Well, it's the same old song and dance for USC, and by that I mean we're back in the Little Dance. It may stink to miss out on the NCAAs after such a promising season, but it's still been a positive start to the Darrin Horn era. Therefore, we need to continue the good vibes and produce some hope for next season with a good showing in the NIT.
Our opponent, Davidson, has one of the nation's best players in Stephen Curry and is a very solid team; just last year, of course, they were in the Elite Eight and almost made the Final Four. This year, the Wildcats went and finished 26-7 and 18-2. That was good for first in the Southern Conference, but the Wildcats were booted from an NCAAs berth when they lost out on the auto-bid by losing to College of Charleston in the SoCon tourney.
This year's version of the 'Cats, which received considerable pre-season hype and were considered an NCAAs at-large contender earlier in the year, are not as good as last year's Elite Eight team. They return Curry, who can take over any game when he's on, but they lost some key role players. That led to a few losses this year and a profile that wasn't good enough to warrant an at-large berth. Make no mistake, though: this is still a very good mid-major squad, and they will give us a tough game.
Here a my three key questions for whether or not the Gamecocks can win this one.
- Who wants it more? As it's considered a loser's conference, the NIT is often won by the team that can get over the disappointment of missing out on the NCAAs and muster the desire to win a few more games. That may be especially true of this game. Both South Carolina and Davidson did not want to be here. Carolina was considered a near lock for the NCAAs after beating down Kentucky a couple of years ago, and Davidson came into this year with lots of hype and, even after losing their at-large contention, probably expected to win their conference tourney like they usually do. Can one team get over the funk and play hard? Hard to say which one will, but if I had to choose, I'd go with the home team that wasn't in the Elite Eight last year.
- Can South Carolina contain Curry? This is a trick question to some degree. Obviously, Curry is the offensive focal point for Davidson. He's a guy that's capable of scoring 40 on a good night, and when he has a bad night, Davidson is hard pressed to win. However, in all liklihood, Curry will get his. The key for South Carolina, in that case, becomes whether or not it can contain the other guys on Davidson's squad. We have an athletic advantage over everyone on Davidson other than Curry, so we should be able to shut them down, score on them, beat them out for hustle plays, etc. If we can do those things, we should be able to win this game regardless of whether or not Curry scores 40. I'm particularly thinking that this should be a game where we force 20 turnovers, get lots of offensive boards, and score 80 points. The key will be playing smart and not letting our athletic advantage go to waste.
- A related point: can Devan Downey and the front-court return to earlier-season form? Downey has shot woefully in the recent losses, and we've been getting owned on the boards. While tall on the perimeter, Davidson isn't a particularly great defensive team, so Downey should be able to get in the lane. The 'Cats also aren't as big on the block as a Mississippi State, so Mike Holmes, Sam Muldrow, and Austin Steed should be able to pound it and get on the boards. If we can do these things, I think we'll be OK.
Those interested getting more info on Davidson and other NIT teams should check out the College Hoops Net, which has the best NIT previews I could find. As always, join the open thread during the game.