On a night when everything was in place for a showcase victory for the Gamecocks, we came out flat in the second half in fell to Tennessee 86-70. As I've already said, congrats to the Vols on winning the Eastern Division crown; they were undoubtedly the better team and perhaps the best we've played this year other than Clemson. Their unique combination of inside power and full court offense makes them a formidable team. Tyler Smith led all scorers with 22 while Devan Downey and Zam Fredrick led USC with 16.
Where does the blame lie for this loss? First of all, I think we can validly criticize Coach Horn's strategy of trying to press and run with Tennessee. The Vols clearly held an athletic edge on us. Moreover, their ability to move the ball around and find creative ways to get the ball to their big guys was impressive. Trying to run with a team with these advantages was probably ill-advised in the first place, and continuing to try to do it in the second half after UT scored 44 in the first, many in transition, was even more perplexing. And while it's not our strength, it's not like we can't defend against big teams. I was impressed with how we handled Patrick Patterson against Kentucky last week by having Sam Muldrow swat at Patterson's shots from the weak side, but last night we typically didn't even have time to set up a weak-side double team plan because the Vols beat our press in transition so easily. I should say that I'm not at all turning against Coach Horn. He's done a fantastic job and, whatever happens, what he's done this year can only be characterized as a success. Last night, though, was not his best night.
The loss wasn't all due to Coach Horn's faultly game plan, though. I generally think we fell apart mentally when the Vols mounted their run in the second half. We stopped trying to move the ball around and instead just started heaving up threes or haphazardly driving into the lane. (Actually, we did that to a certain degree early in the game, but at least then the shots were falling.) We committed numerous strange mental mistakes, such as when Sam Muldrow turned the ball over by stepping over the line on an in-bounds play. We allowed the Vols to get a number of hustle offensive rebounds. Rebounding was obviously key to this game; the Vols had 43 to our 20. While a negative differential in this category was expected to some degree, I think tougher, more mentally focused play could have gotten a few of those. All in all, this is the first game I came away from thinking we truly lost focus and fell apart when the chips were down. It wasn't fun to see.
Where are we now in terms of our NCAAs chances? I'd say we still have a better shot than any SEC teams other than LSU and UT (Auburn is creeping up fast, though, and the winner of tomorrow's Kentucky-Florida game will have a shot), and it's hard to imagine the SEC getting only two teams, even if the NCAA says that they don't take such factors into account. That said, our backs are now unquestionably against the wall. To get an at-large bid, we MUST beat the Dawgs tomorrow. Winning that one will probably put us in decent shape for a bid, but to become a lock, I think we need to win at least one in the SECT. Of course, a deep run in the SECT or a championship would be ideal and might get us back into a decent seeding. Right now, though, we need to focus on this UGA game. It's a big one, and the surging Dawgs (did I just say that?) are no longer pushovers. I expect to see a close, hard-fought battle in Athens, but I also expect we'll come together and take this one.
A note about officiating. I've read and heard a lot of complaints about the officiating last night, and it was certainly pretty bad. However, let's stop with the conspiracy theories. The game was poorly called, but it was evenly called. What you basically saw was the refs, as they sometimes do, letting the teams play a little bit under the basket. Unfortunately for us, that favored the Vols to a certain degree because they're a bigger, more physical team. It's not the refs' fault that we lack physical presence down low. As far as some of the more bizarre calls, such as when Sam Muldrow was called for goaltending on an obvious block and then was alllowed to obviously goaltend with no call a possession or two later, I'll just chalk it up to idiotic officiating. No bias, just idiocy. I wish the SEC could get more competent refs in there, but, alas, it is what it is.