Basketball rivalry between Gamecocks, Clemson presents a clash of NCAA Tournament hopes
COLUMBIA — Coming from Canada, South Carolina guard Duane Notice was not particularly well-versed in what the rivalry with Clemson was all about. That is, until the Gamecocks went up to Littlejohn Coliseum his freshman season, and returned home with a 71-57 loss.
“I thought it was just a regular game, and it would be a regular loss,” said Notice, now a senior. “But the way their fans made it seem, and the trolling on social media ... it made me kind of feel like I was a part of the whole rivalry. And ever since then, I’ve been engaged and connected to it. So I’m real excited to play them again.”
South Carolina hosts Clemson at 9 p.m. Wednesday, in one of the rivalry’s more anticipated matchups in recent years. The Gamecocks (9-1) are 22nd in this week’s AP Top 25 poll, while Clemson (8-2) appeared in some preseason NCAA Tournament projections. Joe Lunardi has USC as a No. 6 seed in his most recent bracket forecast, and the Tigers as one of the first four teams out.
“I don’t think he gets the credit he deserves,” USC head coach Frank Martin said of Brad Brownell, his counterpart at Clemson. “He won 10 league games last year, we won 11. Our game up there, I don’t care what the lead was early, it came down to the last minute. I think our programs kind of mirror each other. They’re both pretty good, and not many people give either one of us much respect.”
The Gamecocks are going for their third straight victory in the series, and fifth in the last seven seasons. But they’ll likely do it without leading scorer Sindarius Thornwell, the senior guard who has been suspended since Dec. 4 for an unspecified violation of athletic department policy.
“It doesn’t change how we prepare too much,” Brownell said of the absence of Thornwell, averaging 18.7 points per game. “... He’s all over the film, he’s having an outstanding year, he’s always been a very good driver of the basketball, and a very competitive guy. But it doesn’t change what they’re doing. They’ve had some time to adjust the last couple of games without him.”
USC’s bigger issue may be in the frontcourt, where it will pit freshmen and sophomores against Clemson’s veteran interior of 6-8 junior Donte Grantham, 6-10 senior Sidy Djitte, and 6-7 graduate student Jaron Blossomgame, the Tigers’ leading scorer at 17.6 points per game. Blossomgame has been held to single-digits just once this season, in a victory over Alabama in Clemson’s most recent outing.
USC’s interior duo of 6-9 sophomore Chris Silva and 6-10 freshman Maik Kotsar, backed up primarily by 6-9 freshman Sedee Keita, has proven foul-prone — as was the case in the Gamecocks’ only loss, Dec. 12 against Seton Hall, when attrition in the paint forced walk-on forward Jarrell Holliman into action.
“I’ve been in foul trouble for a lot of the games, which I clearly need to get better at,” said Kotsar, from Estonia. “Previously in Europe they allowed more physical game play, so I need to adjust to that.”
And yet USC remains one of the stingiest defenses in the country, ranking third nationally in opponent field goal percentage (.346) and fourth nationally in opponent scoring average (57.7 ppg). “As you would expect of Frank’s teams, they defend about as well as anybody in the country,” Brownell said. “Really disruptive, make it hard for you to run your offense and get in any kind of flow.”
USC hopes to have guard Hassani Gravett, who missed Saturday’s’ victory at South Florida with a sprained ankle, back for Clemson. And both the Tigers and Gamecocks hope to record another victory that will help them crack the NCAA Tournament bubble come March.
“We’re very competitive,” Blossomgame said. “Those guys, they’re a good team, they’ve got us the last two years. But I feel like this year’s the year for us. They have a really good team, they’re 9-1, they beat some pretty good teams. It’s definitely going to be a good challenge for us.”
Aaron Brenner of The Post and Courier contributed to this report.