Tough schedule ahead

South Carolina got no favors from the Southeastern Conference schedule-makers. Following a Jan. 7 loss to No. 2 Kentucky on the road in the initial Southeastern Conference game, the Gamecocks return home to host Eastern Division foes Vanderbilt on Jan. 10 and Florida on Jan. 14.

The Gamecocks were on the short end of a 79-64 decision against Kentucky in a game that wasn't that close. Continuing a season-long theme, they struggled to put the ball in the hoop.

South Carolina connected on a mere 39.1 percent of its shots against the Wildcats, with only freshman Damien Leonard showing any consistency. Leonard came off the bench to lead the team with 15 points. The Gamecocks made many mistakes against Kentucky, although several were forced by the talented Wildcats.

When Vanderbilt rolls into the Colonial Life Arena, the Gamecocks will have to find more ways to consistently create easier shots on a consistent basis. With only one senior on his squad, South Carolina coach Darrin Horn believes his team must grow up fast if it is to have an opportunity to successfully compete in the league.

"We have an SEC team in terms of ability," Horn said. "I don't know that you're going to come out and hold a team of (Kentucky's) talent, at the pace that they play at, in the low 50s or 60s."

The Commodores were blindsided by the Gamecocks a year ago, when Vanderbilt came into Columbia with a lofty national ranking only to leave with an 83-75 defeat.

South Carolina again will be the underdog against its taller, more mature and talented opponents. The Gamecocks have managed to play competitively against the more highly regarded opponents on the schedule, but they enter SEC play with a mediocre 7-7 record and without a signature victory.

The Gamecocks enter the Vanderbilt game shooting 42.7 percent from the field and 33.9 percent from 3-point range. South Carolina's struggles to find good shots reappeared in the closing minutes of the first half against Kentucky, when the Gamecocks were unable to get anything inside the paint.

"I don't know that (we took) bad shots, but they may have been bad shots for the time," Horn said. "We were just trying to finish the first half. Again, a couple of them were probably pretty open looks.

"The challenge is, again, understanding that in that situation, we're trying to finish the half strong. It is better to drive the basketball then to pull and take a 3. Those are things that our team needs to grow and that are important to us to finish things out against a team of this caliber."

NOTES, QUOTES

--The 2011-12 school year has been a world-wind for sophomore Bruce Ellington.

In 2010-11, Ellington was selected to the SEC All-Freshman team after leading the Gamecocks in scoring at 12.8 points per game.

But Ellington was formerly one of the top prep football players in South Carolina, and both South Carolina basketball coach Darrin Horn and football coach Steve Spurrier promised the 5-foot-9, 197-pounder he could compete with the football team if he chose. Ellington did that in 2011. He became a key member of the Gamecocks football squad that, following a 30-13 win over Nebraska in the Capital One Bowl, finished the season with a school-record 11 victories. Ellington rushed 17 times for 106 yards, including a 61-yard touchdown, completed three of four passes for 27 yards, and caught 17 passes for 211 yards, including a 49-yard touchdown reception against rival Clemson.

After going back and forth from football to basketball, he is now a full-time performer on the hardwood. Second on the team in scoring through Jan. 8, Ellington is making the basketball team better when he is on the floor. He is still working to make his shot more consistent, however.

--Freshman swing guard Damien Leonard has struggled getting into the swing of college basketball. After opening the season as a starter, he was not only regulated to the bench, but he received little playing time after struggling to make his outside shot, which is his specialty.

He appears to have regained his shooting eye, as he led the team in scoring against Kentucky with 15 points, making three of six 3-point shots.

Leonard's recent shooting accuracy could not have come at a better time for coach Darrin Horn, who is searching for more ways for his offense to produce points. Leonard, a Greenville, S.C. native, was shooting better than 60 percent from long range in the last six games through Jan. 8.

--After opening the season as backup point guard to Lakeem Jackson, sophomore Eric Smith played the best basketball of his short collegiate career to gain the starting slot. While he has continued to start despite the return of last year's starter at point guard, Bruce Ellington, his play has fallen off. Smith struggled to handle the position against Wofford when Ellington was away competing with the Gamecocks football team in the Capital One Bowl.

BY THE NUMBERS: 5, 6 -- Sophomore forward R.J. Slawson has proven to be a valuable performer coming off the bench for the Gamecocks. He scored five points and pulled down six rebounds as a reserve against Kentucky. He also dished out an assist, had one steal and blocked a shot.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "He had one foot in the paint and still blocked my shot. I didn't know he was going to block that." -- Freshman swing man Damien Leonard, about Kentucky freshman forward Anthony Davis, who blocked one of his 3-point attempts.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

THIS WEEK'S GAMES:

--vs. Vanderbilt, Jan. 10
KEY MATCHUPS: Although South Carolina split two games with Vanderbilt a year ago, it has never found an answer for junior swingman John Taylor. One of the most prolific scorers in the Southeastern Conference, Taylor enters this matchup averaging 20.3 point per game. With the Gamecocks now employing a zone defense, no one performer will be responsible for stopping him, although senior Malik Cooke, South Carolina's leading scorer, will have to step up his offense if the Gamecocks are to keep pace.

--vs. Florida, Jan. 14
KEY MATCHUPS: The Gators entered the week with a 12-4 record following an upset loss to Tennessee in their opening SEC game. South Carolina and Florida each won on the opponent's floor a year ago, with both featuring battles between guards Kenny Boynton and Bruce Ellington. Ellington got the most of his opponent in the encounter in Gainesville, Fla., while Boynton returned the favor in Columbia. Boynton led Florida with a 19.1-point average and was dishing out 3.1 assists through Jan. 8.

FUTURES MARKET: Now that sophomore guard Bruce Ellington has returned to the team as a full-time player, it will be interesting to see if he continues to come off the bench. The team appears much better when he is leading the offense, as sophomore Eric Smith, the starter, has struggled. Despite playing fewer minutes, Ellington was the team's second-leading scorer through Jan. 8, and he is the only player who can create opening shots for his teammates by driving into the lane. Despite the transition from football, Ellington appeared to have very few conditioning problems. He is a born leader on the floor.

PLAYER NOTES

--Sophomore G Brenton Williams, who eventually could become South Carolina's top point guard reserve, did not play against Kentucky after arriving in Lexington, Ky., the morning of the game after attending his grandmother's funeral in Florida. He missed practice the previous two days.

--Senior F Malik Cooke continues to lead the team in scoring and has been the squad's lone consistent performer. He was averaging 12.9 points and was tied for second in rebounding at 4.9 through Jan. 8. He has been the one player coach Darrin Horn has been able to depend on.

--Freshman G Damien Leonard finally appears ready to come out of his shooting funk. After being pushed deep down the bench after opening the season as a starter, his 3-point shot has returned. He entered the week on a high after leading South Carolina in scoring against Kentucky with 15 points.
Now Playing
Bank Blog: Friday Night Lights Thoughts
1:58
Ohio State Lands No. 3 DE Chase Young
Photo Gallery: 5-star DE Chase Young
0:54
The Opening Highlights: James Robinson
1:44
FNL Is Ohio State's Big Recruiting Night

Buckeye Sports Top Stories