The last week of the 2014-15 regular season tips-off tonight for South Carolina. The Gamecocks play two of their final three regular season games at home, beginning with tonight's matchup vs. Mississippi State.
Earlier this week, South Carolina fell 59-51 at Alabama. The Tide went on a 10-3 run to seal the victory and keep the Gamecocks near the bottom of the SEC.
The team just above them in the SEC standings is Mississippi State. The Bulldogs (12-16, 5-10) are currently on a three-game losing streak, the latest loss being an 18-point loss to No. 1 Kentucky. All three of MSU's losses on the streak have come at home but the other two were close, losing to Ole Miss by six and No. 18 Arkansas by just four. Weirdly enough, Mississippi State has won two of their last three SEC road games, gaining wins at Missouri and Tennessee. The Missouri win is their lone victory in their last six contests.
After Tuesday's loss, the Gamecocks have now lost two in a row. South Carolina lost to Alabama despite a career-high 18 points from Laimonas Chatkevicius on 7-of-12 shooting. The big man from Lithuania also collected nine rebounds, five of them offensive. He helped round up what ended up being 17 offensive rebounds for 22 second-chance points for the team overall Tuesday night. Eleven of the Gamecocks first 16 points were off second-chance opportunities.
Chatkevicius has averaged 8.3 rebounds per game in the last three games, including a combined 20 in the last two contests. Duane Notice canned four 3-pointers on the way to 16 points Tuesday night but the story in the backcourt was simply the return of freshman point guard Marcus Stroman.
Stroman had missed the last four games due to a throat infection and had lost close to 15 pounds, according to Frank Martin. He only played 14 minutes, collecting two assists and a steal but his return should only benefit South Carolina has they hit the last stretch of the season.
All-time, Mississippi State holds an 18-10 advantage against South Carolina, including a surprising 7-5 upperhand in games played in Columbia. South Carolina is actually one of two SEC teams that Mississippi State has a winning record against all-time. The Gamecocks are also the only SEC that the Bulldogs have a winning record against on the road all-time.
MSU has won three of the last five meetings between the two schools but South Carolina won the last matchup, a 74-62 USC win in Starkville last season. Then-freshman Sindarius Thornwell threw up a double-double, going for 20 points and 11 rebounds in the win.
Junior forward Gavin Ware and junior guard Craig Sword lead the way for the Bulldogs. Ware averages 10.2 points per game and 7.4 rebounds per game. His 8.6 rebounds in SEC games ranks fifth in the league. In SEC play, Sword averages 13.2 points per game, which leads the team. Earlier this week versus Kentucky, Sword became the 34th player in school history to score 1,000 points in a career. He also collected two steals in the game to push himself into ninth place on MSU's all-time steals list.
Mississippi State has led at halftime in five of their seven SEC road games, winning three of them. A fourth SEC road win tonight would be their most in that category since 2011.
The Bulldogs are 3-14 this season when shooting below 45 percent from the field. The brightest part of the season for South Carolina has been their defense, allowing just 61.7 points per game, ranking third best in the conference. South Carolina rountinely holds opponents below the 45 percent shooting threshold that has weirdly defined MSU's season (they are 9-2 when shooting 45% or better).
Despite their best passer, and the player most adept at setting up his teammates, missing the last four games, South Carolina has collected an assist on 62% of its made baskets over their last three games. While the offense continues to struggle from the outside, ball movement and making sound passes on cuts and post-ups is crucial. Stroman was the best at all of that but a sign of progress was that the team showed the ability to set each other up even with the freshman out.
In the first matchup in Columbia since 2013, South Carolina is a nine-point favorite over Mississippi State, according to Bovada. The game tips at 6 p.m. ET on the SEC Network where Tom Hart and Jon Sundvold will have the call.