Last year, South Carolina survived SEC play and won the postseason NIT tournament, but this season things have not gone as well for the Gamecocks. Most recently, Georgia beat South Carolina by three in overtime, as neither team seemed to be playing their best basketball. The Gamecocks are 0-3 in the SEC, but there are some bright spots. For one thing, 6'6" guard Tarence Kinsey, a senior, has been exceeding expectations. Leading the team with 15.4 points per game, he makes 48% of his three point attempts and 48% of his two point shots as well. Kinsey leads all Carolina starters with 4.9 rebounds per game.
However, South Carolina's best rebounders come off the bench. Renaldo Balkman plays well enough to start, but instead averages 11.1 points and 6.4 rebounds in his role as the team's sixth man. Brandon Wallace is not projected to start, but he leads the team with 6.6 rebounds per game. Thanks in part to Balkman and Wallace's efforts, South Carolina is able to hold their opponents to under 32 rebounds per game – the second best rebounding defense in the SEC. South Carolina is also one of just four SEC teams to allow fewer points per game than Vanderbilt – the Commodores allow 62.5 per game, while the Gamecocks allow about one point less.
South Carolina gets stable, veteran play from three other consistent starters. Tre Kelly, the team's junior point guard, is a good playmaker who balances scoring and passing almost perfectly (10.7 ppg, 3.4 apg). Rocky Trice, a senior guard, is 6'3" but only 163 pounds. Last season his playing time was very limited, but this year he averages a respectable 7.1 ppg and is known as a relatively vocal team leader. Another senior, Antoine Tisby, is a 6'8" 237 pound center – the only true post player in Carolina's starting lineup. Tisby has offered consistency and leadership by starting every game this season, and contributing toughness and physicality to the Gamecocks' efforts.
Vanderbilt media relations has released a projected starting lineup of Mario Moore, Shan Foster, Derrick Byars, Julian Terrell, and Ted Skuchas. However, don't be surprised if Ted Skuchas begins to see fewer minutes for the Commodores, or perhaps does not even start. For one thing, DeMarre Carroll has been Vanderbilt's best rebounder in SEC play, demanding more playing time. Some would argue that DeMarre's energy and ability to score are also great assets that should gain him playing time at Ted's expense.
Also, Coach Kevin Stallings has recently indicated that Davis Nwankwo will soon start receiving more minutes. Nwankwo, a redshirt freshman, has improved significantly since the beginning of this season, and his fragile knee seems as healthy as it will ever be. "I didn't get Davis as much time [against Arkansas] as I should have," said Stallings, "but we have got to continue trying to get him more minutes."
Stallings explained that sometimes he is more comfortable with his veteran post players, but Davis is ready for more responsibility. "Confidence comes from success, and he's only going to be successful if we give him the opportunity. Whether it's against South Carolina or Mississippi State, he needs more time, because he is going to be a very good basketball player for us. It's tough because we have a senior and a junior that I have more confidence in right now than I have in him – so when one doesn't do well right now, I tend to turn to the other, and it's a hard equation to stay on top of, because I need to get DeMarre in there. Davis needs to get some more time." Nwankwo could be a great asset against South Carolina, because he matches up well against the Gamecocks' quick, long post players.
Stallings also made it clear on Monday that South Carolina's 0-3 start should not encourage Vanderbilt to take them lightly: "I'm sure their coaches are telling them that there's nothing that they can't accomplish this season that they set out to accomplish, so we've got to worry about us. We can't worry about the condition that they're in – we've got to worry about our own condition, and make it better."
Why have the Commodores struggled in recent years against South Carolina? Why might this game be tougher than the two teams' records might indicate? Vanderbilt sophomores Shan Foster and DeMarre Carroll have some thoughts.
Carroll astutely pointed out two key areas of focus for the Commodores: turnovers and energy. "South Carolina is especially scrappy with the ball – we have to limit our turnovers. We need to go out there with intensity instead of going out there flat like we did at Arkansas. They are a real feisty team."
Neither will Foster take South Carolina lightly. The Gamecocks are one of many struggling teams that the ‘Dores have had to play this season, and teams playing for the fate of their season truly fight like cornered animals. "Since they're 0-3 right now, they will be coming here and looking for a win… Teams coming off a couple losses like that are always tough to play against. It shows – it's the same for any team. The teams we've played this year are all good teams, and when they come off of a loss, they start thirsting for a win."
Foster and Carroll pointed out a few keys for the ‘Dores – turnovers, energetic play, and fighting off the Gamecocks' desperation – but what else will be necessary for Vanderbilt to win this game?
(1) Starting off on the right foot. Early success has been crucial for the Commodores – the team is 8-0 when winning the opening tip, 6-1 when they score first, and 7-0 when leading at halftime. OK, so it's not necessarily the tip-off that is crucial, but the first 10 minutes of the game often determine how the other 30 minutes will be played, especially against a team which is on the edge of losing all confidence.
(2) Denying easy baskets. When Vanderbilt allows its opponents to make less than 40% of their field goals, they are 6-0 – when opponents make 50% or more, they are 0-2. Against South Carolina, denying easy baskets means keeping Renaldo Balkman away from the offensive boards. Balkman specializes in second-chance points and other opportunistic post plays, and Vanderbilt ranks 2nd to last in the SEC in rebounds. DeMarre Carroll and Julian Terrell are the players who must rebound well, especially on the defensive end.
(3) Moving without the ball. Every basketball coach in America wishes that his/her team would move better without the ball, but for Vanderbilt the need is especially urgent. Vanderbilt's offense has seemed stagnant lately, and the effort and crispness of the Commodores' backdoor cuts has suffered, as has rebounding. Vandy needs to continuously hustle in their offensive sets, or else it will be easy for a physically tough and defensively attentive South Carolina squad to make the Commodore offense look slow and ugly.
No Commodore fan should feel sure of a victory in this game, especially with Coach Stallings' difficulties against Dave Odom's South Carolina teams. However, Vanderbilt clearly has the best team so far this season, and their advantage is strongest at the wing and power forward positions. South Carolina does not have a 1-2 punch to match Byars and Foster, and Julian Terrell is capable of out-scoring and out-rebounding any individual Gamecock. Vanderbilt will come out quick and energetic – after the Cincinnati and Georgia Tech games, do not expect them to blow off another game this season, even if the opponent is having an off year.
Notably, VandyMania has successfully predicted the winning team in all but 2 contests this season, after correctly picking the Razorbacks to beat the Commodores last weekend. Hopefully, that solid record will remain intact and Vanderbilt will improve to 3-1 in the SEC for the first time since 2000.
Vanderbilt 60, South Carolina 54
Commodore MVP: Shan Foster
Gamecock MVP: Renaldo Balkman
South Carolina Coach Dave Odom