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Cocks of the block, or Cat food?

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So now we come to the middle of January, and Kentucky's (14-3, 3-0) string of relatively low-ranking opponents continues with the South Carolina Gamecocks (10-5, 0-2) tonight at 9:00 in Columbia.  The game is nationally televised on ESPN.

The Gamecocks are coached by Dave Odom who, as we all know, was previously the successful coach of Wake Forest, his high water mark being the 1996 Elite eight with Tim Duncan as his hoss.  Odom has been at USC for 5 years now and has lead the team to the somewhat dubious but nonetheless notable distinction of two straight NIT titles.

South Carolina is in a rebuilding year, having recently joined Ohio State in the unfortunate experience of reptilian intestines after being swallowed whole by the Florida Gators in Columbia as well as an earlier SEC drubbing by Georgia on the road and Kansas at home.  A three-game loosing streak often equals a very angry and motivated team, and I think the Wildcats, who have just been graced by a #25 ranking in the AP Poll after winning 10 straight games are in for a tussle.

South Carolina by the numbers

This year's team represents almost a complete rebuilding job for Odom, as he looses three starters including first-round pick and perhaps the most athletic forward to play in the SEC in years, Renaldo Balkman.  The Gamecocks do return Tre' Kelley (6'0"/188#/16p/5a/3r) a third-team All-SEC selection and USC's leading scorer.  Kelley is a do-it-all point guard who can score, pass, defend and rebound.  In a game at the other USC (Southern Cal) earlier this year (you know, the one who just lost by 1 point to #4 UCLA last week?) Kelley had a line that looks like this - 26 points on 9-20 shooting, 8 rebounds 8 assists and 2 steals.  This kid is a handful, but fortunately for his opponents, only a 29% shooter from 3.  Joining Kelley in the backcourt is returning swingman Bryce Sheldon (6'4"/196#/8p/2r).

In the frontcourt is returning starting forward Brandon Wallace (6'9"/203#/11p/9r/2.5blk), an underrated player who does a lot of things well.  He can score from the blocks as well as the perimeter, put the ball on the floor and block shots.  He is joined by swingman Dwayne Day (6'6"/189#/8p/3r) who is capable of getting hot from three (but has shot it poorly so far this year) and is an excellent perimeter defender.  Also starting up front will be redshirt freshman Dominique Archie (6'7"/208#/9p/5r), an athletic slasher who will occasionally shoot 3's.  Archie has had one double-double and was within 6 total rebounds of 3 more.

Benchwise, South Carolina has relatively few players seeing significant minutes.  Major contributors are freshmen Brandis Raley-Ross (6'2"/195#/8p/3r) and Evaldas Baniulis (6'7"/209#/3p/2r), as well as junior Ousmane Konate from Senegal (6'10"/270#/2p/2r).  Raley-Ross is a good 3-point shooter (42%), and Baniulis is from Melbourne, Lithuania and isn't afraid to put it up from the perimeter.  Lots of overseas connections on the USC team.

Offensively, the Gamecocks, well, suck.  They are ranked only 179th in the nation by Ken Pomeroy's formula vs the Wildcat's 49th, and play one of the slowest tempos in the nation, 318th (out of 336) compared to Kentucky's 133rd.  South Carolina ranks only 193rd in effective FG% vs. UK's 67th.  The Gamecocks average over 3 less turnovers per game than the Wildcats, (44th vs 137th) though.  At 64 points per game, the Gamecocks are the lowest-scoring opponent we have faced this year.  Believe it or not, Kentucky actually averages more rebounds/game than USC (haven't seen that in a while), but USC still has a higher offensive rebound percentage, probably attributable mostly to the fact they can't shoot straight.  The Wildcats also average about 5 more assists/game than South Carolina.

Defensively, the Gamecocks are also hapless, 179th overall vs. UK's impressive 15th.  USC does block shots well, as does Kentucky.  Steals wise, UK averages about 1 more per game.  South Carolina does not foul much, though, and is 3rd in the nation in keeping opponents off the line.

What all this means

You don't have to be a rocket scientist to figure out that the Gamecocks should be roadkill for the Wildcats tonight.  South Carolina's young team is struggling in many fundamental ways, and its best asset seems to be the ability to take teams out of their comfort zone when it comes to pace of play and hope Tre' Kelley goes off for 25.  As Florida , Georgia and Kansas all aptly demonstrated, that plan doesn't always work out.  Still, USC does have one pretty good win at Southern Cal early in the year, so they have proven that they can occasionally rise above their mediocrity and defeat a worthy opponent.  But the road is tough in the SEC, and the upset flu is affecting many good teams.  Will the 'Cats come down with it?

South Carolina, as with most teams this year, will have to double-team Morris in order to prevent him from running amok, although recent trends from the Wildcat guards suggest USC will have lots of help denying him the ball.  You can also expect a lot of zone from the Gamecocks.  Tre' Kelley is a streaky shooter and can sometimes take over games completely, and one thing we know about Kentucky is that it is almost always possible to shoot a decent percentage from 3 against them and keep the game close.  Kelley is a bad matchup for any of our guards because of his quickness, and if UK lets him get in the lane at will, they are going to have a very long night.

Kentucky's bigger and more talented backcourt should have its way with the young Gamecocks, and if they don't turn the ball over, Bradley, Crawford and Jasper could have big games along with Morris.  Our bench is much deeper and longer than Carolina, so if you see USC looking pretty tired late in the second half, you won't wonder why.  That is one reason why they have to keep the pace down.

Overall, expect a low scoring and ugly game, something that seems to follow Kentucky around like the dust-cloud around Pig Pen's feet.  Dave Odom is smart enough not to let us run, and yet we will no doubt try anyway.  That could lead to turnovers, and if UK fails to take care of the ball, we could wind up with a tie game with 4 minutes to go.  Taking a disrespected and angry opponent lightly is exactly the formula for an upset, and the Wildcats are likely to be a bit overconfident.  Beware.