Gamecocks return home to face Vols

The Gamecocks will take on the 8th ranked Tennessee Volunteers (13-1) Saturday at 8 p.m. in their SEC home opener. Carolina (8-7) will be looking to rebound from a narrow loss at Vanderbilt this past Wednesday. Read inside for a full preview of Saturday's match up.


The Volunteers were the preseason pick to win the SEC, and after running through the non-conference schedule with just one loss, they still appear to be the best the conference has to offer. The scary thing for opponents is that Pre-season SEC Player of the Year Chris Lofton is only averaging 14.1 points per game, down from the 20.8 he averaged last season. Dave Odom suggested, though, that the decreased reliance on a single player is actually a benefit to Tennessee.

"If I'm [Tennessee coach] Bruce Pearl, I'm saying, ‘That's okay because I've got [J.P.] Prince and Tyler Smith averaging just under that,'" Odom said. "It's good to drop [the scoring average] a little bit and spread it out among six or seven guys. I don't think Bruce Pearl is worried about that."

Dwayne Day will draw the assignment of trying to stop Lofton for Carolina. Day will make his third consecutive start in place of the injured Brandis Raley-Ross, the Gamecocks' third leading scorer. Raley-Ross was not expected to play at all against Vanderbilt, but he surprised everyone with his quick recovery from a sprained left knee and played 9 minutes. He was largely ineffective when he played, a result of not being in game shape or used to game speed. However, as he knocked on his knee brace with his hand, Raley-Ross said Friday that his knee is nearly 100%, and he should be better prepared to play against Tennessee.

"[The game] was faster than I thought it would [be]," he said. "I think it's 100% healthy. I did a test today, on the strength in both knees, and my right knee is only about 4-5% stronger than my left. It's just me getting the feel back and running and jumping and cutting and getting that feel back."

The Gamecocks have struggled to control the paint all season, but Tennessee may be the perfect cure for that problem. The Volunteers have similar difficulties handling size, so the interior struggles may be a wash. The more telling facet of the game, according to Odom will be tempo. Tennessee leads the conference in scoring per game, at 87.2 points per game. Vanderbilt is similarly fast paced, and Odom felt like the Gamecocks were able to slow them down by playing methodically on offense if the fast break chances were not present. Carolina will have to do even better on Saturday, since Tennessee likes to press defensively to speed up the game. Handling the press will allow Carolina to play at their pace.

"They are a team that likes to establish their style," Odom said. "When you look at our style versus their style, then it becomes a battle of styles; which one can impart their style on the other. Our first focus has to be ‘settle the game.' If we play the game at the pace Tennessee wants to, I don't know that we can win the game. We can't let that score run up there close to 90. That's not good for us."

Last season, the Gamecocks lost the first four SEC games before beating Arkansas, and the team spent the rest of the season recovering from that start. This season, with a challenging opening schedule that features Vanderbilt and Tennessee, the highest ranked teams in the conference, followed by difficult games against talented Arkansas, Florida and Kentucky, Carolina could be looking at a similarly discouraging start. Although he did not play last year, Devan Downey was with the team. He talked Friday about trying to avoid digging another hole this season.

"I'm just taking it one game at a time," said Downey. "If you go back to the Vanderbilt game, we lost but as far as effort and playing hard, I was pleased. That's the hardest we've played this whole Christmas break. We've just got to keep on grinding, keep on practicing hard and preparing ourselves."


Notes:

- At Carolina, Dave Odom is 5-1 against Tennessee at home, but 1-5 against the Volunteers in Knoxville. He did win the only neutral site game the teams played to go one game over .500 in the series.

- Mike Holmes will once again start at center for the Gamecocks. Despite fouling out, Odom was pleased with the intensity Holmes displayed against the Commodores.

- Gamecock Greats Emmett Hall, Mike Doyle, and Melvin Watson will be honored at halftime on Saturday.


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