Pregame: USC Gamecocks vs. MSU Bulldogs

The Gamecocks (18-5, 7-3 SEC) continue their two game swing through the SEC West Wednesday night at Mississippi State (16-9, 6-4 SEC). Carolina enters the game tied for first in the SEC East and fresh off a last second win at Alabama. The Bulldogs are in second place in the SEC West, but are looking to snap a two game losing streak after falling to LSU and Auburn.

Both squads have had success playing against the other division. Mississippi State is 3-0 against the SEC East, beating Vanderbilt and winning at Georgia and Kentucky. South Carolina is 3-1 against the SEC West, losing only at LSU, who also swept the season series against Mississippi State.

Despite the 6-4 conference record, the Bulldogs have a lot of work to do if they want to get "on the bubble," let along go dancing. Like the Gamecocks, Mississippi State played a weak non-conference schedule (its strength of schedule is ranked 73, and the Gamecocks are 94). Unlike the Gamecocks, who won at Baylor, the Bulldogs failed to beat any of their quality opponents. They also lost to Washington State, Texas Tech, Charlotte, and San Diego, teams that are hovering around .500 or worse and have an RPI worse than 100. Carolina, on the other hand, had only one such loss, at College of Charleston, and though the Cougars' RPI is 120 they are at least 18-7 on the year. That has put Carolina on the verge of its first tournament invitation in five years according to most Tournament projections, although none of the Gamecocks will talk about it.

"That's not something that has anything to do with us actually being in, or how we control our next game or how we do today in practice," said Darrin Horn.

"We don't pay attention to that," said Brandis Raley-Ross. "The tournament doesn't start today. We could lose the rest of our games and it doesn't matter what they are saying now."

Even with a tournament invite on the horizon, the Gamecocks have yet to be ranked in the top 25 of either the AP or Coaches' Poll. In fact, LSU is the only SEC in each poll this week, and earlier this season the SEC accomplished the ignoble feat of having not a single team in the AP Top 25. Asked about it this week, Horn initially gave his standard answer of, "We do not pay any attention to things like that." Pressed further, he argued that the SEC suffers from a negative perception not supported by the reality.

"I'm coming from a place where you don't get any [attention] and you feel like you're really good, and you say it's a league thing [the Sun Belt Conference]," he said. "Now we're in a high-major league, and there's no way we don't have one of the top 25 teams in the country, especially when you start looking at other people that are receiving votes or ranked and we're not in."

Fortunately in college basketball, the polls do not matter. If the Gamecocks keep winning, they will be able to make their case on the court in March. Winning at Mississippi State would be another quality road win for Carolina to add to its resume. The Bulldogs are led by reigning National and SEC Defensive Player of the Year Jarvis Varnado. The 6'9" junior led the SEC in blocked shots last season and tied the single blocks record. This year he is again leading the nation in blocked shots, with 4.9 per game. To put that in perspective, the Gamecocks average 4.2 blocked shots per game as a team. Varnado also leads Mississippi State in scoring (13.4 points) and rebounding (9.3 boards, second in the SEC), but it is his shot blocking ability that gets opponents' attention.

"He's as good probably as I remember going against as a player or coach," Horn said. "He's just one of those long athletic guys, and he seems to have a knack for it. He's just good at it."

Despite the praise, Horn is not going to change the Gamecocks' game plan just because of Varnado, who will be going against one of the better front lines in the SEC in Sam Muldrow, Mike Holmes, and Dominique Archie.

"He does what he does every night," Horn said. "I'm sure a lot of people are game-planning for Jodie Meeks, and he still got 45 [points]. I'm sure a lot of people are wanting to keep Devan Downey in front, and he still ends up in the paint. I'm sure a lot of people would like for Jarvis Varnado to not block six shots a game, and he still gets six blocks a game. That's what good players do. We're not going to change what we've been doing all year that's given us success based on one player, but are going to have respect for him and know that he's a very good player."

After Varnado, Mississippi State has a balanced attack, with three players averaging at least 11.0 points per game. Spearheading the offense is freshman point guard Dee Bost. The Concord, NC, native leads the Bulldogs with 4.3 assists per game, and earlier this season became the first Mississippi State freshman to have back to back 20-point games in more than 30 years. However, he will be facing one of his toughest challenges of the year in Downey. Downey averages 19.9 points per game and 4.4 assists, plus 3.0 steals per game, so the onus will be on him to slow down the Bulldogs.

"They're a terrific shooting basketball team," Horn said. "They're very dangerous from the perimeter."

Notes:

- Mississippi State leads the all time series 11-8. The Bulldogs won in Columbia last season, and are 6-2 against the Gamecocks in Starkville.

- If the Gamecocks win, it will give them eight conference wins for the first time since 2004. It would also assure the Gamecocks of finishing at least .500 in conference play. Carolina has finished 8-8 in the SEC twice, and over .500 twice. Dave Odom's best finish was 8-8 in 2004, and the other three seasons of at least .500 came under Eddie Fogler.

- Tipoff is at 8:00 PM Eastern. The game will not be televised.

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