Vols vs. Cocks, part 3

In life, you often get second chances. In college basketball, you routinely get third chances. The South Carolina Gamecocks are hoping to exploit their third chance against the Tennessee Vols.

The two teams collide at 1 this afternoon in the SEC Tournament at The Georgia Dome in Atlanta.

The 2008 Gamecocks blew their first chance at being successful, recording a mediocre 8-6 record in pre-conference play. They had a chance to redeem themselves – as the Kentucky Wildcats did – with a strong showing in conference play. The Gamecocks came up short again, however, finishing 5-11 in league action.

Still, South Carolina got a third chance when it showed up at The Georgia Dome. All of its pre-conference and league setbacks were left behind as the slate was wiped clean. So, unlikely as it sounds, the Gamecocks (14-17) still have a shot – albeit a long shot – at winning their way into the NCAA Tournament.

Carolina took the first step toward exploiting its third chance by trimming LSU 77-73 in Thursday's SEC tourney opener. By doing so, the Gamecocks earned another shot at fourth-ranked Tennessee, a team that trounced them twice during the regular season – 80-56 at Columbia and 89-56 at Knoxville.

The high-flying Vols are heavily favored after going 28-3 overall and 14-2 in SEC play during the regular season. As noted earlier, however, records are a moot point once the league tournament begins.

"Every team comes in 0 and 0," Vol senior JaJuan Smith noted. "Everyone knows they're capable of advancing. You can't take no one lightly in March. You've got to come ready to play every day."

Certainly, Tennessee has no reason to take anyone lightly in Atlanta. The Vols lost their opening SEC Tourney test in both 2006 and 2007 ... each time bowing to an unranked underdog. Moreover, UT has not advanced to the tourney finals since 1991.

"That's amazing," Smith said earlier this week. "To have a chance to change that is a great feeling. I'm going to try and make the most of it. Win Friday, win Saturday, win Sunday. That's my goal."

Tennessee recently accomplished one of its key goals by winning the program's first outright SEC regular-season title in 41 years. That was very satisfying.

"For me, it's a dream come true," Smith said. "For the others, I hope it's a great feeling that they'll want more. Hopefully, that'll motivate us to get one (title) in Atlanta and get one in San Antonio."

Vol head coach Bruce Pearl isn't ready to predict a title in Atlanta and a trip to San Antonio but he isn't ruling out either possibility, either.

"We've got a lot of work to do to get better as a basketball team, as the prizes continue to step up," he said. "But the opportunities are right there."


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