South Carolina coach Frank Martin is still trying to figure out the buttons he needs to press with his young team this year after last season’s veteran squad made a surprise Final Four run, but his team’s most recent performance suggests he may be getting through to them. Coming off their most lopsided victory of the season, the Gamecocks look to sustain their mental focus Sunday when they face Western Michigan in the fifth-place game of the Puerto Rico Tip-Off in Conway, S.C.
“We probably took it for granted with such a young team that their mindset would be what last year’s mindset was. … We probably should’ve been a little more aggressive with mental preparation with them (prior to Thursday’s opening-round loss to Illinois State). And that goes back to us continuing to try to figure out our team this year,” Martin said after Friday’s 80-56 rout of UTEP. The Gamecocks raced out to a 26-point halftime lead and led by as many as 32 against the Miners, forcing 23 turnovers with their usual hard-nosed defense. The Broncos already know what their next opponent is capable of, dropping a 78-60 decision in Columbia earlier in the week in the on-campus portion of this event. Western Michigan opened this tournament with a Thursday’s seven-point setback versus Tulsa, but the preseason Mid-American Conference favorites rebounded with a convincing 86-67 win over Appalachian State on Friday.
TV: 2 p.m. ET, ESPNU
ABOUT SOUTH CAROLINA (3-1): Preseason All-SEC second-team selection Chris Silva scored 15 points to lead four Gamecocks in double figures Friday while also corralling seven rebounds and has been a constant presence at the foul line through four games, going 26-for-33. Fellow forward Justin Minaya enjoyed the finest game of his brief college career, as the 6-10 freshman from Estonia reached double figures for the third time in four games with a personal-best 14 points. Hassani Gravett committed all four of his turnovers after the break Friday, but he keyed South Carolina’s 50-point first half with six of his career-high nine assists versus no turnovers in the first 20 minutes of the contest.
ABOUT WESTERN MICHIGAN (2-2): Preseason All-MAC West selection Thomas Wilder (22.3 points, 3.3 steals) scored 24 of his season-high 31 points versus the Mountaineers in the second half, and he was also a handful in Monday’s loss to the Gamecocks, finishing with 23 points, four assists, three rebounds and a career-high tying six steals. Junior guard Bryce Moore (10.3 points) has emerged as a steady complement to Wilder thus far, posting his third straight game with at least 10 points with 14 versus Appalachian State. Sophomore forward Brandon Johnson has reached double figures in all three outings in which he has stayed out of foul trouble, shooting at least 55.6 percent from the field each time.
1. Martin’s next win will be his 100th at South Carolina.
2. Wilder has scored at least 13 points in 24 straight games dating back to a nine-point effort midway through last season.
3. The Gamecocks recorded assists on 19 of their 27 made field goals Friday - both season highs.
PREDICTION: South Carolina 70, Western Michigan 55