No. 5 Virginia faces first test after finals week at South Carolina
After a 10-day hiatus to complete exams before winter break, No. 5 Virginia returns to action Wednesday night to meet South Carolina for the 50th time in both school's history while rekindling an old ACC rivalry.
The Cavaliers, who jumped up one spot in the Associated Press Poll despite not playing a game last week, are looking to continue their undefeated run and are off to their best start (9-0) since going 19-0 in 2014-15.
"I know going in against a team like South Carolina that they'll be very physical and very aggressive," Virginia coach Tony Bennett said of South Carolina. "They really have good pressure defense and just two years removed from a Final Four."
South Carolina (4-5) has gotten off to a rough start so far this season just before SEC play begins, and seeing a top-five team in Virginia heading down to Columbia spells trouble. The Gamecocks have lost three of their last four games and are also coming off a lengthy break after losing their last game to Michigan 89-78 on Dec. 8.
"I saw a different gear from our guys," South Carolina coach Frank Martin said after the loss to the Wolverines. "I was real proud that they stepped up to the challenge of playing such a good team."
Despite the loss, the Gamecocks became the only team so far this season to shoot 45 percent or better against Michigan as South Carolina knocked down 52 percent of their shots in the game.
Martin's Gamecocks will now face another stiff defensive challenge against Virginia, which ranks second in the country in fewest points per game allowed (51.2).
In Virginia's 57-49 win over Virginia Commonwealth, the Rams shot just 29.5 percent against the Cavaliers' stingy defense.
One piece that will be missing from Virginia's equation on Wednesday night will be freshman guard Kihei Clark, who underwent surgery to repair a hairline fracture in a wrist. Clark played with the fracture against VCU and scored nine points while making all seven of his free throws. The timetable for his return is unknown.
Virginia boasts three players averaging in double figures, led by sophomore De'Andre Hunter, who is 14th in the ACC at 15.6 points per game. Hunter ranks third in the conference in field goal percentage (.573) and is joined by juniors Ty Jerome (13.7 ppg) and Kyle Guy (13.4 ppg) to pace the Cavaliers' offense.
The Gamecocks are led by guard A.J. Lawson, who is averaging a team-high 14.3 points per game, and Chris Silva gives South Carolina a physical post presence. Silva is averaging 11.1 points and 6.7 rebounds per game.
Virginia holds a slim 25-24 lead in the series. The teams are meeting for the first time since the Gamecocks knocked off the Cavaliers 74-67 in the first round of the 2002 NIT.
South Carolina was a member of the ACC from 1953 to 1971 and is no stranger to battling highly ranked Virginia squads. The Cavaliers narrowly edged the Gamecocks 50-49 in January 1971 just months before South Carolina left the conference and became an independent.
"It will be a challenging environment and good for our team to go on the road and play in this setting," Bennett said.
The matchup on the hardwood comes just 10 days before the schools meet on the gridiron in Charlotte at the Belk Bowl.
Updated December 18, 2018