Conference play looms over our heads this weekend, and that can only mean one thing: the return of The SEC's Worst Losses. We'll be scouting the Commodores' league opponents by breaking down their biggest failures while looking for ways that Vanderbilt can exploit these defeats. First up is 9-4 South Carolina, a team who is currently winless over RPI Top 140 opponents.
The Gamecocks rank as the 11th toughest opponent the team has faced according to RPI rankings, but they'll have a boost thanks to home-court advantage in the team's first match-up this season. Freshman Bruce Ellington leads a balanced scoring attack with over 14 points per game, but five other players average at least 8.6 points per contest. Ellington, a 5'9" guard, is filling Devan Downey's shoes in Columbia, both in height and scoring acumen; the first year player has four games with 20 or more points so far this season. However, Ellington's scoring comes at a price - he's an inefficient high-volume shooter making less than 40 percent of his shots from the field.
What else can we learn about the Gamecocks? Let's take a look at their worst loss to find out.
South Carolina (KenPom #93, CBS RPI #159) only has four losses, and three are against teams considered solid or better in NCAA terms. While there's no shame in losing big to the Spartans or Buckeyes, there is a certain indignation in getting beat by 16 points to your in-state little brother, Furman University. The Paladins shook off a 31-point performance from Bruce Ellington to post their first win over USC in 30 years. Excluding the Gamecocks, Furman's best win of the season was either against Middle Tennessee or North Florida - two teams unlikely to even sniff postseason play in 2011.
The loss may have lasting implications for the team's NCAA Tournament hopes. South Carolina has only one win over a BCS conference team, and that came against 11-4 Clemson. However, they're also 8-1 at home, making them slightly more dangerous for Kevin Stallings's squad. While they don't pose much of a threat in the shark tank of the SEC East, they'll no doubt play spoiler a few times this season under Darrin Horn.
Key to Destruction: While the Paladins couldn't stop Bruce Ellington's onslaught from beyond the arc (six three-pointers, 31 points), they were able to take senior forward/center Sam Muldrow out of the game almost entirely. Furman sent the big man to the pine early with foul trouble and capitalized on his absence, outrebounding USC 44-26 and shooting 54.7% from inside the arc.
Muldrow's absence has been a common theme in three of the team's four losses. Boston College shut Muldrow down, holding him scoreless on six shots and with just one rebound in Clemson's only home loss. Michigan State was equally effective, forcing Muldrow into nearly as many fouls (four) as points (five).
Keys to the Game:
- Sam Muldrow, meet Festus Ezeli and Steve Tchiengang: Muldrow has gotten better about his fouling as the season has worn on, but it has been a few weeks since he's seen a team with the frontcourt strength that Vanderbilt has. Jared Sullinger and Dallas Lauderdale abused the Gamecock interior players for 36 points and 26 boards in their pre-Christmas meeting. While Ezeli/Tchiengang aren't as talented as the OSU duo, they should be able to have a huge impact on this game on both sides of the court. Vandy's African connection should take it right at USC's frontcourt in hopes of either scoring big or drawing fouls; we already know that this team struggles when Muldrow isn't on the court.
- Keep the ball moving, and look for your guys on the perimeter: Furman dominated South Carolina from late in the first half until the final horn, distributing the ball well (18 assists on 30 FGs) and drawing fouls (25 on USC). Reserve Justin Dehm exploited USC's weakness on the perimeter, hitting all five of his three-pointers as the Palladins pulled away en route to a big win. Vanderbilt, with no fewer than six rotation players who can connect from long range, needs to take advantage of this. Expect the green light for lots of deep shots against a relatively weak SC defense.
- Let Bruce Ellington shoot his team out of this game: Ellington is already developing a reputation as a chucker just 13 games into his tenure in Columbia. He's had his share of good and bad nights for South Carolina, but the team is just 2-4 in games where he puts up 16 shots or more. In those games, he's shooting just 37.7%, including a 3-16 stinker against Ohio State. Ellington can put up big numbers, but ultimately his scoring doesn't seem to have a great impact on the game's outcome - the team is 1-3 in games where he scores more than 20 points.
The 'Dores start off their SEC season with a winnable road game, even if Andre Walker and John Jenkins remain sidelined with minor injuries. These Gamecocks seem similar to Devan Downey's teams of the past - a squad that went just 2-4 against Vandy over the last three years. Still, South Carolina is a talented team that could pull off an upset under the right conditions. If Ellington and Muldrow can create a legit inside-out scoring combination, Vanderbilt could be in for a long day in the Palmetto State.