The Kentucky Wildcats make the return trip to Colonial Life Arena in Columbia, S.C. today for the second game of the year against Darrin Horn's South Carolina Gamecocks. This is the last game Kentucky will play in the series of games against lower-ranked SEC foes. After this game, the schedule difficulty ratchets up significantly.
The last time these two teams met in Lexington, it was rather more competitive than Kentucky fans expected. In fact, the Wildcats got pounded on the offensive glass by the Gamecocks despite their greater size and rebounding skill. The Wildcats got the win, but nobody left Rupp Arena feeling particularly good about it.
Since then, the Gamecocks have gone 1-6, playing only two teams not ranked in the top third of the SEC. After this game, South Carolina's schedule is the inverse of Kentucky's with only 2 teams in the top third of the league on their schedule.
South Carolina is currently coming off two straight road losses, both fairly close, against the Florida Gators and the Mississippi Rebels. Both games were very competitive, so don't imagine that this Gamecock team is incapable of upsetting Kentucky, they are. They just haven't delivered one yet despite playing some very good teams close.
Updated personnel and stats
No injuries to report for either team.
Strengths and weakness
See the previous UK-USC preview, these have not changed significantly, except that this time, the game location favors South Carolina.
Just like last time, Bruce Ellington will be a key matchup for Kentucky. Ellington makes the Gamecocks go, and is also a significant threat to score both off the dribble and from outside. Ellington has been struggling shooting the three ball lately, but if there is anything that has been consistent, it is the fact that teams shoot great from outside against UK, particularly on the road.
Malik Cooke is the other key matchup for Kentucky. Cooke has been hot lately, averaging 15.7 points and 5 rebounds over the last three games.
South Carolina must find a way to deal with Anthony Davis if they are to have any success. Nobody really has so far, especially lately, so this is just a nightmare for them.
The way Terrence Jones is playing right now, he is really trouble for South Carolina. They just don't have anyone who can guard him both on the perimeter and in the post, and the Davis-Jones tandem is the deadliest shot-blocking combos in the nation.
South Carolina is a very aggressive defensive team, especially at home. Even though they haven't really been a good defensive team, especially during the SEC portion of the schedule, they play very hard and with great intensity.
One thing South Carolina does do very well is offensive rebound, and that is the one significant concern for Kentucky in this contest. If the Gamecocks can whip the Wildcats on the offensive glass and make some otherwise empty possessions count, they could hang in this game for a while, and when that happens, Kentucky tends to allow teams to challenge them. Since this is a road game, a situation in which South Carolina hangs around certainly favors them.
Ellington is also due for a good game. He only joined the team around midseason and his game isn't quite as fully-baked as it was last year, his minutes have been on the rise, and like any good player in a bit of a slump, he's definitely due for a good game. As "up" as the Gamecock faithful will be for this game, this one is a good candidate to see his best play in league this season.
But Kentucky, quite frankly, has just been running over teams lately with a combination of smothering defense and efficient, disciplined offense. Kentucky has been grinding teams into the dust in the half court, often forcing them to take challenged shots out of the sheer frustration of not being able to locate one. When Kentucky;s early offense hasn't worked, the high screen and roll with Marquis Teague and either Davis or Kyle Wiltjer on the pick and pop just always seems to be able to locate an open look late in the clock.
Kentucky is very likely to win this game, but it may not be easy, depending on how motivated Darrin Horn can get his somewhat woebegone Gamecocks. You can never count a road game in the SEC a victory, no matter how much the home team has struggled, and despite not getting wins lately, South Carolina has been playing teams tough.