Last season, South Carolina showcased every one of Vanderbilt's weaknesses in the SEC opener for both teams. The Commodores let a quick guard score all over them (Bruce Ellington had 22 points), were dominated on the glass (8 offensive rebounds for USC-E), watched a big second half lead slip away (the 'Dores led by 14 with 14:40 left to play), and were unable to do anything with the last shot of the game (Jeffery Taylor's long jumper clanged off the rim to keep the game tied). The end result was an embarrassing upset loss and the second in a string of five straight overtime defeats over the past two seasons.
Ellington and Sam Muldrow led the Gamecocks past Vanderbilt with a pair of superlative efforts, and the Commodores were unable to stem SC's momentum late in the second half. However, Muldrow has graduated and Ellington is struggling through a sophomore slump after coming over from a full season on the gridiron. As a result, South Carolina is just 8-7 on the season and has mixed embarrassing losses along with games against the country's best teams.
The Gamecocks have fit in letdowns versus Elon and Tennessee State next to defeats against North Carolina, Kentucky, and Ohio State this season. They only have one victory against a BCS conference team - Clemson - and their best win, according to RPI data, was a 61-57 home game against Mississippi Valley State. However, Vanderbilt will still have to prove that they can overcome the mistakes that doomed them in 2011 and ultimately returned in the team's four losses this season. Though South Carolina sits at the bottom of the SEC standings, they'll provide the kind of road test that Vanderbilt needs to pass in order shake off some of the doubts that have haunted this team since their last trip to Columbia.
So how can the 'Dores win? Let's look at the blueprint that Tennessee State laid out for us.
South Carolina (8-7, unranked, #115 in the Pomeroy Rankings)
Other Losses: at Elon, vs. North Carolina, vs. Southern California, vs. Providence, vs. Ohio State, at Kentucky
Tennessee State had never beaten a SEC school until traveling to Columbia this season. They changed that by jumping out to a 47-25 lead in the second half and hanging on thanks to R.J. Slawson's missed free throw with just seven seconds left in the game to win 64-63. The Gamecocks mounted a furious comeback, outscoring the Tigers 38-17 over the final 14 minutes, but didn't have enough in the tank to stave off the upset.
Key to Destruction: Three-point shooting. The Tigers went 10-22 from behind the arc and capped off big runs with exclamation point daggers to not only extend their lead but keep the South Carolina crowd hushed. Patrick Miller and Will Peters each made big threes late in the second half when the Gamecocks threatened to cut their lead down to just one possession. Before that, Peters and Jordan Cyphers put the exclamation points on a 12-6 run out of halftime that gave TSU a dominant 22 point lead.
Like Vanderbilt before them, Tennessee State went cold late in the game, failing to score in the final 2:17 of play. Fortunately for them, their lead was big enough for the Tigers to survive. Of course, a slew of misses from South Carolina with the game on the line helped them as well.
Keys to the Game:
- Force South Carolina to be their inefficient selves. The Gamecocks had 55 field goal attempts compared to TSU's 47, but scored just 63 points. Unfortunately for them, this 1.15 points per attempt was more or less in line with their 1.18 seasonal average so far. Conversely, Vanderbilt is scoring 1.33 points per shot. The Commodores have shown that their defense is strong enough to keep SC's cold streak going; Auburn had just .64 pps in their loss, Marquette had .97. If they can patiently exploit Carolina's inability to turn shots into points and refuse the balance of possessions to swing wildly in the Gamecocks' favor, then they'll be able to weather the storm and leave Columbia with a win.
- Don't allow the Gamecock bench to beat you. Carolina lost embarrassingly to Tennessee State, but they nearly pulled off an amazing comeback behind their bench. Eric Smith and R.J. Slawson came off the pine to deliver SC's scoring punch and were responsible for digging the Gamecocks out of a 47-25 hole in the second half and making this one close. This reserve unit has only gotten stronger now that Bruce Ellington will be coming off the bench as well. The trio of Smith, Slawson, and Ellington add some scoring punch to a team that only has one player averaging more than nine points per game. Kevin Stallings will have to be diligent with his substitutions to make sure that South Carolina's bench isn't a significant factor in Tuesday's game.
- Contain Bruce Ellington. Just how far has Vanderbilt's defense come since last year? Jason Fukuda recently showcased the team's improvement throughout the early season, but they'll have a chance to make a statement by shutting down a player that gave them fits in last year's upset loss. Ellington is having a rough sophomore season (8.2 ppg on 34.7% shooting), but he's just the kind of laterally-quick guard that can give Brad Tinsley and John Jenkins fits in the backcourt. That pair has really stepped up their game when it comes to on-the-ball defense lately, and the availability of Dai-Jon Parker will be an asset when it comes to stopping the Gamecock tailback/point guard. However, if Ellington gets hot, it'll be a bad case of deja vu for Commodore fans.
Tomorrow's game is another soft step forward into SEC play, but South Carolina has always been a thorn in the Commodores' side, especially when they're playing in Columbia. Vanderbilt made a nice statement last week against Auburn, but they'll have to have a similar performance against an underwhelming Gamecock team that has yet to record a win over a top 150 team this season. A loss here would erase all the goodwill that the past three weeks have built up. A win doesn't carry nearly as much cache, but it's a necessary step for a team that's rebuilding its NCAA Tournament resume after some early-season disappointments.