NCAA berth may be at stake Saturday in Columbia

The Vanderbilt Commodores (15-5, 4-5 SEC) travel to South Carolina's Colonial Center Saturday to face Dave Odom's Gamecocks (19-5, 6-4) for the second time this season; USC won the previous meeting in Nashville, 57-55. Tipoff is set for 6:30 p.m CT (no TV, 95.5 WSM-FM). VeeMan offers this analysis, as well as a prediction.

In their game with Georgia on Wednesday, the Vanderbilt Commodores had a rare experience-- an easy SEC conference victory, by a final score of 61-39. Playing without leading scorer and point guard Rashad Wright, the Bulldogs were out of synch from the beginning and went 14 minutes without a field goal at one stretch. The free throw problem that the Commodores experienced in the Florida game was not in evidence, as their 19-of-20 performance showed. Matt Freije and David Przybyszewski led the way with 13 points each, and Julian Terrell added ten.

To summarize Vanderbilt team statistics, the Commodores are now first in the conference in assist/turnover margin and assists, fifth in rebounding margin, third in both field goal and free throw shooting, and seventh in steals. They are second in scoring defense, third in scoring margin, and fifth in shooting defense.

South Carolina has lost three of its last four games since winning over Vanderbilt 57-55 in Nashville on Jan. 28. The Gamecocks defeated Alabama in the Colonial Center (90-82 in OT), lost to Mississippi (79-68) and Kentucky (65-64) on the road, and on Wednesday dropped another overtime game at home to Mississippi State (79-75). USC led State by 12 points with about five minutes to play, but let its lead slip away.

South Carolina's greatest strength is its ability to shut down their opponents. They are first in the SEC in scoring, field goal defense, and defending the 3-point shot (even though Alabama made 16 3's against them). They also lead the conference in blocked shots, despite not having great size, and are second in turnover margin and steals. Their rankings in the offensive and rebounding categories are less impressive.

6-7 junior forward Carlos Powell continues to lead the Gamecocks in scoring (13.6 ppg), followed by 6-1 junior shooting guard Josh Gonner (12.0) and 6-2 senior point guard Michael Boynton (9.2). 6-6 sophomore wing forward Terance Kinsey scores 9.0 ppg, but has lately lost his starting job to 6-7 freshman Renaldo Balkman (7.3 ppg).

South Carolina's tallest and strongest players are two seniors, 6-8 Kerbrell Brown (8.3 ppg) and 6-9 Rolando Howell (7.9 ppg). Two freshmen, 6-9 forward Brandon Wallace (3.2 ppg) and 6-0 Trey Kelley (4.7 ppg) are key substitutes.

The Gamecocks have five players (Powell, Gonner, Boynton, Kinsey, and Brown) who hit more than 31% of their 3's. Boynton leads in assists and has a very good assist/turnover ratio. Gonner is the best defender, but there are no bad ones among the regulars. Powell is the leading rebounder (6.5 per game), followed by Brown (5 per game), Howell (4.8), and Balkman (4.7).

The Gamecocks are a quick, scrappy, hard-nosed team with an experienced and resourceful coach in Dave Odom. Their late game letdown against Mississippi State is their first serious lapse this season and may show that their schedule is beginning to take its toll. The Birds have already played 24 games, the most of any team in the conference.

South Carolina has defeated Vanderbilt the last four times the two teams have met. The well-publicized fight between Vanderbilt's Corey Smith (right, AP photo by Mark Humphrey) and Renaldo Balkman in the previous meeting this season is almost certain to produce an unusually hostile atmosphere. The Commodores, and Smith in particular, should expect a lot of crowd reaction. A loud, demonstrative audience is generally thought to favor the home team.

This is likely to be a very close game. Vanderbilt is still looking for its first road victory in conference play. With a good shooting night Kevin Stallings' team could easily earn it, and a win in Columbia would be a "quality" win that might go a long way towards an NCAA invitation. But the most likely outcome is a two- to six-point victory for South Carolina. Top Stories