South Carolina was not supposed to be playing at this point, but instead finds itself in the Sweet 16 for the first time in school history after beating No. 10 Marquette and knocking off No. 2 Duke. The Gamecocks were buoyed by great defense and the advantage of playing close to home in Greenville, factors that seemed to energize this team.
Meanwhile Baylor won two games in Tulsa, rediscovering the consistency that got the Bears off to a hot start this season in the process. They rolled through No. 14 New Mexico State (91-73) before holding off No. 11 USC (82-78) to advance to their second Sweet 16 in the past four seasons (2014). This is a dangerous team that is gaining confidence and hoping to get past this point for the first time since 2012.
East Region: No. 7 South Carolina Gamecocks (24-10) vs. No. 3 Baylor Bears (27-7)
When: 7:29 p.m. ET (Friday)
Where: Madison Square Garden (New York)
Line: Baylor -3
Keys for South Carolina
It’s pretty simple – keep the momentum going from the two wins in Greenville. This is a Gamecocks team whose offense was not their strength during the regular season, but Sindarius Thornwell and Duane Notice have suddenly found the range. Defense has not been an issue for Frank Martin’s team, as they held Duke to 41.5 percent shooting from the field and 37 percent (10-for-27) from three-point range. South Carolina also will want to try and keep the pace to more of its preferred tempo rather than ran up and down the court with Baylor.
Keys for Baylor
Baylor has the size and the athleticism advantage here. The Bears want to get up and down and to not only provide easier scoring opportunities, but also to wear South Carolina down and loosen up the Gamecocks’ defense. If this game is played in the 70s or even the 80s, Baylor should be well positioned to win. Manu Lecomte has to stay out of foul trouble as he is the straw that stirs the drink. Johnathan Motley is the Bears’ primary offensive threat, but junior forward Terry Maston has contributed 19 points and nine rebounds off of the bench in both of Baylor’s Tournament wins.
To me, a lot of what South Carolina accomplished in Greenville was because of the boost they got playing two de facto home games. Credit to the Gamecocks for taking advantage of this, but remember this is a team that that had lost five of their last seven games entering the NCAA Tournament. Defense will keep them in it, but a lack of offense will put an end to their magical run.
Prediction: Baylor 74, South Carolina 67
— Written by Matt Josephs, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Josephs prefers non-Power 5 college football and may be the only one wagering on the Sun Belt. Follow him on Twitter @MidMajorMatt.
(Top photo by Travis Bell, courtesy of www.gamecocksonline.com)