With the physique of a heavyweight fighter and the attitude of an Army drill sergeant, Frank Martin can be intimidating. It’s no wonder his players fear and respect him, and that’s why they defend for him.
A basketball team is a reflection of the coach. South Carolina has developed into a team in Martin’s image, although it was hard to see this coming two weeks ago.
Martin has the Gamecocks one win from the Final Four, a feat not even the legendary Frank McGuire could pull off in the 1960s and ‘70s. This is Martin’s fifth season there, and it’s his first trip to the NCAA Tournament.
South Carolina is tough on the defensive end, allowing only 64.8 points per game, and talented enough on the offensive end to overwhelm Baylor, Duke and Marquette in this tournament. Sindarius Thornwell, a 6-foot-5 senior guard, averages 21.4 points and scored 24 on the Bears and Blue Devils.
The East Region final on Sunday was supposed to be Duke-Villanova in Madison Square Garden. Instead, it’s a Southeastern Conference showdown between Florida and South Carolina, teams that split their regular-season meetings.
Unlike Baylor, a poorly coached team that was a fraud all along, there is a lot to like about the Gators, who also defend and also boast a big-time scoring weapon in 6-2 sophomore guard KeVaughn Allen.
Florida needed a miracle shot to get here, beating Wisconsin on Chris Chiozza’s running 3-pointer at the overtime buzzer on Friday night. Allen scored 35 to emerge from a shooting slump. Allen is good, but Thornwell is better.
The Gators made their lucky break, so it’s not a knock against them, but it’s possible they crash after such an emotional high. Nothing about the Gamecocks’ run has been a fluke — Duke was a solid favorite, and Baylor was a talented team that got thoroughly dominated in a coaching mismatch.
It was just tough to see this coming two weeks ago, when South Carolina lost to Alabama in the SEC tournament quarterfinals. But conference tournament results are overrated.
This shapes up as a back-alley brawl, so I’ll side with Martin and take the Gamecocks as 3-point underdogs. The line still is 3½ at some books. In a low-scoring game dictated by defenses, the ‘dog has a real shot to win.
In interviews this week, it was surprising to see Martin show a gentle side and a sense of humor. For 40 minutes on Sunday, he will show none of that nonsense.
Look for Kansas to knock out Oregon on Saturday in Kansas City, but I’m not laying the 6½ points. Here is my play today:
Xavier (plus-8½) over Gonzaga: Analytics handicappers are mystified by the Musketeers, an 11th-seeded team with no outstanding numbers and an inexperienced freshman point guard. What they do have is a great coach, Chris Mack, and a future NBA guard. Trevon Bluiett, a 6-6 junior, scored 25 points in an upset of Arizona following 29 in a rout of Florida State. Xavier is a hard-nosed team that rises up in the underdog role. The sexy storyline is Zags coach Mark Few closing in on his first Final Four. He should get the monkey off his back, but it’s not going to be easy, and it was not easy against West Virginia and Northwestern, either. Much more pressure is on the favorite.
Another play for Sunday:
Kentucky (plus-2½) over North Carolina: The Wildcats are in another rematch, yet the revenge motive is on the other side. Freshman guard Malik Monk poured in 47 points in a thrilling 103-100 victory over the Tar Heels on Dec. 17 in Las Vegas. Kentucky, which just beat Wichita State in a brawl and slammed the breaks on Lonzo Ball and UCLA, is improved on the defensive end. North Carolina’s skilled front line, led by Justin Jackson, has a matchup advantage. This is a tough call, but I’ll side with the better defense and ride with John Calipari to outcoach Roy Williams down the stretch.
Thursday/Friday: 3-3 against the spread