Despite winning his first two games by a total of 39 points, South Carolina’s Frank Martin spent an inordinate amount of time after his team’s most recent victory talking about how he has let his team down. The sixth-year coach will try to get the Gamecocks to tie up their loose ends Thursday when they face Illinois State in first-round action of the Puerto Rico Tip-Off in Carson, S.C., which is hosting the event this season following the devastation on the island following Hurricane Maria.
South Carolina opened its season Friday with a 73-52 triumph at Wofford before returning home to beat preseason Mid-American Conference favorite Western Michigan 78-60 three days later - a performance that left Martin surprisingly critical of himself. “I did a poor job preparing these guys. For as bad of a job as I did to prepare us offensively, they did a good job on the court. … For a young squad, our guys adapted pretty well,” Martin said. Despite getting career-high point totals from two players in their opener, the Redbirds fell 98-87 at Florida Gulf Coast in a back-and-forth affair Saturday. Illinois State is coming off a school-record 28-win campaign and won a share of the Missouri Valley Conference regular season last season.
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ABOUT ILLINOIS STATE (0-1): Junior guard Keyshawn Evans was honored as the team’s most improved player last year and appears primed to make another huge step forward after draining seven 3-pointers and scoring a career-high 28 points versus the Eagles. Preseason MVC second-team forward Phil Fayne poured in a personal-best 24 points as well and is one of seven players returning to their schools this season after shooting at least 59 percent, scoring at least 300 points, pulling down at least 200 rebounds and blocking at least 40 shots. Freshman forward Taylor Bruninga was limited to only 21 minutes due to foul trouble in his college debut, but he went 4-of-7 beyond the arc to contribute to the Redbirds’ 14-for-29 effort from long-range and finished with 14 points.
ABOUT SOUTH CAROLINA (2-0): Graduate transfer Frank Booker (13 points per game) has emerged as the Gamecocks’ best offensive option so far following the loss of Sindarius Thornwell to the NBA, and the Florida Atlantic transfer has been highly efficient, shooting 64.3 percent from the field and 54.5 percent beyond the arc. Preseason All-SEC second-team forward Chris Silva (9.5 points, 10 rebounds per game) fell one point shy in the opener of being able to post a double-double in each game despite averaging only 20.5 minutes. Junior Hassani Gravett played only 19 minutes after some early foul trouble Monday, but he scored 13 of his career-high 15 points after the break, going 3-for-3 beyond the arc to set a new personal best in the process.
1. The winner of this contest will face either Boise State or UTEP in the semifinals.
2. The Redbirds have won each of the last 15 games in which they have outrebounded their opponent, but they were pounded 48-24 on the glass against Florida Gulf Coast.
3. The Gamecocks are converting 43.5 percent of their 3-point attempts through two games after shooting 33.7 percent beyond the arc in 2016-17.
PREDICTION: South Carolina 75, Illinois State 64