An exciting, attention-grabbing South Carolina Men's basketball team rode a seven-game winning streak into SEC conference play but unfortunately, two disappointing losses ensued as the Gamecocks enter the most pivotal stretch of their season.
The Florida Gators entered Colonial Life Arena last week and came away with a solid road win in both teams' conference opener. The Gamecocks offense, like the weather, went ice cold against the Gators and that trend continued into the weekend.
South Carolina traveled to Oxford, Mississippi this past Saturday to take on an Ole Miss Rebels team that had most recently given No. 1 Kentucky their biggest scare of the season. Ole Miss held the lead for the entire first half but South Carolina recorded three consecutive buckets to open the second half and tie the game. A 17-7 Ole Miss run then ensued and the Rebels never looked back. The Gamecocks shot just 4-of-20 from behind the arc overall, but a measly 0-of-10 from 3-point range which contributed to the 33 percent mark from the field in the second half. Senior guard Tyrone Johnson has been the only consistent scoring threat in conference games thus far, averaging 16.5 points per game, a number higher than his nonconference average. South Carolina's leading scorers and two pace-setters, sophomore guards Duane Notice and Sindarius Thornwell, have been absent from the Gamecocks' offense in SEC play. The duo has combined to shoot just 8-of-32 from the field for 28 points in the first two SEC games.
The Gamecocks opponent Tuesday night is the Alabama Crimson Tide, who is riding into Columbia with a six-game win streak. The Crimson Tide hasn't loss since they blew a possible significant road win at No.11 Wichita State, losing to the Shockers by one point. In SEC play, Alabama has routed Texas A&M at home by 21 and then followed it up with an 18-point win at Tennessee this past weekend.
Alabama's win in Knoxville broke a streak that almost cost head coach Anthony Grant his job last season. Entering Saturday's game, the Tide had lost 16 consecutive game on the road, 12 of which were SEC losses. Grant seems to finally have something in Tuscaloosa, and like South Carolina, they are led by a trio of guards and stifling defense. While the Gamecocks have Johnson, Notice, and Thornwell, the Tide boasts Ricky Tarrant (13.2 PPG), Levi Randolph (15.3 PPG), and Rodney Cooper (10.9 PPG).
Randolph is Alabama's leading scorer overall but Tarrant, a Tulane transfer, leads the Tide in scoring so far in conference play, tallying 14.5 points per game in the two contests. A situation similar to how Notice leads USC overall in scoring but Johnson has been the bucket getter in the two conference games. Randolph is the key cog offensively though for Alabama. Until Saturday, he had a 16-game streak of double-figure scoring games that dated back to last season. He also leads the team in assists, having distributed 44 to teammates so far this season. Randolph also grabs 5.1 rebounds per game, a mark that is second best on the team, only behind starting forward Michael Kessen's 5.7 rebounds per game.
Despite the shooting woes, South Carolina's nationally relevant defense still remains. The Gamecocks rank fifth nationally in opponents field goal percentage with a mark of 34.8 percent. Alabama allows oppoents to shoot just 40.7 percent but overwhelmed Tennessee enough to force the Volunteers to shoot 31.1 percent from the field on Saturday night. The Vols scored just 14 points on 20.8 percent shooting in the second half, an offensive performance similar to South Carolina's in Oxford.
Recent games have been disappointing but South Carolina can still save their season and achieve something special. They must come out with enthusiasm and get up on Alabama early. They can't play out of control and they must play with discipline. Alabama is 10-0 this season when attempting more free throws than their opponent. Maybe South Carolina will benefit from a possible look-ahead: The Tide face Kentucky at home on Saturday. Alabama is a good team, they're receiving votes in the Associated Press Top 25, but their players will know that being 3-0 going into Saturday will make that game much better.
South Carolina is 6-2 at home this season and has won nine of their last 12 home games against Alabama. The Gamecocks haven't lost at home to the Crimson Tide since 2010, and in their last meeting, South Carolina snuck by with a 67-66 win over Alabama last season.
The game tips off at 9pm ET on ESPNU where Mike Morgan and Barry Booker will have the call.