Hogs, Gamecocks Face 'Must' Game

FAYETTEVILLE -- Arkansas and South Carolina, two teams desperate to stay in the postseason basketball picture, meet at 2:05 p.m. today in Bud Walton Arena.

The Razorbacks (14-6, 3-4 in the Southeastern Conference) are coming off a soul-numbing 78-76 loss at Kentucky in which they blew an 18-point lead.

The Gamecocks (11-9, 2-5 SEC) boast wins over Florida and Vanderbilt, but most recently lost 81-65 at Tennessee, after getting within six points in the final three minutes.

"Both of us need a win, basically," said South Carolina coach Dave Odom. "Both of us had an off night last (game)."

South Carolina's task is complicated by the fact that Renaldo Balkman, a 6-foot-8 junior forward who leads the team in rebounding at 6.3, suffered a knee sprain in Monday's practice.

Balkman has been upgraded to "probable."

Odom said Balkman practiced with the team Friday.

"His knee held up well and I would upgrade his availability to probable for limited action," Odom said. "We are very pleased with the way he has responded to his rehabilitation."

Balkman has started 13 games and is the third-leading Gamecocks scorer at 10.3, although he has started just once in SEC play.

While Odom will not have to alter his starting lineup, he said, "We'll go with (6-10 Ousmane) Kanate and (6-8 Keving) Palacios a little more. We have to do it anyway because of Arkansas' size."

Odom praised UA big men Steven Hill, Darian Townes and Charles Thomas, but it's possible that Townes will not start today.

Hogs coach Stan Heath, looking for more rebounding and stronger defense at forward, has challenged Townes this week.

"If he responds, great," Heath said. "If he doesn't, those minutes are going to be hard to get. We can't play defense without urgency and tough-mindedness."

Freshman forward Cyrus McGowan, asked how he might react to a first start at Arkansas, said, "That would be great. I've been wanting to start ever since I've been here. I would give 100 percent effort."

Heath has also hinted at a change at point guard, where either Eric Ferguson or Sean McCurdy could supplant Dontell Jefferson today.

"I don't know who's going to start," Ferguson said. "But everyone's been working hard this week, having fun in practice, and that's going to get us over the hump. If you ain't having fun at what you do, you shouldn't be doing it."

McCurdy, a 6-1 crowd favorite, said Heath told all the Razorbacks to be ready.

"We've just gotta play together for 40 minutes," he said. "We're right there in the standings. Coach says for me to be quick but don't hurry."

McCurdy said he was impressed with 6-1 South Carolina guard Tre' Kelly (11.7 points per game).

"He runs the team well and hits the open jump shot," McCurdy said.

Tarence Kinsey, a 6-6 senior guard, leads the Gamecocks with 15.3 points per game.

Heath has urged Arkansas' guards to take better care of the basketball. Jefferson leads the SEC in assists, but had five turnovers against Kentucky.

"Instead of making a 50-50 pass in transition, we want it to be a 75-25 opportunity," Heath said.

McCurdy joked that he couldn't compute that quickly on the run.

"It's just kinda instinct," he said. "I just see the opportunity and make the best of it. But especially at point guard, you've got to take care of the ball and run the team."

Odom pointed out that both Arkansas and South Carolina have had trouble holding leads.

But he said, "Arkansas closes out games much better at home. Playing Arkansas in Fayetteville is very, very difficult, and they're drawing very well this year."

Odom, in fact, sounded like Arkansas' press agent.

"Ronnie Brewer is one of the two or three best players in the league, and Jonathon Modica and Ferguson have been around since the beginning of time," he said. "Lord-a-mercy, you've got a load."

Odom continued, "I don't know if I've seen a player improve as much as Hill has in the last year. He blocks shots, discourages shots. Arkansas' coaches have done a good job with him."

The Gamecocks counter with 6-8 senior center Antoine Tisby and 6-10 forward Brandon Wallace, the only South Carolina native on the roster. Wallace averages 7.1 points and 6.0 rebounds.

"We don't have good one-on-one defenders inside," Odom said, "so our other players have to help and that leaves us vulnerable to the 3-point shot."

Fortunately for South Carolina, Arkansas sits just 10th in the SEC in 3-point shooting percentage at .342. The Gamecocks are fourth at .375, with Kinsey's .435 leading the way.

South Carolina is also a slightly better rebounding team than Arkansas.

"We've got to use our strengths to give them trouble," Odom said.

Hill, hoping to live up to Odom's glowing praise of him, said, "We worked hard this week and grew up a little bit. We want to play a complete game."

Heath said Arkansas wouldn't announce its starting lineup until game time.

"I'm going to look hard at the chemistry someone brings from the other four guys on the court," Heath said. "I still see a positive ending available to this team, but we have to do our part."

The Associated Press also contributed to this report.




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