No. 24 South Carolina (12-0) vs. Memphis (9-3)
WATCH: 6:00 p.m. ET, ESPNU
The new year presents South Carolina with one of its mightiest challenges. The Gamecocks will host the Memphis Tigers on Saturday night at Colonial Life Arena. The game represents the most important nonconference game in Frank Martin's tenure in Columbia.
While USC is ranked and Memphis is not, the Tigers are the most talented team Martin's bunch has faced this season. A win over Memphis would secure an undefeated nonconference slate for the Gamecocks heading into conference play. That fact has as much to do with the importance of Saturday night's game as the Tigers' talent.
Memphis is not a surefire tournament team but they will present some issues for USC. Freshman Dedric Lawson is a player that will absolutely have his shot at the NBA. Lawson's 15.5 points per game leads the Tigers. They also benefit from playing the transfer game as former Alabama standout Ricky Tarrant Jr. averages 13.7 points per game and a team-high 3.8 assists per game.
The Gamecocks have faced a couple of teams already this season that are adept at guarding the paint and protecting the rim. Memphis ranks as the second best shot-blocking team in the country, led by senior forward Shaq Goodwin's 2.3 blocks per game. Goodwin is an undersized forward who uses his athleticism to protect the rim, grab rebounds and run the floor.
Goodwin is similar to Michael Carrera, but Carrera has shown a different side of himself so far this season. His improvement on his outside shooting has made his transition to the wing easier than expected and is a large reason for this team's early success. Duane Notice knocked down three triples in Wednesday's win over Francis Marion. Notice and Carrera will need to shoot well from the outside for South Carolina to pull this win out.
Saturday will mark Memphis' first true road game of the season. How a freshman like Lawson responds in a hostile, collegiate environment for the first time will be key to the game.
Martin and Memphis head coach Josh Pastner coached against each other in AAU games long ago. Pastner is in his seventh season at Memphis and was on the hottest of seats entering this season.
The Gamecocks and Tigers also faced off many times long ago as members of the Metro Conference. Memphis holds an 18-5 upperhand in the all-time series.
The last time these two teams met - the 2004 NCAA Tournament. South Carolina has its best team since that 2004 postseason appearance. A win today would go a long way to securing a spot in this year's tournament. Martin wants to make a statement - here's his chance.