Strong performances from two inside players, Matt Freije and Brian Thornton, led the Vanderbilt Commodores to a 73-67 win over Auburn, and finally broke their long losing streak to conference opponents. It was a tough struggle, as expected. The Commodores didn't have one of their better shooting nights, but they held their own on the boards, and hit their free throws. Now they have to go back on the road to play a hard-nosed opponent.
The South Carolina Gamecocks come into this game with an 11-5 overall record and 1-2 in the conference. A big 62-60 win over Arkansas on Wednesday was their first SEC win, and followed two close, tough losses at home (69-60 to Florida and 51-50 to Kentucky). In non-conference play, the Gamecocks beat Colorado State (66-58), Providence (67-48), and Clemson on the road (81-59), and lost to Georgetown 70-68. They also lost to Duke and UCLA and defeated Chaminade, East Tennessee, Wofford, South Carolina State, Citadel, Charleston Southern, and Mercer.
South Carolina is eleventh in the SEC in total offense and field goal percentage, and tenth in rebounds per game. But they are first in team defense and take good care of the ball. Coach Dave Odom's Gamecocks are certainly not flashy, but they have competed relentlessly since losing two of their first three games.
Odom's main offensive threat is 6'2" senior shooting guard Jamel Bradley, arguably the best three-point marksman in the conference. He hits 45% of his threes, and has already made 57 of them while averaging 14.3 ppg. His running mate at point guard is another senior, 5'11" Aaron Lucas (5 assists per game), who also shoots the three frequently, making a third of his efforts.
The highly experienced Lucas and Bradley get most of the playing time at guard, and 6'2" sophomore Michael Boynton (2.6 ppg) receives most of what is left, He is a dangerous three point threat (47%). 6'5" sophomore Greg Taylor (1.3 ppg) is the other guard, but has played sparingly.
Starting on the wing is 6'7" junior Chuck Eidson, who missed most of last season with a torn ACL. He is second in assists (three per game), but never has regained his freshman promise as a scorer, as shown by his 7.7 ppg, overall 36% shooting from the field, and 25% from three-point range. His backup is a JUCO, 6'5" Chris Warren (4.4 ppg), a better shooter, but not in Eidson's class as a floor general.
The Gamecocks have considerable strength and size underneath. Junior center Marius Petravicius, 6'10", 260 lbs, rivals Udonis Haslem of Florida and Erwin Dudley of Alabama for the distinction of strongest player in the conference. He is scoring 10.8 ppg, snaring 6.7 rebounds, and has been controlling his proclivity for accumulating fouls. He alternates with another junior, Tony Kitchings, who is also 6'10" and weighs 260 lbs. Kitchings has suffered two or three serious head blows this year that have reduced his playing time and effectiveness somewhat, but is still scoring 5.3 ppg and pulling off 5.5 rebounds.
At power forward, 6'9" sophomore Rolando Howell is an athletic 220-pounder. His point production (8.3 ppg) hasn't been as great as anticipated, but he gets 5.6 rebounds. Despite their size on the front-line, shot-blocking hasn't been the Gamecocks forte, as they are only tenth in the conference in that statistic.
Carlos Powell, a 220 lbs freshman, backs up Rolando Howell and scores 4.8 ppg. He is a good man to back off from when he goes outside, hitting only 17% of his fairly frequent three-pointers.
Also available, but not playing much, are 6'10" freshman John Chappell, 6'7" freshman Issa Konare, and 6'7" junior Ivan Howell (brother of Rolando).
South Carolina is a grind-it-out type of team that is hard to beat, but has difficulty in scoring against capable opposition. Some of their key players are weak at the free throw line, notably Kitchings (38.5%), Rolando Howell (48%), and Lucas (63%).
As in the Auburn game, if Vanderbilt competes effectively on the backboards, they could win. Three-point shooting might very well be the key to a possible Commodore victory, simply because the Gamecocks usually don't score many points. Vanderbilt will be slight underdogs in Columbia, especially since South Carolina comes in off their best win of the season so far, but look for a close, probably low-scoring, game.