Unbeaten Gamecocks welcome Catamounts
South Carolina is one of the biggest surprises of the young college basketball season.
The Gamecocks are 6-0 and coming off back-to-back impressive wins over Michigan and Syracuse. They beat both the Wolverines and the Orange by double digits behind stout defensive efforts.
South Carolina entered the AP Poll at No. 20 this week. Still, Gamecocks coach Frank Martin knows his team has its hands full Thursday, when the scrappy Vermont Catamounts visit Colonial Life Arena in Columbia, S.C.
“(Being) 6-0 doesn't help you win No. 7 in any way, shape or fashion,” Martin said. “So we've got our work cut out for us. Vermont is a very good basketball team.”
Like the Gamecocks, Vermont (6-2) is off to a solid start to the season. The Catamounts' only two defeats came against Providence and Houston. They are coming off a 67-65 win over Yale that followed a 72-71 loss to Houston in the Gulf Coast Showcase final Nov. 23 at Estero, Fla.
“It's just heartbreaking to lose like that,” Vermont coach John Becker told the Burlington (Vt.) Free Press after the game. “We've won our fair share, but it hurts right now.”
Vermont features a balanced offensive attack, led by junior forward Payton Henson, who is one of three Catamounts averaging in double figures at 13.5 points per game.
The Catamounts rank in the top 25 in the nation in rebounds and assists.
Martin is familiar with Vermont's program through his time spent coaching Northeastern in the American East Conference.
“They were just impossible to beat, very disciplined basketball,” Martin said of the Catamounts. “(It's) a very, very hard game to play, especially coming off the two we just played.”
Senior guard Sindarius Thornwell leads the Gamecocks, averaging 20.0 points per game, third best in the Southeastern Conference. Senior guard Duane Notice and sophomore guard PJ Dozier are also key contributors on a South Carolina offense averaging 75.5 points per game.
Dozier had a big game in the win over Syracuse, scoring 15 points, grabbing 10 rebounds and recording three steals. He is tied for the SEC lead in steals.
The Gamecocks are winning with defense, though. They held both Michigan and Syracuse to less than 51 points last week. Louisiana Tech, in the first game of the season, is the only team to put up 70 on South Carolina.
The Gamecocks also got off to a hot start last season and finished with a school-record 24 wins. Yet, South Carolina lost three of its last four games and was left out of the NCAA Tournament
That is why Martin says this year's 6-0 start is nice, but nothing really matters until the end.
“Everything is about being in the right place in March as a basketball team,” Martin said at his weekly press conference. “I hope we get there.”
In order to play into March, Martin says his players can't start believing that they have it made.
“I don't want my guys wrapped up in that. I want them to approach things as we're still the nobodys,” he said. “We have to stay on edge, have to stay on point.”
While Vermont has a reputation as a dangerous underdog, the Catamounts have not beaten a ranked team since 2007, when they knocked off then-No. 14 Boston College.
The Thursday game will be the second all-time meeting between South Carolina and Vermont. The teams played in 1979, with the Gamecocks winning 66-65.