On Wednesday night, the Commodores get another shot at their seventh conference win, as the South Carolina Gamecocks come to Nashville for a Valentine's Day clash in Memorial Gym. The game is the first of two between the Eastern Division foes and a rematch of an overtime thriller from a year ago.
With a disappointing record of 12-11 (2-8 SEC), the Gamecocks have lost four in a row since grabbing their lone conference wins against Arkansas and Mississippi State. Of their eight SEC losses, four have come by a margin of 19 points or more. Most recently, Coach Dave Odom's squad was routed by Georgia in Athens.
The ‘Cocks lost two players to the NBA last season (Tarence Kinsey and Renaldo Balkman), and two impact transfers, Zam Fredrick from Georgia Tech and Devan Downey from Cincinnati, aren't eligible until next season. This year, somewhat of a transition for Carolina, the team ranks dead last in the SEC in both scoring offense and field goal percentage, a testament to their real lack of go-to players.
The Gamecocks have many faults, but point guard play isn't one of them. Besides a healthy Ronald Steele, senior Tre Kelley may be the conference's best point player. Since the start of conference play, Kelley is the SEC's leading scorer at almost 20 points per game, and his 5.1 assists rank fourth in the league. A major scoring threat off the dribble, the senior is also a dangerous perimeter shooter. However, his ability to be more than just a scorer sets him apart from most other point guards in the nation. Kelley has outstanding vision on the break, and his knack for finding open teammates off of penetration makes his drives doubly dangerous. When Vandy and South Carolina last met in Memorial, Kelley torched the Commodores for 29 points, including six three-pointers and the winning lay-up with three seconds to play in overtime. If the Gamecocks keep this one close, it will be because their point guard has another outstanding performance.
Manning the post for South Carolina is 6-9 senior Brandon Wallace. Not a prototypical big man, Wallace is rail-thin, but he's also very long and a great athlete. He ranks second in the conference in both rebounds (9.6 rpg) and blocked shots (2.8 bpg), and his 10.4 points per game are good for second on the team. Offensively, what Wallace lacks in post moves, he makes up for with athleticism and a surprisingly soft touch. The senior isn't afraid to step out behind the arc, and he'll knock down the wide open look from distance. Where he really shines, though, is on defense and the glass. His quickness and leaping ability allow him to grab boards and contest shots without having to make excessive contact. In fact, Wallace has fouled out of just one game in his four-year career – a career in which he's never missed a game due to injury, either. Wayne Chism, Tennessee's long, athletic forward gave Vanderbilt fits on Saturday. If Ross Neltner and the Commodore front line don't do a better job on the glass, Wallace may get a double-double, too.
In 6-7 freshman Dominique Archie and 6-6 junior Dwayne Day, the Gamecocks have the size, if not quite the talent, to match up with Vanderbilt's Derrick Byars and Shan Foster on the wing. Putting up 8.3 points and snatching 4.9 rebounds per game, Archie has proven to be a decent third option to Kelley and Wallace in SEC play. A model of freshman efficiency, his 52 percent from the floor is best on the team. Along with his judicious shooting, Archie's rebounding and defensive abilities indicate that he'll be a staple on this South Carolina team for the next few years. For now, the freshman must improve on his ball-handling – he has committed 41 turnovers compared to just 20 assists.
While Dwayne Day hasn't started since the Gamecocks' loss to Florida, the junior plays an important role in Odom's rotation. A modest scoring threat at eight points per game, Day put up 15 in Carolina's win at Mississippi State. He is also one of three Gamecocks with at least 100 three-point attempts. Though he's not as good a rebounder as Archie, he is a fine athlete and formidable defender. Day should see considerable minutes against Vandy's perimeter attack.
A pair of shooters rounds out Dave Odom's starting lineup. Senior Bryce Sheldon serves as the team's three-point specialist. Of his 57 field goals this season, 43 of them have been from beyond the arc. Shooting 43 percent from distance on the year, Sheldon has made 12 of 24 three-pointers over his past four games. Though he's not a good finisher around the basket, the senior leads the team in free throw shooting at 86 percent. The Commodores must keep constant pressure on Sheldon when he's drifting around the perimeter, especially when Kelley penetrates. Otherwise, the senior may offer a repeat of his 17-point effort against Alabama from just two weeks ago.
The fifth Gamecock starter is 6-7 freshman Evaldas Baniulis. Hailing from Lithuania, Baniulis has suffered from inconsistency throughout his first year in garnet and black. At times, he shows a great stroke from the outside, as he recently displayed in 21 and 13-point performances against Auburn and Kentucky, respectively. Other times, though, the freshman has disappeared in games – aside from the Auburn and Kentucky games, Baniulis hasn't scored in the past five contests. He may see fewer minutes against the four-guard Commodore attack, as he's not the quickest Gamecock defensively.
Freshman guard Brandis Raley-Ross completes the South Carolina rotation. He's seen his minutes and production decrease somewhat in SEC play, but he showed the potential to be a dynamic scorer in non-conference games, putting up 17 points on Southern Cal and Lipscomb.
South Carolina has struggled this season for a number of reasons, not the least of which has been their poor shooting. The Gamecocks' 42.2 percent from the floor is last in the conference, and has directly contributed to their SEC-low 64 points per game. As talented a scorer as Tre Kelley is, he cannot win games by himself. Too often, the point guard is South Carolina's only option on offense.
To get an idea of how stagnant the Gamecock offense has been, one only needs to look at their assist-to-turnover numbers. Their 11.7 turnovers per game aren't egregious, but when paired with their 11.5 assists per game, that number looks a lot worse. Kelley has been the only effective distributor for South Carolina this season, leading to a lot of standing around on offense and waiting for the star to make his move.
After the smarting loss to the Volunteers, Vanderbilt needs to make a statement against a weak South Carolina team to regain confidence and move that much closer to an NCAA bid. Derrick Byars and Dan Cage struggled mightily against Tennessee, and Shan Foster shot poorly despite coming away with 15 points. A home game against the Gamecocks provides a good chance for the Commodore offense to get back on track. Here are the keys to heading into a clash with Florida with a win over South Carolina:
- Strand Tre: Given his success this season and his traditionally solid performances against Vanderbilt, it's likely that Kelley will chip in his usual good numbers on Wednesday night. The Gamecocks don't have the weapons around Kelley that they have had in years past, but that doesn't give the Commodores leeway to sleep on the other four guys on the court. In each of South Carolina's two conference wins, Kelley was the leading scorer, but three other Gamecocks scored in double figures. Each time the senior has shouldered the scoring load alone, his team has lost. If Vandy limits the other Gamecocks' looks from outside, Kelley alone cannot beat them.
- Patience: The Commodores have displayed poor shot selection too many times over the past three games. The offense is at its best when the perimeter players feed the post or penetrate, allowing cuts and kick-outs to open up. Contested three-pointers with ample time on the shot clock were all too common in the second half against Florida and in both halves against Georgia and Tennessee. The Gamecock perimeter defenders have too much size to simply shoot over them, so if the offense isn't fluid, the ‘Dores may have a hard time scoring.
- Regain the Energy: Vandy couldn't have come out looking less disinterested against the Vols. Whether it was the week off or just complacency, that attitude must change Wednesday night. Ideally, a game against the conference cellar-dweller would provide a nice tune-up before top-ranked Florida comes in on Saturday. However, the Gamecocks gave Vanderbilt fits last season and will be looking to play spoiler in this one. If the ‘Dores focus on the task at hand and find the energy they had at the end of the Georgia game, they should beat South Carolina handily.
Prediction: The Commodores desperately need a confidence boost heading into the weekend, and grabbing their seventh conference win in dominating fashion would provide that boost. Look for Foster and the Commodores to come out fired up for this one. When they get out early, they won't look back. Final score: Vanderbilt 86, South Carolina 72.