South Carolina, Kentucky face off with unbeaten SEC records
LEXINGTON, Ky. — Only two undefeated teams remain in the Southeastern Conference and they meet Saturday when No. 5 Kentucky (16-2, 6-0) welcomes No. 24 South Carolina (15-3, 5-0) to Rupp Arena.
For Kentucky coach John Calipari, it’s a chance to work against one of his favorite people, South Carolina coach Frank Martin.
“I’ve always liked Frank, and he knows that,” Calipari said. “I’ve always respected him as a coach and I know how he doesn’t baby kids; he’s coaching them.
“You watch him, I need our fans to watch him closely because he’s harder on his guys than I am on our guys. But I respect that. That means he had a great relationship with the guys.
“What he’s been able to do down there to build it, year to year, to lose their whole front line, they lost good players, to come back and be able to do? To be undefeated in the league and win games on the road, like at Georgia, which is an impossible place to win a game and they won it handily.
“They do it rebounding, they do it giving you a tough shot, they do it full rotations, they’ll bring four guys at the ball. You drive, they’re coming three, four deep at you.”
Given the history, fireworks are almost guaranteed. Last season in Columbia, Calipari lasted just over two minutes before being ejected for arguing the veracity of South Carolina’s offensive rebounding. The coach received two technicals while being physically restrained by players Isaiah Briscoe and Jamal Murray.
With assistant Kenny Payne at the helm, Kentucky obliterated South Carolina, leading by as many as 34 points en route to the 89-62 win.
Ejections are unlikely this time around, but that won’t dampen the intensity when facing a Frank Martin-coached team.
“I’ve been in the ring and I’ve boxed,” Martin said Thursday. “If we were boxing, we’re not going in there to dance and run around. We’re going in there and see if you’re willing to knock me out.”
Martin’s intense defense has drawn criticism for being too physical. Last year, Payne said South Carolina “wanted to physically intimidate us, wanted to beat us up.” Just don’t expect the hard-nosed coach to change his ways.
“We don’t beat anybody up,” Martin said. “We just don’t give up on a single play. We play basketball.
“I want us to play the right way for 40 minutes. Not just let people walk around and be who they want to be. We want to make people uncomfortable.”
Kentucky averages 93.3 points per game, second best in the nation. South Carolina limits opponents to 59.4, which ranks fourth nationally.
South Carolina comes in riding a five-game win streak, including a 57-53 upset of No. 19 Florida on Wednesday. The Gamecocks rallied from a 28-21 halftime deficit to win by four points.
Sindarius Thornwell, who scored 20 points in the win over Florida, leads the Gamecocks at 18.2 points and 6.9 rebounds per game. P.J Dozier, at 14.6 points, is the only other player averaging in double figures.
“He’s one of those guys that score baskets, he can rebound, they play him at four at times when they go small,” Calipari said of Thornwell. “Now they’ve got four guards and he’s a pick-and-pop guy or they just run their action and give him the ball and just say drive it. He’s really good, he’s tough, he’s physical. I mean, this is another team that’s gonna be scrappy. Auburn played that way, Mississippi State played that way.”
Kentucky, winners of six straight and nine of 10 overall, is led by freshman guard Malik Monk at 21.4 points per game. Freshman guard De’Aaron Fox is averaging 16.7, sophomore guard Isaiah Briscoe 15.2 and freshman forward Bam Adebayo 12.8. Adebayo also averages 7.2 rebounds per game.
There are two common opponents. Kentucky defeated Texas A&M 100-58 and South Carolina topped the Aggies 79-68. UK routed Ole Miss 99-76 and Carolina won 67-56. All games were on the winner’s home court except for Kentucky’s win in Oxford, Miss.
“They’re gonna play — they’re not backing down,” Calipari said. “They’re coming in with an expectation. It’s gonna be a hard game for us.”