Rick Barnes may be a novice in the world of SEC basketball, but he's all-too-familliar with his next opponent's head coach. Saturday's game between Tennessee and No. 24 South Carolina will be Barnes' sixth meeting with current Gamecock coach Frank Martin, a guy Barnes knows well.
Martin, who coached Kansas State from 2007-12 when Barnes was Texas, holds a slight 3-2 advantage in head-to-head matchups, punctuated by a 2009 win over the Longhorns when they were ranked No. 1. This time, it's Martin who brings in the ranked team and Barnes wanting to play spoiler.
South Carolina has been the toast of the college basketball world so far, starting the season 17-1 using a forceful defensive effort that ranks No. 22 in adjusted defense per kenpom.com. The Gamecocks lead the SEC in rebounding at 42 boards per game and are plus-9.5 in rebounding margin on the year.
"I love Frank and I love his style of basketball. He's very aggressive, believes in really hard-nosed, aggressive man-to-man (defense)," Barnes said. "They'll mix in some zone and a little bit of matchup at times too. They'll go what we call hot on the baseline, where they try to get a big guy on the ball and try to really deny you getting the ball inbounds. They're really an aggressive team. They want to turn you over, there's no question about that. I think they're a very disciplined team. He did a great job at Kansas State and it was just a matter of time before he started doing what he's doing at South Carolina."
Tennessee's defense, on the other hand, has struggled mightily on the perimeter this season, giving up 7.8 3-pointers per game for an opponent percetnage of .347 behind the arc. The defensive inefficiency to guard 3-pointers reared its ugly head against Vanderbilt Wednesday in an 88-74 loss as the Commodores connected on nearly 40 percent from 3-point range and 10-of-22 in the first half.
"I told the guys, if we have that kind of effort again, we won't win any more games this year," Barnes said. "We'll see. You're only as good as your last ones. We have a chance to come back out and be a lot better than we were against Vandy."
The Gamecocks are sixth in the SEC behind the arc at 34.4 percent but do a great job of spreading out their offensive production. Five South Carolina players average 10 points or more scoring and the team is second in the league in offensive rebounds at 14.1 per game, which helps limit possessions when they're on defense.
"You can't be a good defensive team if you don't finish possessions rebounding the ball," Barnes said. "Anybody that preaches defense as hard as Frank does, he's going to talk about finishing possessions with rebounds."
To combat this, Tennessee will have to find production offensively from somone other than Kevin Punter, who's 22 points per game at point guard lead the team. Armani Moore is trying to help spell Punter offensively, but it's almost been a hindrance to him as he tries to do too much on the offensive side of the ball. The senior missed Tennessee's road win over Mississippi State Saturday with an ankle injury but is healthy and hoping to expand on his 7.9 rebounds per game against a stingy South Carolina team.
"I think he's really pressing a little bit because he hasn't been playing as well as he wants to, even prior to him turning his ankle," Barnes said. "He's been around, he's been through it and he'll bounce back ... He's at his best when he's really locked in on defense and when he's really moving the ball. When he starts really trying to do too much on the offensive end, it's when he gets down on himself."
With Moore back in the starting lineup, Barnes has challenged his team to play with a quicker tempo and better effort than in they did in the team's 14-point loss to Vanderbilt. He knows Martin's team won't be lacking in that department.
"I think if we have the kind of effort we had the other night we're going to be in for a lot of long nights," Barnes said. "Your effort is something that you never take for granted because if you take it for granted, you see what happens the other night."