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South Carolina vs. Tennessee Preview: The anxiety game

The Gamecocks have lost four of their last five and desperately need a win

NCAA Basketball: South Carolina at Tennessee Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

When: Saturday, February 25th at 1:00 p.m.

Where: Colonial Life Arena, Columbia, SC

How to watch: SEC Network

How to stream: WatchESPN

How to listen: 107.5 The Game

From a five seed, to a six seed and now a seven seed — South Carolina’s NCAA tournament hopes are sinking faster than Calvin Johnson after a game-losing Hail Mary.

It’s no secret South Carolina is in the middle of an all-to-familiar tail spin, having lost four of their last five games in a crucial stretch of their season. The seed’s mentioned above are in reference to Joe Lunardi’s bracketology rankings for South Carolina over the past few weeks, and they’ve been slipping in an unfriendly direction.

At one point South Carolina was sitting pretty as a five-seed in the Greenville region — and what could have been more perfect than making your first NCAA tournament and playing in your home state?

Now they’re projected to be a seven seed lined up to play Michigan State, which is not in anyway a favorable match up for any seven seed. The Gamecocks are in desperate need of a slump buster, and it needs to be Tennessee this afternoon at CLA.

At one Tennessee was riding a slight upswing in their second year under Rick Barnes. After their initial loss to South Carolina on Jan. 11 , the Vols won six of eight — including a shocker over then No. 4 Kentucky — and worked their way into the NCAA tournament conversation.

However, Tennessee has now lost three of their last four games are sitting in a similar desperation situation as the Gamecocks. Both need wins to pat their tournament resumes, and a loss could morph an already bad slump catastrophic.

Metrics Friendly

According to the advanced stats, Tennessee is a much better team than their record indicates. According to, Tennessee has a top-60 offense and defense — making them one of only 29 teams in the country to hold such an advantage.

Their strength of schedule is rated as the 11th toughest in the country, and their adjusted efficiency margin (Adjusted Offense-Adjusted Defense) is 47th in the country. On its face, saying a 15-13 team with a 7-8 conference record is one of the 50 best teams in the country seems like a stretch.

But when you plug their point differential into the Pythagorean wins calculator, Tennessee should probably be an 18-10 team rather than a 15-13 one. Luck’s probably played a factor into that prediciament, as KenPom has Tennessee rated as one of the 60 unluckiest teams in the country.

A laymen’s summary: Tennessee is a better team than their record shows, and as they’ve shown are more than capable of putting a scare into any team in the country.

Thornwell or Bust

Oddly enough, a common theme during this slump for South Carolina has been how great Sindarious Thornwell has been. In the last five games — where the Gamecocks are 1-4 mind you — Thornwell has averaged 28.6 points, 9.0 rebounds and 2.0 steals while shooting 46.5 percent from the floor.

Those are monster numbers from the SEC’s second leading scorer, however the problem has been the absence of a consistent second option on a team that shouldn’t have that problem.

Chris Silva has fouled out in four of the last five games, limiting his minutes and his production. PJ Dozier is shooting 32.4 percent from the field and 22.7 percent from three in the last five games, while Duane Notice is shooting similar numbers at 36.3 percent from the field and 20.8 percent from three.

Perhaps the most astounding thing of all is in the last five games only one time has a bench player made more than one field goal, which was Justin Mckie against Mississippi State. It’s literally been Thornwell playing one-on-five for the last two weeks, and that has to change.

Defensive lapses

South Carolina’s calling card this season has been defense. By any metric you want, they’re one of the best defensive teams in the country. They’re 35th in the country in straight points allowed per game, 6th in the country in defensive efficiency and 3rd in KenPom’s defensive rating.

As a man of advanced stats, I tend to go by defensive rating since it measures points allowed per 100 possessions — and by now it’s common knowledge college teams play at different paces. So when you calculate South Carolina’s defensive rating over the last five games, they’re giving up 108.9 points per 100 possessions.

For comparison, the Gamecocks are giving up 92.8 points per 100 possessions on the season. That’s over a 16 point swing, which is a huge difference for a team that has struggled to put the ball in the bucket outside of Thornwell. As to what’s caused that upswing, there’s a list of things you can look at.

Whether it’s giving up nearly nine three’s, opponents averaging 24.4 free throw attempts or losing the defensive rebound battle in the last five games — something has to change if South Carolina wants to pull themselves out of this slump.