USC Returns to Action for Key Road Contest

After a week off the court, the Gamecocks (17-5, 6-3 SEC) and Crimson Tide (13-10, 3-6 SEC) return to action Saturday in Tuscaloosa. Alabama has already fired Coach Mark Gottfried and has the second worst record in the SEC, while Carolina is tied for first place in the SEC East, making the matchup appear lopsided on paper. However, the week off for both teams could be the equalizing factor.

For South Carolina, the inactivity was a welcome chance for players to rest. However, the down time could also lead to rust when the teams takes the court Saturday. Not even coach Darrin Horn is sure what to expect.

"If it goes good [Saturday], we'll think it was great and if not we'll think we didn't handle it well," he said. "I think what we did was we got great rest and we got refocused on the things that are most important to us.

Alabama, on the other hand, could only benefit from the extra time. The Crimson Tide has lost four of its last five, and the one win was a narrow 75-70 victory over conference punching bag Georgia. The extra practice time gave interim coach Philip Pearson an opportunity to get his players to regroup, and perhaps install a few new wrinkles.

"I expect to see different stuff," said Horn. "Anytime somebody has a week to prepare, there's an opportunity for them to do that. We would expect to see different stuff than we've see from them, and maybe different than we've seen all year."

Alabama is led by guard Alonzo Gee (14.0 points and 7.1 rebounds). At 6'6" and 219 pounds, Gee is a tall and physical wing player. He is a capable perimeter player, shooting 34.8% from three, but he does most of his damage inside the arc. He gets help inside from freshman forward JaMychal Green (10.1 points, 7.0 rebounds and 1.6 blocks) and from sophomore point guard Senario Hillman (13.0 points and 2.1 assists).

Hillman has had to take on an increased roll over the past eight games after senior guard Ronald Steele left the team. Steele ostensibly left because of long-term injury concerns, but there were rumors around the program that his departure had more to with his displeasure over the direction of the program. The fact that Steele has practically been erased from the Alabama game notes would suggest some merit to the latter theory. Whatever the reason, Steele's departure robbed Alabama of its answer to Devan Downey: a point guard who can score, distribute the ball, and be a leader in the huddle, and left the Crimson Tide with a dilemma. It could be the biggest difference between the two teams.

"It's the most important position on the floor because it's so crucial to every aspect of the game," Horn said. "It's the starting point, as a general rule, on both sides of the ball."

Without Steele, Alabama turns the ball over an average of 13.9 times a game. Defensively, the Gamecocks force opponents into 19.7 turnovers per game, so Carolina has to be licking its chops looking at the Crimson Tide.

Notes:

- Downey is first in the SEC in steals (29), second in scoring (20 points), fourth in assists (4.4), and seventh in free throw shooting (75%).

- Injured guard Branden Conrad has been able to participate in some activity on his injured foot. Horn estimated that Conrad is still at least two weeks away from being able to play.

- Carolina's RPI is up to 44, third highest in the SEC, behind Tennessee (23) and Florida (37). Alabama is 135, ahead of only Georgia (215).

- Tipoff is at 3:00 PM. The game will be televised by Raycom Sports.

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