Frank Martin mentioned before the LSU game that of course he and his players knew about it. It was hard not to, when the standings were a mouse-click away and social media was promoting not just the game, but “the battle for first place.”
They ignored it, went out and beat the Tigers. They’re not going to change the routine when the situation is the same, but the stakes higher for Saturday.
Kentucky is in town with the same prize awaiting the winner – first place in the SEC. The Wildcats and Gamecocks are tied at 8-3 with LSU (which hosts Texas A&M Saturday) and should USC win, it will have tiebreakers over the Tigers and Wildcats that can’t be equaled or erased.
Those would be used when determining the top seed for the SEC tournament, something USC hasn’t claimed since it won its lone SEC regular-season championship in 1997. More than that, it would keep the Gamecocks in position for a second title, a goal Martin has stressed since he arrived.
“When you got a chance to be special … I’ve been telling you all year, ‘All hands on deck,’ ” Martin told his team after LSU. “Reflect to how miserable it was when it was the other way around. So then you fight even harder to make sure you don’t go back there.”
“We’ve got ourselves in a situation where we can win the conference,” junior Sindarius Thornwell said. “I think right now we’re just riding the momentum, off the win at Texas A&M and the win (over LSU). Just stay in the moment and keep working.”
Like the Tigers, USC (21-3) will be able to lean on its greatest advantage – Colonial Life Arena, where it hasn’t lost this season and where its fans will certainly do their part to keep the Wildcats (18-6) uncomfortable. Kentucky is 2-6 in its last eight road games.
The Gamecocks also will try to take advantage of another Wildcat weak spot. A program that has churned out DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis, Willie Cauley-Stein and Karl-Anthony Towns is lacking in the post this year.
Skal Labissiere, who battled for top-recruit honors with Ben Simmons last year, is a big-time talent that is still learning how to be dominant on offense. Not having the physical presence of a Cousins or Towns, Labissiere is solid defensively but takes most of his shots from the high post.
That’s forced Kentucky to lean on Alex Poythress, Marcus Lee and Derek Willis on the blocks, but Poythress won’t play Saturday because of a knee injury. Willis can be an X-factor with his ability to shoot from outside and finish inside, but it’s a thin paint area that USC can exploit.
Michael Carrera can take over against a team like UK, and the solid contributions USC received from Raymond Doby and Chris Silva lately can help. With Mindaugas Kacinas always steady, the Gamecocks’ big men can control that area – which they’ll need to, to take the pressure off the guards.
The Wildcats again feature one of the best point guards in the country. Tyler Ulis can see every spot on the floor and his quickness gives opponents fits. Leading a tandem of Jamal Murray and Isaiah Briscoe, Kentucky can quickly light up an arena if a defense isn’t ready.
P.J. Dozier, coming off one of his best games, will have to try and stop Ulis without hand-checking him, a growing pain that has resulted in a lot of foul trouble. The Gamecocks, who are also prone to giving up a corner 3-pointer, will also have to keep an eye and several arms on Murray.
Kentucky has dropped a few games in Columbia and USC is hoping to add one more. With that, there’s first place, a shot at the title, moving closer to an NCAA tournament berth …
Thornwell slammed on the brakes.
“That’s always been a goal here, win conference, make the tournament and hopefully one day, have a chance to potentially win the tournament,” he said. “That’s what you work for.”
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The SEC race
Teams battling for the SEC regular-season championship:
Wildcats vs. Gamecocks
Who: Kentucky at USC
When: Noon, Saturday
Where: Colonial Life Arena
Tickets: Sold out
NO. 22 KENTUCKY (18-6, 8-3 SEC) at SOUTH CAROLINA (21-3, 8-3)
Kentucky’s probable starters: G Tyler Ulis 5-9 So. (16.2 ppg, 3.2 rpg); G Isaiah Briscoe 6-3 Fr. (9.8 ppg, 5.1 rpg); G Jamal Murray 6-4 Fr. (18.5 ppg, 4.8 rpg); F Derek Willis 6-9 Jr. (7.3 ppg, 4.2 rpg); F Marcus Lee 6-9 Jr. (6.5 ppg, 6.0 rpg)
South Carolina’s probable starters: G P.J. Dozier 6-6 Fr. (7.5 ppg, 3.4 rpg); G Sindarius Thornwell 6-5 Jr. (13.2 ppg, 5.0 rpg); F Mindaugas Kacinas 6-7 Sr. (10.3 ppg, 5.5 rpg); F Michael Carrera 6-5 Sr. (14.2 ppg, 7.2 rpg); C Chris Silva 6-9 Fr. (5.7 ppg, 4.5 rpg)
Next game: The Gamecocks tip off at Missouri at 7 p.m. on Tuesday.