Start time: 9pm
TV: ESPNU (Kevin Fitzgerald, Chris Spatola) | Live stream: WatchESPN.com
Radio: 107.5 The Game in Columbia (Derek Scott, Casey Manning) | Live Audio: Gamecock IMG Sports Network
The most important thing about the # 22/20 Carolina Gamecocks (9-1) hosting Brad Brownell’s streaking Clemson Tigers (8-2) tonight at the Colonial Life Arena is that the Cocks will still be missing the services of Sindarius Thornwell – who remains suspended for “violating team rules” (apparently unconnected – as far as anyone will admit – to Thonrwell’s May run-in with the law. It’s disappointing because the Lancaster, SC native is the most elite player on either squad – averaging 18.7 ppg this season – and he will miss out his chance to go 3-1 against the Tigers. That’s got to hurt a competitor like No. 0.
The most interesting thing about the Clemson game, however, is how both head coaches seem to be soft-peddling the rivalry. “I don’t think he gets the credit he deserves,” Martin said of his counterpart Brad Brownell - and for his part Brownell has been effusive in his praise of our team and home environment. Ia state that produces relatively few legit four and five star NCAA D1 hoops recruits, you’d think it be hook-and-tongs against each other.
Tonight’s matchup is probably the best that both schools have been on the hardwood at the same time since Eddie Fogler and Rick Barnes prowled their respective sidelines back in the early 1990s. This season, both the Cocks and Tigers have legitimate NCAA aspirations and should finish their regular seasons in their league’s upper echelon; the victor of tonight’s contest will certainly point to the W for inclusion on their March resumes. The Cocks currently boast a 22 RPI ranking and Clemson is a respectable 71.
While the Tigers might lack splashy wins like USC over Michigan and Syracuse (and the nail-biter loss to Seton Hall at Madison Square Garden at the beginning of Thornwell’s suspension), Brownell’s club has taken care of business against Georgia and Alabama; their only blemishes are early-season tourney losses to Xavier and Oklahoma – by six points in both contests. A close win over a struggling Nebraska squad doesn’t look great, but then the Gamecocks struggled with Monmouth so its hard to put a lot of stock in that one result. The Tigers have definitely overmatched the rest of their competition.
The strength of the Tigers is in their front court where 5th year SR F Jaron Blossomgame averages 17.6 ppg and 5.5 rebounds. Without Thornwell to help, to counter Blossomgame we need to see our key big men, Chris Silva and Malik Kotsar, each score over 10 pts tonight from the floor and work the boards. Four other Tigers average double-digits which shows you how balanced they are, but our back-court of Notice, Dozier, McKie and Gravett should prove superior and to neutralize whatever advantage CU has in the paint. Clemson doesn’t foul a lot (4th nationally in fewest fouls) but Carolina is ranked 4th and 3rd, respectivel,y in scoring defense and FG percentage defense.
It’s hard to say who has the mental edge. We’ve already faced our toughest out-of-conference opposition (Michigan, Syracuse and Seton Hall) and still hold a national ranking without our all-conference star, including an 11 point road win against USF. As the ranked team, we are definitely going to be the hunted tonight, but it’s at the Colonia Life arena and our nationally-ranked defense should hold the Tigers below their 78.8 ppg and 44.1 shooting % (35.2 from behind the arc), while we can reasonably expect to meet our 73.2 average. We’ve also had to face more adversity for whatever intangible benefit that confers on the Gamecocks. We have proven we can play at a high level without Thornwell – but can we keep it up?
If we weren’t Garnet & Black Attack, it would be easy to like these gritty Tigers; even as bitter rivals, you have to respect them. I could see them with a slight half-time lead and/or definitely hanging around deep into the second half. But all things being equal we should pull away before the final buzzer.