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South Carolina vs. Ole Miss Preview: Gamecocks need to finish with style

South Carolina has one more chance to pick up a quality win

NCAA Basketball: Mississippi at South Carolina Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

When: Saturday, March 4th at 8:30 p.m.

Where: The Pavillion at Ole Miss, Oxford, Miss.

How to watch: SEC Network

How to stream: WatchESPN

How to listen: 107.5 The Game

Anxiety is an emotion that dies hard, and for South Carolina basketball fans the feeling certainly hasn’t fleeted yet.

Even after winning two in a row following a 1-4 skid, Tuesday’s Mississippi State game was probably too close for comfort for most Gamecock fans. As a matter of fact it was probably too close for Joe Lunardi as well, who dropped the Gamecocks from a seven seed to an eight seed in his projections this week.

With tournament hopes slipping fast, South Carolina could do themselves a favor tonight if they can take care of Ole Miss on the road. However, it would behoove South Carolina to not just take care of the Rebels — but trash them on their home court.

At 18-12 Ole Miss is a solid college basketball team, but probably not tournament worthy — yet. As of right now the Rebels best win of the year is arguably Memphis and are 0-5 against the projected SEC tournament teams, but one quality win could get the ball rolling in the right direction if Ole Miss wants to make a late push.

The point: Ole Miss still has a lot to play for. All it would take is a win over South Carolina to get the ball rolling for a run in the SEC tournament, and for South Carolina a loss could be catastrophic for their tournament hopes.

The Rebels are 6-3 in their last nine games and will have a packed house for senior night in Oxford, so South Carolina could do their resume a favor with a statement win on the road against a quality team.

Defense back

During South Carolina’s 1-4 slump in February, the defense was the primary factor in the lack of quality basketball. The Gamecocks were giving up 108.9 points per 100 possessions in those five games, much worse than their regular season average of 92.8.

However in South Carolina’s last two wins against Tennessee and Mississippi State, they’ve averaged a 78.7 defensive rating — a phenomenal number considering what they were coming off of.

To make more comparisons: during the 1-4 slump opponents averaged nearly nine three’s a game and 24 free throw attempts per game. Tennessee and Mississippi State combined for eight three-pointers on 39 attempts (20.5 percent) and averaged 16.5 free throw attempts per game.

Sure — Arkansas, Alabama, Vanderbilt and Florida are much better opponents than Tennessee and Mississippi State, but it’s the confidence building factor that matters here. South Carolina needed a slump buster and they got it, so now the Gamecocks just have to keep the momentum rolling in their favor.

Robin stepping up

It’s become clear South Carolina’s “Batman” is Sindarious Thornwell, but as to who is the clear Robin is still a bit of a mystery. It’s been a revolving door of PJ Dozier, Duane Notice and Chris Silva — but the three have never been able to establish themselves as consistent producers game-to-game.

But when at least one of those three players steps up to have a good game there is an obvious difference in how South Carolina plays. Against Tennessee Dozier and Notice combined for 34 points on 12-25 shooting, while against Mississippi State Silva notched a double-double (15 points, 11 boards) despite his usual four personal fouls.

And even though he was only 1-7 from the field against Mississippi State, the one shot Notice made came in a crucial moment for the Gamecocks. With 2:16 left in the game, Notice nailed his only three-pointer to give South Carolina a 57-52 lead over the Bulldogs, and the shot became a noticeable turning point to give SC the win.

Throw the three names in a hat and draw at your own pleasure — because that’s a good of a shot as you’l have at guessing who “Robin” will be tonight. Though if SC’s win against Ole Miss on Jan. 14 is any indication, Silva or Dozier would be good guesses (both scored 16 points, Silva grabbed 11 rebounds).

Not bad, but not great

As a case study Ole Miss is an interesting team. While they’re not great at any one particular thing, they’ve not bad at anything either. I guess that’s how you wind up 9-8 in conference and 18-12 overall with a pretty weak non-conference schedule.

According to the advanced stat site KenPom, Ole Miss is 79th in the country in offensive rating and 97th in defensive rating — giving them an 81 overall ranking among the 351 teams in the country. Being in the 73rd percentile in all those categories makes for a solid team, even if your resume isn’t tournament quality.

While Ole Miss has some all-conference caliber players like Sebastian Saiz and Deandre Burrnett, their lineup starts to thin out once you get past Terence Davis. If South Carolina can find a way to shut down Burrnett and Saiz, they’ll have no trouble getting a win.

However that’s easier said that done. Saiz is averaging a double-double this season (14.9 ppg, 10.8 rpg) and Burrnett is averaging 16.5 ppg at an eFG% clip of 55.8. Both will be players to watch not only tonight but as potential sleepers in the SEC tournament next week too.