Gamecocks set to face surging Wildcats
In their first season under new coach Billy Gillispie, the Wildcats are an un-Kentucky-like 8-9. Early season losses to Gardner-Webb, Houston, and San Diego gave cause for concern amongst Kentucky fans. However, the Wildcats seem to have found their footing in the last couple weeks, with home wins over two ranked teams, Vanderbilt and Tennessee to their credit, and a 2-2 record in the SEC. It was the first time Kentucky has had back to back wins over ranked teams since the 2005 NCAA Tournament. Odom firmly believes that Kentucky has recovered from its early season stumbles and is right back where Kentucky, the winningest basketball program in NCAA history, has always been.
"We know how to pick them: it seems like every team we play is on the rise," Odom joked ruefully Friday morning. "Kentucky certainly is playing their best basketball of the year. Offensively they are right in a groove. A lot of problems that [people] were indicating were Wildcat problems early, I would take exception to. All new coaches go through the process of trying to put everything together, and it takes time. He's come up with the right mix."
The Wildcats are led by the duo of senior guards Ramel Bradley and Joe Crawford, and freshman forward Patrick Patterson. All three are averaging at least 16 points per game, and Patterson is having one of the better freshman seasons in Kentucky history.
On the road again
The 9-9 Gamecocks continue to alternate home and away games, and this time they face the challenge of going into Rupp Arena. With a seating capacity of 23,000, Rupp Arena is the largest arena in the SEC, and one of the largest college arenas in the nation. It is not the number of fans present that poses a challenge for opponents, however, it is the intensity level the fans bring that can intimidate opponents.
"It's one of the hallowed arenas in the country," Odom said. "When you look at similar arenas of that size, I think the thing that sets it apart is the crowd. When Kentucky is on their game, their crowd is more alive and into the game. They create the ambiance. In some buildings of that size, because of the expansive area there, they kind of lay back. This crowd leans forward. When you hit up over 20,000 [fans], on occasion it works in [opponent's] advantage. This one does not really work to [opponent's] advantage unless you are willing to meet the challenge of the noise."
The Gamecocks have won just once in 21 trips to Lexington. That win came during the 1997 SEC Championship season. Odom has never won there, making all his visits with Carolina. Kentucky has yet to win a game away from Rupp this year, and will make a return trip to Columbia for the Gamecocks' home finale March 5.
One step forward, two steps back
All season long, the Gamecocks have been searching for a reliable third scorer to help out Devan Downey, who is second in the SEC in scoring with 19.9 points per game, and Zam Fredrick, who is 9th in the SEC at 16.1 points per game. Beginning with his 20 point outburst against Campbell, Brandis Raley-Ross seemed to have taken over that role. He scored in double figures in five consecutive games, and his perimeter shooting opened up driving lanes for Downey and Fredrick, as he was able to make opponents pay for sinking toward the basket.
However, Raley-Ross sprained his left knee in a shootaround on December 29 and missed the next two games. When he was injured, Raley-Ross was leading the nation in 3-point shooting percentage and averaging 10.6 points per game as a starter. In his four games since returning, he has struggled with the injury, playing just 52 minutes and scoring just 4 points. He has also yet to make a three pointer, while attempting just three long range shots. In his relative absence, Dominique Archie has been a steady third option, but the Gamecocks clearly miss Raley-Ross' presence on the perimeter.
"Brandis is a concern right now," said Odom. "He's not fully recovered. I think he's out of shape; he looks more than a step slow to me. I don't know whether he's being protective of his knee or maybe it does hurt. We need him back to playing like he was before his injury."
- Odom said that Chad Gray plays well in practice and his defense is an asset, but Gray continues to be lost on offense. Odom planned to work with Gray in practice on Friday in hopes that his offense will improve.
- Sam Muldrow is likely to start against Kentucky, so he can match up with Patterson. However, Odom said he may still decide to start his small lineup with Evka Baniulis.
- Tipoff for the game is at 1:00 Saturday. The game will be televised by Raycom.
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