For Carolina (9-13, 1-7), it's a chance to start spit-shining what has been a turd-sandwich of a season; having played four games against the league's two best teams (UK and UF), not to mention consensus upper-division squads like Vandy, Bama and Ole Miss, the Gamecocks have an easier row-to-hoe to finish out the balance of the SEC-season: most of the remaining games will be against lower-division opponents - including two against the Vols and two against the UGA Bulldogs.
If USC can dig deep and find a way to go at least 6-2 over the final eight regular season games, there is chance of finishing up 15-15 - with a possible bid to the College Basketball Invitational Tournament in the offing if we can win one game in the SEC Tourney in New Orleans.
Sure, the CBI is no NIT, and it's about as far from the Big Dance as you can get, but it's still post-season, and it's our only realistic shot to keep playing once we're finally bounced from the Big Easy. Keep in mind, that of the 16 teams which made the 2011 CBI, two had .500 records (Evansville and Miami [OH]) and the ultimate CBI champ, Oregon, was given a bid after finishing the Pac-10 Tournament with an overall record of 16-17.
As for Tennessee (11-12, 3-5), the visiting Gamecocks represent a chance to build a two-game winning streak and a little momentum heading into the upcoming tilt with UF - which is the last ranked opponent for Tennessee until the SEC Tournament begins. Like the Cocks, the Vols' second-half schedule is not nearly as difficult as the first half; the Volunteers will need to put the Cocks away to keep their RPI up for NIT consideration.
Under first year coach Cuonzo Martin, Rocky Top has been plagued by uneven play. Since early January, UT has stolen some wins against ranked opponents (Florida, Connecticut), lost some heart-breakers (UK, @MSU and @UGA) and been hammered @UK and @Vandy.* But the Vols have also held serve at Thompson-Boling, having won 8 of 9 at home since a December loss to Pitt (the only blemish being a three-point loss to the UK Wildcats - compare that to our recent destruction at the hands of Calipari's 'Cats).
If the Volunteers can win tonight, and get to .500, they have a legitimate shot of finishing with a strong-enough record to make the NIT. After the Bruce Pearl dismissal-debacle, that would be quite a coup indeed.
So how do the two teams match up? It largely will depend on USC's shooting. Our match-zone defense should help keep the Vols below their season average 68.6 ppg. The Vols are not exactly world-beaters from the floor, shooting just .438 on the season and 39% in SEC play; their 3-point percentage in league play is hovering around 30%. Carolina's shooting is nothing to write home about either, but if Bruce Ellington can find a stroke - and Damien Leonard can match his 19 point performance against UK, then the Gamecocks should be in the game much the same way were in it against Ole Miss on the road. The Vols most important player to watch will be PG Trae Golden; if Ellington can defend him, and Damontre Harris can stay out of foul trouble, we'll be in good shape.
Either way, it's going to be a struggle - UT has put away other lower division foes UGA and Auburn with strong second-half runs and a deep bench. But I think the pressure on the Cocks to win - no matter what - should carry the day, and Tennessee (currently on a nine-game win streak against Carolina), will be looking past us.
Wild-ass, seat-of-my-pants, after-the-fact-deniable prediction: USC 64 UT 63.
*(h/t Caban for correcting my erroneous assertion that UT was "blown out twice" by UK; that was USC that got blown out twice by the Wildcats).