FAYETTEVILLE — An, 18-7 overall/7-5 SEC fourth-place Arkansas Razorbacks team craving to burst through the NCAA Tournament bubble has two remaining SEC opportunities against national ranked teams especially to impress the tournament selection committee.
The first of these ranked two last chances is Wednesday night.
Coach Frank Martin’s South Carolina Gamecocks, ranked 21st and 19th in the Associated Press and Coaches polls, and identically sharing SEC first place at 20-5 overall and 10-2 in the SEC with Kentucky and Florida going into Tuesday night before Tennessee hosted Kentucky and Florida visited Auburn, host the Razorbacks at 5:30 p.m. (CST) on the SEC Network at Colonial Life Arena in Columbia, S.C.
“This time of year I keep saying the games get bigger,” Arkansas coach Mike Anderson said. “Obviously going against a ranked opponent, South Carolina, it gives us a tremendous opportunity A great challenge but a great opportunity and hopefully we can go in there and play some of our best basketball. Because I still don’t think we have played our best basketball yet.”
The Gamecocks, defeating Florida and losing in the SEC only at Kentucky and a four-overtime epic at home to Alabama and with nonconference triumphs over Michigan and Syracuse, have played their best basketball all season long. And Anderson, whose history coaching against Martin goes back to their Big 12 days when Anderson coached Missouri and Martin coached Kansas State, knows Martin aims to keep it that way.
“It seems like they are on a mission,” Anderson said. “They’re a real focused team that is going to play very physical.”
And their best player is very versatile. Sindarius Thornwell, the Gamecocks’ 6-6 one size fits nearly all positions senior, is the SEC Player of the Week after averaging 36 points the last two games in the four-overtime loss to Alabama and last Saturday’s 77-73 victory at Mississippi State.
“You tell me another player in the country that plays four different positions (everything but center) and defends the best player on the other team,” Martin said. “I know the players he plays against respect the heck out of him.”
Thornwell carries white collar stats, team-leading 20.8 points and 7.5 rebounds as a blue-collar player. Blue collar seems the M.O. of about all whom Martin developed at Kansas State and South Carolina after assisting Bob Huggins at Cincinnati.
South Carolina guards PJ Dozier, Duane Notice and forward Chris Silva this season blossomed offensively and defensively, their development forced to speed up together when Thornwell missed the first six games under disciplinary suspension.
“This is a team that takes pride in their defense,” Anderson said. “We have to take care of the ball because they get in the passing lanes. One of the things that’s really a concern is their rebounding. They’ll throw it up and go get it. They don’t let up.”
Anderson’s Razorbacks don’t let up either, Martin asserts.
Martin especially cited Arkansas guards Dusty Hannahs, Jaylen Barford, Daryl Macon and Anton Beard and senior center Moses Kingsley.
“You had better take good shots and not turn it over against them because Arkansas is as good as anyone out there,” Martin said. “Those are aggressive scoring guards. If you make a mistake they just take it and are on you. We have to be very clean against them. They rely on their forwards being runners and defensively aggressive more than rebounders. Moses Kingsley has established himself as one of the better big guys in the conference. We have our hands full.”