Crump looms large vs. 'Cocks

The South Carolina squad Tennessee faces tonight in Columbia isn't a particularly good basketball team but the Gamecocks certainly are a BIG basketball team. Their frontline measures 6-10, 260 (Tony Kitchings), 6-9, 220 (Rolando Howell) and 6-8, 220 (Kerbrell Brown). Even their guards are big -- 6-7, 205 (Chuck Eidson) and 6-5, 195 (Chris Warren).

Carolina will try to turn tonight's game (7:30 tipoff) into a rugby scrum, outmuscling Tennessee while dictating a slow-paced, physical style of play. That means the Vols need another big game out of 6-10, 235-pound Brandon Crump.

Crump had 16 points, 6 rebounds and 2 blocked shots in Tennessee's Feb. 8 upset of Georgia. He came back to hit 8 of 10 floor shots and score a career-high 19 points last Saturday against Florida. The only negative was that he grabbed just four rebounds in 27 minutes of action vs. the Gators.

Given Carolina's heft and reliance on a rough-house style of play, Crump needs to continue to be a force in the paint. Tennessee's head coach thinks the towering Texan's development has been a real key for the Vols in recent weeks.

''That's huge,'' Buzz Peterson said. ''Now he needs to get consistent. I'm sure if you ask the Florida staff, that's the one thing they were surprised by ... his play. What he's done is he's gone back to keeping it simple. He has that elbow jumper ... knock it down. If you've got an inside player one-on-one, use your jump hook, your left-hand reverse, whatever you've got to use. Keep yourself out of foul trouble and play good, solid defense.

''If he can gain confidence off the last two Saturdays (vs. Georgia and Florida) and build on that, he's going to have a fine career for us.''

It's no coincidence that Crump's emergence as an inside threat has produced a corresponding rise in Ron Slay's effectiveness. Opposing teams can't afford to focus all of their interior defense on stopping Slay when Crump is asserting himself on the inside.

''Ron's getting so much attention,'' Peterson noted, ''that Crump and some of these other guys have to step up for us and hit some big shots.''

The return from injury of Chris Warren has made South Carolina a better team than when the Gamecocks lost 60-56 at UT on Jan. 29. He's averaging 17 points per game during Carolina's recent three-game winning streak. However, Tennessee is a MUCH better team than it was on Jan. 29. Crump has emerged as an offensive weapon, as has senior guard Thaydeus Holden. That has taken some of the pressure off of Slay, who is playing like a man possessed. With this newfound balance, the Vols are riding a six-game winning streak.

Oddly enough, Tennessee's streak began against South Carolina. Tonight, it could end against South Carolina. Don't bet on it, though.

It won't be easy, but I see the streak going to seven.

My pick: Tennessee 67, Carolina 60.


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