SEC Tournament 2014, South Carolina vs. Tennessee: It only gets harder from here

Laimonas Chatkevicius and Michael Carrera celebrate the Gamecocks' victory on Thursday. - Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

The Gamecocks ran away from a middling Auburn team on Wednesday night, and gutted out a hard-fought win over an NIT-bound Arkansas team on Thursday afternoon. On Friday, they get to face a well-rested, NCAA-quality Tennessee Volunteers squad. How far has Carolina come?

Take nothing away from what the Gamecocks have done in the last part of the season. In their last five games, they've reeled off four wins - at home against Kentucky 72-67; on the road against Mississippi State 74-62; and neutral court victories over Auburn (74-56) and Arkansas (71-69), with only a loss to the Florida Gators breaking up the good times. That's a damn nice run, and it includes a win over an NCAA Tournament-bound team as well as three wins away from the Colonial Life Arena. Now, Carolina has to do both at the same time.

The Tennessee Volunteers are no one to be trifled with, and their record belies the underlying greatness of the group from Rocky Top. As we covered in our preview of the SEC Tournament:

How well did Tennessee play relative to its opposition despite its record? They won each of their 9 non-conference victories by at least 9 points, including neutral-site wins over Xavier and Wake Forest, as well as a 35-point home win over ACC champion Virginia. Meanwhile all of their losses were by 9 points or less - at Xavier, versus UTEP, at Wichita State, and at home to N.C. State.

In conference play, the Vols kept up their misfortune, as they lost all but one of their conference games by single digits (Florida blitzed them by 26 points in Gainesville). On the other side of the ledger, they won each of their 11 games by at least 7 points, with only two wins coming by single digits. Their average margin of victory was 18.9 points, against an average margin of defeat of just 8 points. If you take out the Florida game, the latter average drops to just 5 points. The Vols are really good.

Also, the Volunteers come into this game having not played a game since their Saturday dismantling of Missouri, 72-45 in Knoxville. That's the same Missouri team that beat Carolina earlier this season. And of course, this is the same Tennessee team that blew away South Carolina in Knoxville earlier this year.

The Volunteers present a terrible match-up problem for the Gamecocks. Again, from our preview:

Tennessee relies on its two potential NBA Draft players -Jarnell Stokes in the paint and Jordan McRae on the outside. McRae takes over 31% of the Vols' shots when he's on the court and also spends a ton of time at the free throw line (181 attempts this year). He assists on nearly 20% of his teammates' baskets, only turns the ball over on 14% of his possessions (both top 500 rates), and is a one-man wrecking crew for the Vols.

Normally when a guy carries this much weight, it's because his teammates can't carry it. Not so for Tennessee. Jarnell Stokes hits 53% of his shots from the field and also spends a ton of time at the free throw line (also 181 attempts). He's also a ferocious rebounder, grabbing 15% of the Vols' misses and over 22% of their opponents' misses (each rate is in the top 100 for individuals). He's joined in the post by 6'8" senior Jeronne Maymon, who shoots 52% from 2 and also scores in bunches from the free throw line (128 attempts).

South Carolina's shown the ability at times this season to stop one player in the paint, but with the exception of the game against Kentucky (when they slowed Julius Randle and Willie Cauley-Stein), teams with significant post presences have typically performed well against the Gamecocks. Even on Thursday against Arkansas, when Carolina played decent defense and held Arkansas to just 1.03 points per possession, they conceded a 50% shooting rate on 2s to the Razorbacks, who failed to take full advantage by missing 3s (they were 3-14) and not grabbing their misses (just 8 offensive rebounds).

The disparity in rest and talent between the Gamecocks and the Volunteers is stark, and oddsmakers have installed Tennessee as a 10-point favorite on Friday afternoon. Of course, the odds of South Carolina making it this far weren't all that great. Why stop winning now?

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