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USC looks to solve its Volunteer problem

The past three years have seen some big moments for USC men's basketball: three straight wins against Kentucky, a buzzer-beater against Florida and wins against nearly everyone in the SEC.

But then there's Tennessee.

Not only have the Gamecocks lost six straight to the Volunteers, but the average margin of defeat has been 17 points, with three games decided by 24 points or more.

Tennessee is one of only two SEC teams that South Carolina star Devan Downey has never beaten. (The other is Mississippi State, which visits Columbia next week.)

It was Feb. 2007 when USC last beat their Eastern Division rival.

"I hadn't realized it had been since freshman year," senior guard Brandis Raley-Ross said. "Thanks for telling me."

But Raley-Ross was well aware of the severity of the recent losses. How could he not, since one of the worst, a 79-53 rout, came just two weeks ago.

"They've kicked our butts a couple times, especially last game, but we try not to remember that," Raley-Ross said. "We're a different team than we were back then."

So what is it about Tennessee?

The Volunteers have a combination of factors that make them a tough matchup: length, shooting ability and transition play.

That goes double for the injury-depleted Gamecocks (14-11, 5-6 SEC), coach Darrin Horn said.

"Everybody presents a matchup problem. You guys haven't been watching," Horn said, laughing.

The Gamecocks played terrible two weeks ago, shooting 27 percent from the field and recording four assists and three fast-break points - antithetical to Horn's style of play.

It just added to the list of woeful USC performances against Tennessee.

Two years ago an 80-56 pasting was one of the breaking points of Dave Odom's final season as fans vented their frustration near the end of the game. Odom announced his retirement six days later.

Later that season, the Gamecocks fell by 33 points at Thompson-Boling Arena, their most lopsided loss of the season. But the Gamecocks took the Vols to the wire five days later, in the SEC tournament semifinals, with a 25-foot 3-pointer by Chris Lofton allowing the Vols to eke out an 89-87 win.

Last year, in Horn's first season, the Gamecocks were behind by 19 before rallying to lose 82-79. But in the final home game of the regular season, Tennessee eased to a 16-point win.

Horn agreed that Tennessee's length has bothered his team. He also opined that the lopsided scores have been helped by the Vols' ability to go on big spurts.

"The way they play, if it's going for them, an 8 (point lead) turns to 15 and a 15 can turn into a 25," Horn said. "Similar to ... North Carolina in years past, if they got it going and it was their night and shots were falling and the other team wasn't (playing well), it wasn't 8 or 10 or 12, it ended up being 20 or 25."

Another problem: USC wants to dictate tempo and out-run opponents. But Tennessee is content to play at that speed - and with taller players.

Tennessee also returns center Brian Williams, who was reinstated from suspension for the USC game two weeks ago but did not play. The 6-foot-10 Williams played 18 minutes in the Vols' last game, and he would be a lot for USC to handle given the Gamecocks' lack of frontcourt depth.

Mentally, Horn compared it to how his team reacted to last month's, last-second loss at Florida, when USC came back three nights later to shock then-No. 1 Kentucky.

"There are certain situations if I have to address that too much, we've got the wrong guys in our locker room," Horn said. "If you're going to be intimidated by anybody you play, you're in the wrong league at the wrong school playing for the wrong coach. I can promise you that."

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