Intensity and Defense Makes Winners in NCAA Tournament

Posted: March 30, 2017 in AVC Men's BB 2016-17, Defense, Intensity, NCAA
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Don’t you just love watching basketball teams with the intensity and defense that South Carolina, Oregon, Gonzaga, and North Carolina play with?  Those two attributes…and of course talent…explain why this four teams are in the NCAA Tournament final four.

Great article from the Wall Street Journal. 


South Carolina: The Angriest Team in College Basketball

Frank Martin, perhaps the game’s most hot-tempered coach, has finally found a team more fiery than he is—and the combination has fueled a Final Four run

South Carolina head coach Frank Martin reacts during the second half of the East Regional championship game against Florida.

South Carolina head coach Frank Martin reacts during the second half of the East Regional championship game against Florida. Photo: Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

By  Andrew Beaton,The Wall Street Journal

Updated March 28, 2017 5:58 p.m.

South Carolina head coach Frank Martin has earned a reputation as one of the angriest coaches in college basketball with a repertoire of gesticulations and outbursts that can turn his cheeks the color of his garnet jackets.

Now he has taken his No. 7 seed Gamecocks on a furious run to the Final Four—the first in school history. And this surprising run happened because Martin somehow found players who are even angrier than he is.

“If you’re not matching his intensity, you’re not going to be on the floor,” said freshman guard Tommy Corchiani. Adds sophomore guard Hassani Gravett: “That anger, that aggressiveness, that passion, that’s how we bring it.”

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The simmering rage that fuels this year’s Gamecocks began last March when they were victims of one of the cruelest mistakes in recent memory. On Selection Sunday, they received word that they had made the school’s first NCAA tournament in more than a decade. Minutes later, there was an awkward twist: The message, sent from an NCAA staffer to South Carolina, was incorrect. The Gamecocks, in fact, had just missed the cut.

What has followed since then has been a team capable of channeling that fury into a style of play that has bewildered opponents all season. Last year’s gaffe may have been the best thing to ever happen to this season’s group. It may be why they’ve gone from first-four out to Final Four. And how more than any title contender in tournament history, they’re fueled by March Madness.

Sindarius Thornwell #0 of the South Carolina Gamecocks celebrates in the second half against the Marquette Golden Eagles.

Sindarius Thornwell #0 of the South Carolina Gamecocks celebrates in the second half against the Marquette Golden Eagles. Photo: Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

South Carolina’s unbridled ferocity is most obvious when the other team has the ball. The Gamecocks play physically and push the limits of how much contact referees will let them get away with before calling a foul.

This style has produced one of the most impenetrable defenses in the country, a unit that ranks second nationally, according to KenPom.com and a vast improvement over a year ago. The only team that ranks better happens to be their opponent on Saturday: No. 1 Gonzaga.

But the thing about playing a team that thrives off aggression and indignation is that it tends to make opponents angry too. Except opponents have found that when they try to match the Gamecock’s passion, it comes out more like exasperation.

South Carolina Gamecocks guard Duane Notice dives after a loose ball against Florida.

South Carolina Gamecocks guard Duane Notice dives after a loose ball against Florida. Photo: Octavio Jones/Zuma Press

This too benefits South Carolina. Because when teams get frustrated, they foul. And no contender benefits from getting to the foul line more than the Gamecocks. They have scored 23% of their points from the foul line this season, and only one other NCAA tournament team (No. 16 seed New Orleans) averaged more.

And this is how South Carolina has engineered frenzied comebacks throughout this NCAA tournament. In three of their four games, so far, the Gamecocks have trailed at halftime. Then the fouls pile up during the second half and irrevocably change the balance.

“When it gets gritty,” junior Jarrell Holliman says, “that’s when teams wither away.”

In the Elite Eight, Florida fouled seven times in the first 5:09 of the second half—enough to put South Carolina in the bonus for the rest of the game. By the end of their second round comeback against No. 2 Duke, when the Gamecocks scored 23 points in the first half and then 65 in the second, the Blue Devils had racked up 26 fouls. Three of Duke’s five starters fouled out in what Mike Krzyzewski called “the most physical game we’ve been in all year.”

South Carolina head coach Frank Martin watches play against Florida.

South Carolina head coach Frank Martin watches play against Florida. Photo: Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

This ability to completely unsettle opponents makes South Carolina the rare underdog that dictates the style of a game. It’s why, increasingly, calling this team an underdog is becoming a misnomer.

There are moments where the team’s intensity simply isn’t enough or can backfire—the Gamecocks, after all, lost 10 games this season. Because of their aggression, they also frequently send opponents to the foul line. No team that made the NCAA tournament yielded a higher percentage of its points on free throws. But the players say that’s a trade off they’re comfortable with because that same physicality is why their defense is so stingy the rest of the time.

This capacity for unrelenting anger on the court has put Martin in an unusual position: The coach who has always been defined to outsiders by his rabid enthusiasm on the sidelines now has to be the one soothing his players and keeping their emotions in check.

Sometimes, that means, yelling isn’t the best way to get a message across. Sophomore PJ Dozier says he knows Martin is most upset when the coach doesn’t yell or even say a word—instead, just following Dozier with his eyes as he takes a seat on the bench.

In other instances, it can mean a more light-hearted approach. During the regular season, when South Carolina dropped its second consecutive home game at one point in SEC play, Martin sensed his team was getting too worked up for its own good. So he took everyone bowling.

South Carolina head coach Frank Martin, second from left, reacts as guard PJ Dozier comes off the floor against Baylor.

South Carolina head coach Frank Martin, second from left, reacts as guard PJ Dozier comes off the floor against Baylor. Photo: Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

Most recently, with 11 seconds left in the Elite Eight, after guard Duane Notice threw down a ferocious dunk to put South Carolina up seven, Martin again sensed his players’ emotions could turn unproductive. So even with a spot in the Final Four almost certainly clinched, he called a timeout to deliver a simple message. “He just wanted to settle us down,” said assistant coach Perry Clark.

Still, there’s no questioning Martin’s ability to get riled up—even about the smallest things. On the eve of South Carolina’s Elite Eight matchup, Martin grew visibly irritated as he went over the scouting report. But he wasn’t upset about something he saw from Florida on film.

“He didn’t have chocolate-chip cookies,” Clark explained.

Write to Andrew Beaton at andrew.beaton@wsj.com

Appeared in the Mar. 29, 2017, print edition as ‘South Carolina’s Angry Birds.’

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