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South Carolina Alabama Preview: Expect Close Battle Between Close Friends

South Carolina hits the road a week after their surprising road win in Athens. The Alabama Crimson Tide are having Star Wars Night as they welcome the injury-ridden Gamecocks. May the force be with us, always.

Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Two Miami boys will throw down in snowy Tuscaloosa, Alabama tonight.

South Carolina head coach Frank Martin and Alabama head coach Anthony Grant were high school basketball teammates at Miami Senior High School way back in the day. The two remain good friends today and are in somewhat similar positions.

Both teams were expected to make strides this season but have appeared to fall short of those expectations. Alabama (16-11, 6-8) was expected to possibly make the NCAA Tournament under Grant this season. Unless a lengthy late-season run is ahead, I'm skeptical of that happening which would leave Grant's status with the school up in the air once again entering the offseason. Martin was expected to take a step into the realm of relevancy with this program and after some impressive early season wins, the team has taken two steps back in conference play. Martin isn't in danger of losing his job like Grant is but one wonders if that time will come one day in Columbia.

Texas A&M led wire-to-wire in their 62-52 win over South Carolina on Saturday and despite another horrid shooting performance by the Gamecocks (27.1 percent) they cut the Aggies 13-point lead to five twice, getting in striking distance when it seemed at times to be a pipe dream. Michael Carrera led the team with a season-high 17 points while also collecting nine rebounds.

The junior forward also had a strong performance earlier this year against Alabama. In USC's 68-66 win last month, Carrera tallied a game-high eight rebounds to go along with a then-season-high 12 points.

Last month's game was sloppy and physical. There were 54 fouls called in the game and the Tide's 27 are the most they have committed all season. Carrera made a season-high seven free throws in the game. The Gamecocks bench was the difference in the close win, outscoring Alabama's bench 27-16. That +11 margin is the highest bench scoring margin for South Carolina this season.

The two-point game last month is indicative of the series between the two schools. Each of the last 11 games played between Alabama and South Carolina have been decided by 10 points or fewer and six of the 11 have come down to the last possession. Alabama had a 3-pointer hit the rim at the buzzer in the final act of last month's game.

Both teams are predicated on their defense. South Carolina statistically has the better one of the two, ranking fourth in scoring defense in the SEC. However, Alabama has the more balanced attack. The Tide is much more capable of putting the ball in the basket compared to the Gamecocks but that's not too hard to do.

Senior guard Levi Randolph leads Alabama in scoring, assists, steals, and minutes. He also ranks fifth in the SEC in field goal and free throw percentage. He's the key to their attack. He had a nice wing mate in junior guard Ricky Tarant but he has missed the last seven games due to a lower right leg injury. In his absence, guard Retin Obasohan and forward Shannon Hale have really stepped up their games to support Randolph. Both players have increased their scoring averages to double-digits and their shooting percentages, rebounds, and minutes have all increased as well.

The Gamecocks will travel to T-Town trying to capture their second SEC road win of the season, one that came a week ago at Georgia. This is South Carolina's first trip to Coleman Coliseum since January of 2013. They haven't won their since 2009 and have only risen victorious in two of their last 14 trips in Tuscaloosa. Alabama has won seven of the last eight meetings between the teams at home. On the bright side, South Carolina has won three of the last five meetings between the schools including two in a row against the Tide.

Every day as of late has been a struggle for this Gamecock team. They have been ravaged by injuries and have had to use managers as bodies in practice to be able to properly prepare for games. Brian Steele is playing on a knee that will require surgery after the season and this late in the season, the other guys still available have to be some sort of beat up. The odds are against the Gamecocks tonight but they seemed that way last week in Athens too. The Gamecocks are a four-point underdog tonight but don't count them out.

Dave Baker and Joe Dean Jr. will have the call on the SEC Network tonight at 7 p.m. ET.