Gamecocks travel to Nashville for SEC opener

The Gamecocks open conference play Wednesday night against undefeated and 12th ranked Vanderbilt. The promising start to the season has given way to concern, as Carolina begins the SEC schedule just 8-6, with a pair of embarrassing losses over the past three weeks.

"I think we've recovered from our big, big, big disappointment the other night," said Dave Odom, referring to the stunning loss to UNC-Asheville. "I think we did some good work with them over the weekend, and I think they responded really well. They're excited about the SEC."

Early in the season, the Gamecocks came close to notching quality wins over likely NCAA Tournament teams Southern Cal, N.C. State, and George Mason. At that time, the thinking was that as soon as the young team gained more experience playing together, they would start winning those games. Sure enough, after losing badly to Clemson, Carolina gained its first quality win over Providence. Following a two week layoff for exams, the Gamecocks sprinted out to an early 20 point lead against Baylor, another quality opponent. It looked like the Gamecocks were ready to make some noise in the SEC and maybe even the NCAA Tournament.

Then something happened to the Gamecocks. In the first embarrassing loss, Carolina allowed Baylor to turn a 20 point deficit into an 8 point win, the Bears' first true road win in nearly three years. Since then, Carolina needed last second shots to beat supposedly inferior opponents College of Charleston and UC-Irvine. They beat Radford by 27, only to be blasted by Odom for poor effort. His team responded with the second embarrassing loss, this time to UNC-Asheville, the first time the Gamecocks have lost at home to a mid-major since 2000. Instead of being a tune-up game, the loss forced the Gamecocks to undergo some serious maintenance.

"I asked them the other night, ‘Who are we?'" Odom said. "You got an assortment of answers which tells you they are yet to find themselves. What I've tried to do is redefine who we are for them. Eventually we're going to be this team that I described, and we're not that far away."

Everything can change, though, starting Tuesday afternoon when the team boards the charter flight to Nashville. Beating a tough Vanderbilt team would give the Gamecocks some much needed confidence heading into a weekend matchup against 9th ranked Tennessee, and help the Gamecocks right the ship. If Carolina wants to play in March, there is still time to make it happen. A strong showing in SEC play would put the Gamecocks back in the post-season discussion, although Odom is not hearing any of that talk right now.

"If you look at the balance of the league right now, you've got to believe [Vanderbilt and Tennessee] record-wise, power-rating-wise, and respect-wise, they're the top of the SEC," Odom said. "I'm not going to attack sixteen games in one day," Odom said. "We played a difficult non-conference schedule. We've done it without complaining. The SEC record is still a very big goal of mine. I want to get to .500 or better in the league. If we don't do that I want to get to 7 [wins]. If we don't do that I want to get to 6 [wins]."

Vanderbilt swept the season series against the Gamecocks last season, and presents an even tougher challenge this season. The Commodores feature senior Shan Foster, who torched the Gamecocks for 33 points in Vanderbilt's 99-90 win at the Colonial Center last March, and is averaging 21.1 points per game this year, tops in the SEC. Right behind Foster is star freshman A.J. Ogilvy, who is second in the league in scoring at 19.3 points per game. The Commodores are the SEC's second highest scoring team overall, at 87.3 points per game, but give up the league's most points per game, at 75.6. The Gamecocks score 77.9 points per game and give up 68.6.

"They are the best execution team that I've seen this year," Odom said. "They back screen, step, they pass, they cut. They've got big guys inside; they've got Foster on the perimeter. They've got speed at the guards. They are a complete basketball team."

Dwayne Day will start on the wing and draw Foster as his defensive assignment. He will replace Chad Gray in the starting lineup, meaning Dominique Archie, who started at small forward against UNC-Asheville, will slide back to his normal power forward position. Mike Holmes will start at center, continuing the back and forth shuffling between him and Sam Muldrow. Brandis Raley-Ross, who had been starting before spraining his knee while working out on December 30th, could return Saturday against Tennessee. Raley-Ross "partially practiced" on Tuesday, but is not yet ready to play.

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