Well, maybe we can play basketball without two of our best players in the lineup, after all: after losing Dominique Archie, struggling against Jacksonville in his absence, and then losing Mike Holmes, the Gamecocks turned in a solid performance tonight against Western Kentucky, winning 74-56. Devan Downey led Carolina with 15 points, while A. J. Slaughter led the Hilltoppers with 12. Darrin Horn got the satisfaction of not losing to his old team.
Here are my thoughts on the game:
- Defense. After giving up 93 points, .500 shooting, and 27 FTAs to Jacksonville, I thought we might be lost defensively without Archie in the lineup. Tonight, though, we buckled down a bit, holding the Toppers to 56, .34 from the field, and an abysmal .17 from beyond the arc. The Toppers don't appear to be a good shooting team, but the fact still stands that you did something right anytime you hold an opponent to those numbers. Two of the big names here are Sam Muldrow with a whopping six blocks and Devan Downey with his standard three steals.
- Getting the young guys involved. Lakeem Jackson had a full stat line with nine points, ten rebounds, four assists, and two steals, while Ramon Galloway had eleven points. Jhondre Jefferson was less prominent on the box score but did lend a hand on the boards. It's important for these guys to contribute like this with the two starters out. That's particularly true for Jackson, who is going to be required to fill multiple roles.
- Everyone contributing. We had eight players who played at least 13 minutes. WKU, on the other hand, had seven players that played at least 14 minutes, and all of their starters played at least 30, with leading scorer Slaughter playing almost the entire game. As you can see, our improved depth is paying off for us even with two of our stars out. We had five players in double figures scoring; that's again important with two double-figure scorers out and with teams continuing to try to limit Downey's effectiveness by running zones to keep him out of the lane.
- The Toppers aren't as good as they were the past two years. Before you go getting excited about beating a team that has advanced two straight years in the NCAAs, you should know that WKU has already lost to both LSU (who is rebuilding this year) and Indiana State. The Toppers have four of five starters back, but the one they lost is a doozy: Sun Belt POY Orlando Mendez-Valdes. Apparently they're missing him. I have no doubt the Toppers will do well in the Sun Belt, where they usually only get consistent competition from a couple of programs. (One is my South Alabama Jaguars, who whopped Arkansas the other day.) However, so far, this year's WKU doesn't look like a mid-major power, so don't expect this to be one of those elusive "quality OOC wins" come tourney time.
That's a wrap on this win, folks. While WKU may be struggling, I'll take this win. In fact, I'll take just about any win we can get with Archie and Holmes out and then hope we can make our run when they return. We can hopefully make our run at the NCAAs when they come back by storming the SEC. Now, it's on to the Upstate this weekend. Can we hang with the Tigers? It looks doubtful, but anything's possible.