Scouting Report: South Carolina

This Saturday, the Vanderbilt Commodores will be a huge favorite to dismiss the South Carolina Gamecocks, the weak link in the SEC East. Wait a minute, this news bulletin just came in off the wire: South Carolina stunned Vandy, 77-73, in last year's season finale, perhaps costing VU a 3 seed and a better NCAA Tournament draw. Get the message, Commodore Nation?


Saturday evening's contest in Columbia is not one to be taken lightly. It's true that the Gamecocks don't have Devan Downey to terrorize the VU crew, but the point remains that coach Darrin Horn's program put a hitch in Vandy's git-along last season. The loss to Cocky was part of a late-season malaise in which the Dores dropped three of their last four decisions and, on an even more molecular level, two of their last three in SEC competition before the Big Dance downer to Murray State in San Jose, California. It's obviously important for the 2011 Commodores to beat Carolina this weekend in the Palmetto State, but what's far more urgent – albeit on a subtle level – is the need to establish a new tone and tenor for the SEC season.

This year, one goal for the Dores is to not give away bad losses like last year's early-March setback in Memorial Gym. It's time to get revenge on South Carolina, but it's also time to establish a blue-collar identity, a flinty edge that will translate into better mental toughness. Will, not just skill, can enable Vandy to grab that proverbial "one extra rebound," the rebound it didn't get in the final seconds against Murray State. It's attitude more than precision which must emerge in this SEC season, so that when first-round Thursday (or Friday) arrives in the NCAAs, the Dores will be able to push past a spirited foe and make a run to the second weekend of the Dance, which is a lofty yet appreciably realistic goal for the 2011 Dores.

It's showtime at Colonial Life Arena.

SOUTH CAROLINA AT-A-GLANCE

On a larger level, there's little doubt that South Carolina, first in the SEC East in football during this current college sports cycle, is likely to be last in the division in men's basketball. Horn's hoopsters have had hard times on the hardwood, losing three of their last four games and dropping two contests to very undistinguished opponents. Carolina did lose at Michigan State and Ohio State – no shame in those two road defeats – but the Gamecocks also lost to Furman and Boston College. Moreover, the wins on South Carolina's slate aren't as impressive as they would have been in past years. Clemson is not going to be an NIT team this year, let alone an NCAA team. Western Kentucky lost at home to Denver (no, not the Nuggets) on Thursday night, a sure-fire indication that the Hilltoppers – Darrin Horn's old team – have not been the same in recent years. It could very well be that South Carolina's best win in the non-conference portion of its season will come against Wofford, the defending Southern Conference champion. Only time will tell, but the point is plain: While the Gamecocks' losses aren't bad, their wins aren't great. There's little question that the words "heft" and "South Carolina men's basketball" don't belong in the same sentence.

Now, with all that having been said, let's remember this: Even though South Carolina was basically a break-even team last season, the Gamecocks did knock off mighty Kentucky at home. Again, there's no Devan Downey on this year's Carolina roster, but the fact that Cocky clipped Kentucky is all Kevin Stallings needs to say to his charges as they pay a visit to the Roosters' cage. Sure, a majority of South Carolina's starters are playing poorly right now. Bruce Ellington and Lakeem Jackson are playing appreciably well, but the triumvirate of Sam Muldrow, Damontre Harris, and Brian Richardson simply didn't show up in Sunday's dreary 85-70 loss at home against Boston College. The Muldrow-Harris-Richardson law firm produced just seven points and six rebounds on 2-of-17 shooting in 51 minutes of court time. Talk about contempt of court, your honor.

Yet, as much as South Carolina's players are struggling right now, the fresh start afforded by an SEC opener in their home gymnasium will pump new adrenaline through the veins of the Gamecocks. Vanderbilt needs to be mentally ready; a loss – or even a desultory performance combined with a victory over Cocky – would not send the right message about the next two months of SEC basketball.

STAT PACK – Choice stats about the Gamecocks to this point in the season:

South Carolina is second in the SEC in possessions per 40 minutes, with 72.5.

South Carolina has only one double-figure scorer, Bruce Ellington (14.2 points per game).

South Carolina is fourth in the SEC in 3-point field goal percentage (36.3).

South Carolina is last in the SEC in assist-turnover ratio, with .847 assists for every one turnover, a negative ratio.

Thanks largely to Sam Muldrow's 2.6 blocks per game, South Carolina averages 6.2 blocks per game, eighth in the United States among 348 Division I-A teams.

Starting Lineup

Forward – Sam Muldrow –
Senior, 6-9, 229; 2010-11: 9.4 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 2.6 blocks per game

Muldrow's numbers are pretty much the same as they were entering last year's second game against Vanderbilt. For the lone senior in a Carolina starting five dominated by freshmen and sophomores, that's not very good. As the true veteran on the team, Muldrow has to set the right tone, and he certainly didn't do so against Boston College. When he's engaged in the competition and brings energy to the building, Muldrow can be a significant presence on the floor. Without him, South Carolina won't have the muscle to deal with Vanderbilt's bigger bodies near the rim.

Forward – Lakeem Jackson – Sophomore, 6-5, 230; 2010-11: 9.6 ppg, 6.3 rpg

Jackson, a sophomore, is the second most experienced player among South Carolina starters. That fact tells you something about the makeup of the 2011 Gamecocks. Jackson faces a very tough situation on the floor. His tweener height at the small forward position requires him to mix things up near the tin and crash the glass. Yet, it's not as though he can camp out on the low blocks. With three freshmen playing alongside him, Jackson needs to be mindful of the need to provide structure and flow to Carolina's offense. The six-plus rebounds per game serves as an indication of Jackson's ability to war in the paint, but Jackson doesn't light up the scoreboard enough to be viewed as a go-to scorer. Jackson has been this team's second-best player so far, but a second-best player on a team needs to pack more scoring punch in his lunch pail.

Forward – Damontre Harris – Freshman, 6-9, 214; 2010-11: 3.3 ppg, 3.8 rpg

This is the man who must really get going if South Carolina is going to make something of its season. With Muldrow being the team's senior statesman, the younger and fresher Harris, also at Muldrow's 6-9 height, needs to be much more of a bull in a china shop and throw his frame around on the glass. Harris, being thrown to the wolves by Horn, needs to find his footing and gain a sense of what he can realistically attain on the floor. Yet, while that learning process unfolds, Harris – with his length – needs to balance his understandable cautiousness with a just-as-necessary pell-mell intensity. By throwing himself into the fray, Harris will give the Gamecocks the ruggedness they simply have to acquire on the backboard. South Carolina might be fourth in the SEC with 35.9 rebounds per game, but the Gamecocks are ninth in the conference with a 51.3 percent rebounding rate. Harris is the guy who needs to boost that number for the Gamecocks.

Guard – Brian Richardson – Freshman, 6-4, 164; 2010-11: 11.2 ppg, 3.6 rpg

Richardson, clearly a string bean of a shooting guard, needs to get to the weight room. Until he develops more muscle and power, Richardson is going to be bossed around by able-bodied defenders. Richardson was just 1-of-9 from three-point range this past Sunday in the Gamecocks' 15-point loss to Boston College, so there's definitely a tendency at work here. Richardson isn't at the point where he should just shoot without conscience. Only proven shooters get that right. Richardson has to hoist fewer bombs and focus more on integrating himself into Carolina's offense. It's true that the Gamecocks play an up-tempo game and want lots of possessions, but Richardson still has to exercise more prudent judgment at the offensive end of the floor.

Guard – Bruce Ellington – Freshman, 5-9, 197; 2010-11: 14.2 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 3.9 apg

As mentioned earlier, there's no Devan Downey to carry Carolina this season, but Ellington does possess some similarities to his famous predecessor at the point in Columbia. Ellington's rebounding and assist numbers compare favorably to Downey's 2009-2010 season. Ellington just isn't the scorer Downey proved to be… not yet. Give this young man time, however, and he'll very possibly blossom into a special player who will claim laurels and lauds on his own. The biggest thing for Vanderbilt to realize about Ellington is that he shoots the ball extremely well from the parking lot. Ellington hits 40.6 percent of his threes, meaning that his shooting hand must be closed down at all times.

Bench

Behind Jackson and Ellington, the minutes are evenly distributed throughout a South Carolina rotation that generally goes seven deep. Harris actually receives only 14.4 minutes per game, leaving ample time for sophomore guard Ramon Galloway (20.8 minutes per game) and junior forward Malik Cooke (23.8 per game) to come off the bench and contribute. If there's an eighth man in the Gamecocks' rotation, it's senior forward Johndre Jefferson (11.8 minutes per game).

Galloway is the main force on the Gamecocks' bench. The sophomore shoots the three as well as Ellington does (40.7 percent), so as soon as the No. 12 jersey goes to the scorer's table, Stallings needs to alert his backcourt and place renewed emphasis on guarding the 3-point line. Cooke is Carolina's only junior, and Jefferson is the only other senior on the Gamecocks' roster in addition to Muldrow. This isn't a deep bench, but it's a three-man gang which contains more experience than Carolina's three-freshmen starting five.

Keys to the Game

1) No Three-For-All.
It's really rather simple: Since South Carolina doesn't have meal-ticket scorers in the paint, Vandy's first (and second, and third) key is to take away the three-point shooting of the Gamecocks. Closing down on the shooting hands of Ellington and Galloway is an absolute must. The best path to a Gamecock victory lies in the hands of its best long-distance shooters. Vanderbilt should be too tough near the rim and on the glass to be beaten in a brawl. South Carolina wants a track meet with lots of possessions, points and trifectas. Take away the triple from the Gamecocks, and they're not likely to have the secondary scoring options they need in order to prevail.

2) Value the ball. No, this isn't a revolutionary point, but it's the obvious and necessary one to make. In addition to stopping Carolina's three-point shooting, the Dores must protect the rock. Carolina will give the ball up, so if Vandy doesn't, the Dores will gain many added possessions. The Gamecocks, at home in their SEC opener, will be fired up. As long as Brad Tinsley produces a high assist-turnover ratio (in contrast to Carolina's profile) and the Commodores don't get flustered, VU will give a hostile crowd no reason to get overly excited. Stallings's students can punch the time clock and knock out the Gamecocks to start the SEC slate.

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