The South Carolina Gamecocks (17-2, 4-1 SEC) are perhaps the Southeastern Conference's biggest surprise team, and are currently in first place in the SEC East and ranked No. 25 by AP (No. 23 by ESPN/Coaches). Starting with a few holdovers from last year's 12-16 team, and adding some unheralded freshmen and a junior-college transfer, Coach Dave Odom has produced a scrappy team that already has two SEC road wins, over Georgia (84-63) and Auburn (53-51). The only loss was at home to Florida 65-62, but the Gamecocks have defeated Tennessee (85-64) and LSU (61-55) at home. In non-conference play South Carolina lost only at Temple (71-61) and had some good wins (Richmond, 67-61; North Carolina State, 58-55; and at Clemson, 76-61).
The Gamecocks seem to be finding a way to win. Against LSU in their most recent game, they went a horrendous 1-for-23 from three-point territory, yet still scratched out a close victory (their only trey came in the closing moments in a clutch situation). They are capable of good outside shooting performances, as shown by their 11-of-17 performance vs. Tennessee.
The leading scorer is 6-7 junior forward Carlos Powell (14.1 ppg), who is also the team's top rebounder (6.9 per game). Although he does some shooting from the outside, he gets most of his points by taking the ball to the basket. Powell should be a strong contender for all-conference honors despite a lack of previous publicity.
6-9 senior Rolando Howell has returned to activity after missing the first 12 games of the year due to a suspension. He has seen only 19 minutes of action per game, scoring 6.6 ppg and pulling off 4.3 rebounds. Howell has never lived up to his big reputation coming out of high school, but does add depth and strength to the team.
Kerbrell Brown (right, AP photo by Bruce L. Flashnick), a 6-8 senior who started last year, is averaging 8.7 ppg and 5.2 rebounds. He is mostly an inside worker, although he takes some outside shots, with a low success rate of 26%. The other inside players who get significant minutes are a pair of slender but active freshmen, 6-7 Renaldo Balkman and 6-9 Brandon Wallace. Nicknamed "The Plastic Man," Balkman is a hardworking sparkplug who is scoring 7.3 ppg and snaring an average of 4.4 rebounds. Wallace is scoring 4.8 ppg and pulls off 4.3 rebounds.
The Gamecocks certainly have their share of thin players, but the thinnest of all is 6-6 sophomore Terance Kinsey, who weighs only 180 lbs. Despite his slender frame, Kinsey scores 10.4 ppg and pulls in 4.3 rebounds. Working from a wing position, he gets most of his points in drives to the basket, and also makes 34% of his threes.
The starting guards do most of the outside shooting. Mild-mannered 6-2 senior Michael Boynton, who accomplished little in his first three years of eligibility, has been a real surprise. He scores 9.6 ppg, shoots 38.6% from three-point territory, and averages four assists (with a better than 2:1 assist-to-turnover ratio). He is a good example of how players can sometimes blossom when given trust and opportunity.
6-1 Josh Gonner is a JUCO transfer who arrived in Columbia without much fanfare. However, he is a solid defender with good quickness, and scores 10.7 ppg. He is also a threat from the outside (32.9% success rate on threes) and tends to have hot streaks. 6-0 freshman Trey Kelley plays 14 minutes per game and scores 3.8 ppg.
South Carolina's success may be due in part to good experience (three seniors and two juniors who play) and team chemistry. Dave Odom (left, AP photo by Todd J. Van Emst) should be SEC Coach of the Year if the Gamecocks continue anywhere near their current level of success.
Vanderbilt will have the home court advantage and a big edge in size. The Commodores should be able to scrape out a close victory, in the three- to seven-point range.