Guard play is key

Guard play is generally decisive in SEC basketball games, which means the Tennessee Vols could be in trouble tonight at 7 vs. South Carolina.

In Devan Downey and Zam Fredrick, the Gamecocks have perhaps the finest pair of guards in the conference. The dynamic duo gave UT fits in the Jan. 17 meeting at Knoxville, rallying Carolina from a 43-28 halftime deficit to a nerve-wracking 82-79 setback.

Downey, a 5-9 junior, contributed 19 points, 6 assists, 4 steals and just 1 turnover in 37 minutes at the point that evening. Fredrick, a 6-0 senior, added 18 points, 2 steals and a blocked shot.

Downey and Fredrick should be even more effective tonight, since they have a stronger supporting cast than last time they faced the Vols. The Cocks added some much-needed height to their lineup by replacing 6-foot-2 Brandis Raley-Ross with 6-foot-9 Sam Muldrow, moving 6-foot-7 Mike Holmes from center to power forward and moving 6-foot-7 Dominique Archie from power forward to small forward.

The new lineup has enabled South Carolina to surpass preseason projections by going 20-7. At 9-5 in SEC play, the Gamecocks are tied with Tennessee atop the SEC East with two games left in the regular season.

Vol coach Bruce Pearl said he isn't surprised by Carolina's success because of "Downey being such a great point guard, Fredrick being such a great scorer, Archie being such a great athlete."

Tennessee's head man went on to note that Muldrow, Holmes and 6-foot 8 Austin Steed give the Gamecocks "great depth on the front line" and that reserves Raley-Ross and Evaldas Baniulis "can shoot the ball."

Historically, Pearl's teams have worn down opponents via a frantic pace and superior depth. Tonight, however, Carolina will be the team looking to set a quick tempo and exploit its bench strength.

"They're a team with as much depth and balance as anybody in the league," Pearl said. "They've got four guys averaging in double figures. They've got great depth and great guard play."

Conversely, Tennessee's guard play is erratic – superior one game and inferior the next. It was superior last time out, helping spark a 79-75 win Sunday at Florida. Point guards Bobby Maze and Josh Tabb were vital cogs in the victory.

"Part of it is getting some outside shooting from our point guards," Pearl said. "Josh makes two 3s – he's 2 for 2 – and Bobby makes one. Both are comfortable shooting the basketball.

"And our 2-guards, Cameron (Tatum) and Scotty (Hopson), had pretty good games at Florida. Scotty was great against Mississippi State. Cameron had one of his best first halves – 5 assists, 1 turnover – against Florida. He really passed the ball well."

Oddly enough, Maze and Tabb do not pass the ball well. Neither fits the mold of set-up man that most teams demand of their point guards.

"Our point guards aren't great playmakers," Pearl conceded. "Our best playmakers are J.P. (Prince) and Tyler (Smith). But our point guards are capable of making open shots, and I think that's a real key. And they both have to play great defense in order for us to be successful."

If they don't play great defense against Downey and Fredrick tonight, Tennessee could be in real trouble.

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