfernee McLemore (7.3)
South Carolina projected starters: G Tre Campbell (7.0), G Hassani Gravett (11.6), F Keyshawn Bryant (9.1), F Felipe Haase (6.2), F Chris Silva (14.8)