In the last SEC's Worst Losses feature, Vanderbilt faced two solid teams whose weaknesses appeared to be interior toughness. The Commodores used this advantage in the paint to brush aside Florida, and failing this, an apparent pact with Satan (thanks Joe Duffy!) to get past Alabama. With only one game looming between today and next Friday, let's take a look at what the Gamecocks have to offer when the Commodores roll into Columbia for a SEC East tilt.
South Carolina (RPI #69, KenPom #74 - hat tip to BrianSWard for the correction on my earlier rankings) has played solidly enough, posting 4 losses to quality teams while topping Western Kentucky and Richmond on their way to an 11-5 start - 2-0 in the SEC after beating Auburn and LSU. Some thought that South Carolina could field a NCAA tournament squad based on the strength of seniors Devan Downey and Domonique Archie, who score most of the team's points as a strong inside/out duo. Despite the pair's best efforts, the Gamecocks currently they look like a NIT bound team, with an outside shot at a tourney berth if they can string together some big wins.
Key to destruction: One glaring loss stands out - a seven point defeat at Wofford College in December. Wofford made South Carolina its second straight SEC win (they also beat Georgia) to improve to 6-6 on the season. The Terriers used a 9-0 run to turn a one-point lead with two minutes remaining into a big victory for the program.
The question here is whether or not USC's late-game folding was a one-time reaction to a hostile crowd or a recurring theme. So far, it looks like it may be the latter. This team has been defined by its runs, both good (17-2 run to take the lead and close out LSU, 20-4 to get within striking range in the 2nd half at BC) - and bad (0-9 to lose to Wofford, 6-18 late in the 2nd half at Clemson, 11-21 to start the 2nd half in a loss at Miami). Momentum is a huge, huge factor for this team, which may help explain their weak road record (2-4).
Additionally, though SC isn't a big team, they had a size advantage over the Terriers but still got out-rebounded 43-33. On a team led by four seniors, the Gamecocks are getting through most games with a combination of heart and talent, but this has proven volatile - when it's good, it's great, and when it's bad, the team finds itself down big. The 'Cocks often employ an energetic full court press that leads to these bursts - or to defensive lapses. For Vandy to be successful, they need to break up this energy and use their shooters - Jenkins, Tinsley, and Beal - to hit big shots in order to stop runs. Vanderbilt can't afford to hit a prolonged slump because they are playing against a team that has capitalized on them. This team showed that it can handle the press against a more athletic Florida team, and that control could be the component that keeps SC out of the game.
At their best, South Carolina has been a team that relies on momentum - and the Commodores can't allow them any. Playing them in Columbia definitely gives the Gamecocks a boost, but if Vandy can control the pace and keep a level head, they have the talent to win big. As long as they keep South Carolina from going on offensive binges, they can pester this team into a funk and run away with the game.