Crucial week ahead

Following back-to-back home losses, the University of South Carolina managed to split two Southeastern Conference games on the road. It topped LSU during the week, but was defeated by Vanderbilt on Saturday.

USC enters the week 13-8 overall and with a 4-4 league mark that puts it in a three-way tie for last place in the Eastern Division. With home games against division-leading Florida and second-place Georgia this week, the Gamecocks must find a way to regain the edge they played with early in the season when posting wins over the Gators and Commodores.

The team continues to struggle offensively with problems getting off uncontested shots. While the defense forced an uncharacteristic 16 Vanderbilt turnovers, the Commodores made 27 of 53 field goals and were 11 of 20 from 3-point range.

Vanderbilt managed to exploit Carolina's trapping defense to get a plethora of unchallenged shots. While the Commodores were on fire, the Gamecocks made only 6 of 21 3-pointers and were a disappointing 8 of 15 from the free-throw line.

Freshman point guard Bruce Ellington, the team's offensive leader and its top scorer continues to be mired in an extended shooting slump. Despite finishing the Vanderbilt game with 13 points and four rebounds, he dished out only one assist and made only 4 of 17 field goals.

When Ellington falters, the rest of the team seems to follow.

"It seemed like we didn't defend them the way we wanted, but it didn't appear their shots were wide open either," said USC coach Darrin Horn. "They just knocked down shots. You have to give them credit."

NOTES, QUOTES

--Although South Carolina returns home for its next two games, Florida and Georgia are two of the hottest teams in the SEC. It will take a lot of energy for the Gamecocks to top a Gators team hungry for revenge after losing to Carolina earlier in the season in Gainesville. These games will probably tell the tale as USC needs to find a way to win if it wants to remain relevant in the Eastern Division race. Either a split or two losses and a last place finish could be inevitable.

--Freshmen Bruce Ellington, Brian Richardson and Damontre Harris have watched their productivity slide in recent games. Does that mean the trio has hit that dreaded phrase, the "freshman wall?" Only time will tell. One thing is certain. The Gamecocks will not go far without greater productivity from the three.

BY THE NUMBERS: 5 -- The number of blocked shots senior forward Sam Muldrow needs to become the USC career leader in that category. He has 245 blocks, which includes 75 this season.

Brandon Wallace owns the record at 249.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "This is the first time where we've felt like we've given the effort and the focus that we need, and the other team just made shots. For us to be in this spot with a win over Vanderbilt and a win over Florida and another road win against LSU, with this young team, we've got to keep grinding and keep coming back and getting better." -- USC coach Darrin Horn

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

THIS WEEKS GAMES:

--vs. Florida, Feb. 9

KEY MATCHUPS: Freshman point guard Bruce Ellington was sensational in the first meeting, scoring 23 points and dishing out three assists, while being credited with only one turnover in a 72-69 USC road win. Four Gamecocks scored in double figures.

--vs. Georgia, Feb. 12

KEY MATCHUPS: Forward Sam Muldrow, Damontre Harris and Malik Cooke will be key if the Gamecocks are to have any chance of defeating a Georgia team that is the most talented inside in the SEC.

FUTURES MARKET: After missing the entire preseason with an injured foot, sophomore guard Ramon Galloway lost a potential starting role and became the Gamecocks sixth man. The move by Darrin Horn appeared to work well, as Galloway gave the team a spark on both ends of the court off the bench. A lack of offense by freshman Brian Richardson forced Horn to insert Galloway into the starting lineup. He has thrived in his four games there, including the most recent against Vanderbilt when he led USC in scoring with 16 points. He is tied for second in team scoring with 10.8 points per game.

PLAYER NOTES

--Junior F Malik Cooke continues to come off the bench, but he performs like one of the Gamecocks' top performers. He scored 12 points, grabbed seven rebounds, had three steals and blocked two shots against Vanderbilt. He also had a strong performance in USC's win over Florida earlier in the season, totaling seven points and seven rebounds.

--Senior F Sam Muldrow has displayed leadership for the Gamecocks since SEC play started. His play down the stretch will be critical as USC attempts to remain in the thick of the SEC Eastern Division race. He scored 10 points, grabbed five rebounds and blocked three shots against the Gators earlier this year and will be depended upon to battle Georgia's tough inside attack on Saturday.

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