Well, this is awkward.
We normally save the "worst losses" previews for SEC season, because at that point nearly every team in the conference has a loss on their ledger by the time they play Vanderbilt. That's not the case for No. 22 South Carolina. Not only are they 14-0, they've won all but two of those games by a double-digit margin.
Those wins haven't exactly come against a murderer's row of opponents. The Gamecocks haven't yet played a ranked team this winter. They've had games against foes from high-major conferences like the ACC and the Big East, but the aggregate record of their Division I opponents comes out to 85-112. Halfway through the 2015-16 season, five of their non-conference rivals have five wins or fewer.
Vanderbilt will be the most talented team they've played this season, but the Commodores are in the middle of a spiral that threatens to derail their NCAA Tournament hopes. The team has lost five of their last seven games, and their only two wins came against traditional basketball powers Wofford and Western Michigan. A win over the Gamecocks would give Vandy their first quality victory of the season, but they need to overcome the mistakes that sunk them against Arkansas (26 turnovers) to get there.
South Carolina (14-0, 1-0 SEC, No. 20 in the Coaches' Poll and No. 22 in the AP Poll. Ranked No. 20 in Ken Pomeroy's ratings)
Other Losses: Heh, nope.
Clemson gave USC their toughest game of the season as part of their in-state rivalry. The Gamecocks led by as many as 20 points in the first half before giving up a late run that allowed the Tigers to cut their lead to four points with 4:30 to play. The teams then exchanged fouls and missed shots for the next four minutes as South Carolina held on for a sloppy win.
Point of emphasis: Sigh, offensive rebounds. South Carolina missed 30 shots against Clemson, but pulled down 14 of those misses to create second chances and, with a lead late in the game, burn the clock. Vanderbilt has gotten killed on the offensive glass in their losses this winter, and the Gamecocks are exactly the kind of opportunistic, scrappy team that can make them pay for their mistakes.
Keys to the Game:
- Protect the ball. Clemson was able to keep this game close despite shooting only 36.5% from the field because they protected the ball. The Tigers committed only 10 turnovers, limiting USC's fast break points and providing ample opportunities to chuck up terrible shots late in the game.
- Crash the boards. South Carolina wasn't the only team that did work on the offensive glass in this matchup. Clemson had nearly as many offensive rebounds (15) as defensive ones. That led to 13 second chance points and several more blown tip-ins.
- Badger Sindarius Thornwell. The Gamecocks live and die by their veteran forwards, but Thornwell, an explosive scorer, can be just as important when he's hot. Thornwell averaged 20 points, four rebounds, and 4.5 assists in his team's last two wins over Memphis and Auburn, but Clemson shut him down en route to eight points and 2-10 shooting from the field. Thornwell isn't South Carolina's heartbeat, but he can be forced into an inefficient, shot-heavy night against the right defense.