South Carolina Gamecocks @ Kentucky Wildcats (2): Game Preview

Welcome, ladies and gentlemen of the Big Blue Nation, to the 2012 Southeastern Conference basketball season. At 4:00 PM on Saturday, the Kentucky Wildcats welcome the South Carolina Gamecocks to Rupp Arena for the conference opener for both teams

South Carolina enters this game at 8-6 on the year. Their non-conference season was not terribly successful, although they did play a fairly challenging slate of intra-conference contests, including the Ohio St. Buckeyes and the North Carolina Tar Heels. Their bad losses include an away game at Elon (240) and a home game to Tennessee St. (217). Their only notable success is a win at Clemson (106). The Gamecocks are currently ranked # 118 by Ken Pomeroy's stats, which are also where the parentheticals come from above.

Everyone knows that Darrin Horn, the coach of the Gamecocks, played high school basketball at Lexington Tates Creek, who was runner up in the State Tournament back in 1991. From there, he played and later coached at Western Kentucky University, and was wooed away by South Carolina in 2008. His record at USC is a not-so-stellar 58-48, and he has to be feeling significant pressure to win more in this, his 4th season.

South Carolina assistant coach Cypheus Bunton is also from Kentucky. He hails from Louisville and played at Sullivan before joining Horn at Western.

The Gamecocks return 63% of their scoring from last year and return 7 of 11 lettermen. The four that were lost, however, were all starters at some time last year, so South Carolina has a mostly new team this year. Junior Lakeem Jackson and senior Malik Cooke lead the returners, and star point guard Bruce Ellington should be available for the Kentucky game, having just returned from the football team. I'm not sure if he will be starting, but if I were a betting man, my money would be on "yes."

For a full statistical comparison of both teams, please check out the Statsheet.com pre-game.

Advantages

South Carolina
  1. South Carolina: is a very good shot blocking % team, 7th in the nation. Still not as good as UK in that stat, but very good nonetheless.
  2. The Gamecocks are a good offensive rebounding team, although again, not as good as their opponent tomorrow.
  3. South Carolina is a deep team, and can play up to ten players, all of whom are capable of contributing something.
  4. Malik Cooke is an outstanding defender, and is one of the top 50 in the nation at steals %.
  5. Damontre Harris is one of the better shot blockers in the nation, #30 overall.
  6. The Gamecocks have two very good 3-point shooters in Eric Smith and Bruce Ellington.
Kentucky
  1. Kentucky is a far better shooting team than the Gamecocks, with an eFG% advantage of 53.5% to 49.2%
  2. The Wildcats lead the nation in 2-point field goal percentage defense, and South Carolina is not a good 3-point shooting team.
  3. Doron Lamb is in the top 25 nationally for offensive rating, and Antony Davis is 7th in the nation in block%
  4. Kentucky is very good at keeping teams off the free throw line.
  5. Kentucky's offensive and defensive efficiency are in the top ten nationwide.

Disadvantages:

South Carolina
  1. South Carolina struggles to score at 1.03 points/possession.
  2. The Gamecocks turn the ball over too much, and don't get to the line enough.
  3. South Carolina is a poor defensive rebounding team, and that could be a big problem for them against Kentucky
  4. South Carolina's guards are very small -- four of them are under 6' tall, including their two best 3-point shooters.
  5. The Gamecocks really don't have a go-to scorer. Cooke leads the way, but is more of a slasher and offensive rebounder.
Kentucky:
  1. Kentucky has underachieved a bit against inferior opponents.
  2. Terrence Jones is still finding his way out of a pretty bad funk.
  3. Marquis Teague has been up and down, and can be disrupted by quicker guards.
  4. The Wildcats, as a team, have been turning the ball over a lot lately. 20% or more turnovers in each of the last 3 games, including 30% versus UALR.
  5. Kentucky has had a very low steals % in the last four games.

Key Matchups

  • Bruce Ellington vs. Marquis Teague. Both are quick, both are good defenders, but Ellington is a much better shooter. Can the taller Teague limit his 3-point looks (or will Calipari stick Michael Kidd-Gilchrist on Ellington?)
  • Malik Cooke vs. Darius Miller/Kidd-Gilchrist. MKG will definitely give him trouble on both ends, but Miller must be sharp to handle the leading Gamecock scorer. Cooke is very quick and athletic off the bounce, and is the kind of player Miller has struggled to guard.
  • Terrence Jones vs. whoever. Which Terrence Jones will show, and will he beat his opponent, or himself?

Overall analysis

South Carolina is a deliberate team that will not want to run versus Kentucky. It isn't that they can't -- they have more than enough athletes -- it just isn't Darrin Horn's style.

That means that Kentucky will spend a lot of time in the half-court defense, which should play to their strength. UK has been very good in the half court of late when it comes to stopping the other team. UALR could only manage a paltry 36.1% eFG% against Kentucky, and only 3 of Kentucky's last six opponents have made it to 40% eFG against UK and none have approached 50%. How USC plans to put points on the board at Rupp Arena is a difficult question to answer.

But UK does have to guard the perimeter against South Carolina. Part of the reason their 3-point percentage looks so bad on paper is because Ellington has not been available for about half of their games, and he is one of the best shooters from distance on the team.

Another problem for South Carolina will be keeping Kentucky off the offensive glass. UK has dominated four of its last six opponents (with the surprising exceptions being Lamar and Chattanooga) on the offensive glass. In addition Anthony Davis is one of the best defensive rebounders in America, and that will limit the Gamecocks' ability to offensive rebound to extend their own possessions.

While I expect the Gamecocks to be competitive, this looks like a tough spot for them to start of the SEC season 1-0. Kentucky isn't playing their best basketball right now, but even their "B" game is probably more than South Carolina can handle in Rupp Arena unless they get really hot.

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