COLUMBIA — The break was worth it.
Missouri players said Tuesday the week and a half gap between the Braggin' Rights Game on Dec. 23 and today's Southeastern Conference opener gave them a needed break. Cuonzo Martin thinks it should be an NCAA rule not to play between Christmas and New Year's Day unless you elect to compete in a holiday tournament like the Diamond Head Classic in Hawaii.
"I love it," Martin said of the holiday reprieve. "You need to have time off, give guys a peace of mind. That's the one big time of the year kids need to be with their families, be away from it, maybe set four, five days off. You don't get these days back when it's all said and done, you can make games up, but you don't get these days back, time with your family. It's the most time I've had off since when I left high school, and I'm 46 years old. I'm not complaining about it, but it felt good to me."
Jeremiah Tilmon and Jontay Porter said going into Christmas with a loss made the time off harder to stomach. But the Tigers (10-3) will have a chance to get back to their winning ways today at 8 p.m. against South Carolina. The game will be televised on ESPN2.
The Gamecocks (9-4, 0-1 SEC) opened their conference schedule with a 74-69 road loss to Mississippi on Sunday.
Under Frank Martin, South Carolina plays great defense and is one of the best rebounding teams in the country on both ends of the floor. The Gamecocks rode that defense, and an offensive explosion from Sindarius Thornwell, to a Final Four a year ago before falling to Gonzaga.
Jordan Barnett compared preparing for that defense to preparing for West Virginia, Stephen F. Austin or Illinois, though South Carolina plays most like the Illini in interrupting passing lanes, and doesn't press or trap like the Mountaineers or Lumberjacks.
"Extremely physical, they're going to try to deny a lot of our passes," Barnett said. "We've practiced for that, it's not like we haven't seen that this year. We should be ready, we've been working hard to be ready for it in practice, so we've just got to make sure we have some carryover."
The Gamecocks' best win of the season so far is an 80-64 home win against Wyoming, and the team is 5-0 in home games this season. It will be the third-straight defensive test for Missouri, and reducing turnovers is priority No. 1.
The Tigers are 302nd nationally, averaging 15.4 turnovers per game, worst in the SEC.
"It's bad decision-making at times and sometimes just not being able to handle pressure," Barnett said. "That's usually where a lot of our turnovers have come because they've been against pressure teams that double you, trap you, whatever the case may be. We just haven't been able to handle that very well.
"The more teams see that we have that issue, they're going to continue to do it, so we have to find a way to fix it quick."
South Carolina isn't a great 3-point or jump shooting team, and relies on drawing fouls and getting to the line to win games. The Gamecocks lack the kind of offensive production Sindarius Thornwell provided a year ago, though Chris Silva and Frank Booker are doing their best to fill that void.
South Carolina averages 72 points per game and has not scored more than 80 points in a game this season.
If Missouri can take care of the basketball and make shots, the defensive plan is fairly simple: stop Booker and Silva in the two-man game.
"Elite shooter, gets them off and shoots them deep," Martin said of Booker, a graduate transfer from FAU who reached the Sweet 16 with Oklahoma in 2015. "He knows how to get his shot off and they'll look to get him shots."
Silva and Booker have led the way for South Carolina so far, with Silva leading the team in points per game (13.4), rebounds per game (8.4), offensive rebounds and blocks, all while shooting 50 percent from the floor. Booker is second on the team in scoring average (11.8 points per game) and leads the Gamecocks in 3-point shooting. Both scored 21 points in the loss to Mississippi, with Silva hitting 11-of-14 free throws and Booker connecting on 6-of-10 threes.