After yet another tough loss on Wednesday night to the Auburn Tigers, South Carolina must pick itself off the mat and try to rebound in a difficult environment against a tough SEC foe. This time, the Gamecocks head to Knoxville for a Saturday afternoon tilt against the Tennessee Volunteers. While the Vols fell to 5-4 in the SEC thanks to a 64-60 loss to Vanderbilt on Wednesday night, they come into this game with a 14-8 record overall, compiled against a non-conference schedule that included wins over Xavier and Virginia as well as tough losses against Xavier (yes, they played twice) and Wichita State.
The Volunteers represent a very difficult match-up for South Carolina for two reasons. First, two of their best offensive players play in the post and create much of their offense through getting to the free throw line, two areas where Carolina has struggled this season. To that end, while Carolina matches up relatively well with Tennessee in most areas, in the two areas where it doesn't, it really doesn't. The recipe for Tennessee to win this game seems pre-written. The ways Carolina comes away with a victory aren't as easy to find.
|The Four Factors (Pomeroy Rankings)|
|When USC has the ball||When UT has the ball|
|USC Off.||UT Def.||Edge||UT Off.||USC Def.||Edge|
|When USC has the ball||When UT has the ball|
|USC Off.||UT Def.||UT Off.||USC Def.||NCAA Avg.|
Three names should dominate the broadcast for Tennessee on Saturday. First, senior Jordan McRae is one of the best players in the nation, and like so many other guards in the SEC (Marshall Henderson and Chris Denson come to mind), he finds a way to be incredibly efficient despite shooting a ton of shots. When on the floor, McRae takes 31% of the Vols' shots and despite that frequency manages to hit 47% of his 2s and 38% of his 3s (for an eFG of 51%). He assists on over 20% of the other baskets scored while he's out there, which combined - remember, the 20% doesn't include shots he took - means on 45% of the baskets the Vols score when McRae plays, he either scores it or assists on it. Whoever guards him (Thornwell?) needs to play the game of his life for Carolina to have a chance.
It may not be enough, because the Gamecocks also need two guys in the post to find a way to overcome Tennessee's formidable post presence. Both 6'8" and 260 pounds, Jarnell Stokes and Jeronne Maymon represent as fierce a front line as Carolina will face this season.
Stokes, a junior, hammers the glass on both ends, grabbing over 15% of Tennessee's misses on offense and over 23% of their opponents' misses on defense, both rates ranking in the top 100 in the nation. Stokes also hits 49% of his 2s but more importantly gets to the line over 6.5 times per game, so his FG% doesn't completely represent his scoring ability. He scored 20 points in Columbia last season in a 66-61 Volunteer win, but he was joined by mediocre center Kenny Hall.
This year, he's joined by Maymon, who was out last year with an injury, but has returned with a vengeance this season, also grabbing over 15% of the Vols' misses and 18.8% of their opponents' misses (the former rate is 17th in the NCAA, the latter 278th). Like Stokes, he hits just under 50% of his FGs but gets to the line almost 5 times a game on average. And he won't be playing "on average" Saturday. He'll be playing a Carolina interior that fouls more than almost every team in the nation. These two bashers also face a Gamecock defense that struggles to keep average teams off the glass. Where Carolina struggles, Tennessee excels. There's only so much strategically Coach Martin and his staff can do to get around that.
Carolina and Tennessee match-up interestingly on the other end of the court in that their strengths and weaknesses mirror the other. The Gamecocks have done a great job taking and making 3-pointers lately, but Tennessee does its best to chase teams off the line and force them into 2s. It helps Carolina that the Vols don't create many turnovers, but in doing so they avoid fouls and keep the opposition off the glass, two ways Carolina normally creates its offense. While there's no shame in an average offensive performance in Knoxville, given the mis-match on the other end of the court, it likely won't be enough for Carolina to prevail on Saturday.
Given that the Vols don't foul much, it allows them to run a relatively short bench. Aside from the three players mentioned above, they start 6'2" senior Antonio Barton (who contributes primarily through passable shooting from 3 - 32% - and avoiding turnovers, averaging 7.5 points per game) and 6'6" wing Josh Richardson, who knocks down 44% of his 3s and also avoids turnovers, which allows him to contribute 9.2 points a game and not much else on offense. Aside from back-up point guard Darius Thompson, don't expect other Vols to see major minutes unless the game gets out of hand. Which means if Carolina could somehow create foul trouble, they could force Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin into using a bench he doesn't often employ.
Obviously the Gamecocks will look to Sindarius Thornwell and Brenton Williams to contribute on offense, though they desperately need a third player to take some of the pressure off those two guys. In the last 5 games, they've produced 53% of Carolina's scoring, with that number never lower than 45% (at home against Ole Miss):
|Points||AUB||@ MISS||A&M||@ MIZ||@ Uga||MISS||Total|
|% of Pts.||AUB||@ MISS||A&M||@ MIZ||@ Uga||MISS||Total|
Despite their reliance on two players, the Gamecocks have still played relatively good offense over that 5 game stretch, scoring on average 1.099 points per possession and matching or eclipsing the national average of 1.042 in each of those outings. The problem lies in Carolina's concession of over 1.10 points in 4 of those 5 games, with the blowout of A&M the sole exception. If you're going to be bad on defense, you'd better be great on offense. The Gamecocks are pretty good on offense, but not good enough on defense to make it matter. Faced with a lethal Tennessee offense, the worry for Frank Martin and fans is that the recipe of some offense and not enough defense repeats itself yet again on Saturday.
The game tips off at 3pm from the Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville, Tennessee. It will be broadcast nationally on ESPNU.
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