Tournament play – and especially the dreaded 9:30 p.m. tips – doesn’t leave a lot of time for previewing the next game. It’s about getting whatever happened in the first game in the paper and the expanding it online, then shoehorning whatever you can into the will-it-ever-end day before the next game.
South Carolina, for the second straight year, won its first SEC tournament game and advanced to a matchup with Ole Miss tonight. The Gamecocks didn’t fare well with the Rebels in their last game – a 16-point loss in Oxford on Jan. 10 – but much has changed.
Frank Martin doesn’t watch other teams in the SEC after he’s played them, unless he has to play them again or he has a relationship with their coaches. The Rebels are that – he and Ole Miss head man Andy Kennedy are longtime cronies, having served at Cincinnati under Bob Huggins (when the Bearcats’ point guard was some kid named Downey).
Martin sees a team that’s on the NCAA tournament bubble. Ole Miss was trucking along with a 19-8 record, destined for a date in mid-March in the field of 68, and then lost three of four. The last was by nine at home to Vanderbilt, on Senior Day, leaving Nashville as the Rebels’ last shot to impress the selection committee before D-Day (Selection Sunday) arrives.
Ole Miss needs this win – much like Arkansas did last year. The Gamecocks short-circuited the Razorbacks’ NCAA hopes with a second-round SEC tournament win last year, when USC’s season was on life support. There was nothing but pride on the line last season; this season, there’s more.
USC is 16-15. A win or two more and an RPI in the 90s could get the NIT calling, and the Gamecocks could always elect to do the pay-for-play CBI. Like last year, the Gamecocks are playing their best at the end of the year, and against bigger odds – USC again played with nine against Missouri, and only eight of the available men went on the court. One of them, Justin McKie, played four minutes.
It’s a very tough matchup for USC. The Rebels are long, rangy and have a lights-out scorer in Stefan Moody. The guy is nearly impossible to guard, flashing to his spots and pulling up for the shot so quick that the only consistent way to stop him is to foul him before he releases. Sebastian Saiz, Anthony Perez, Jarvis Summers, Columbia native (and son of a former Gamecock) M.J. Rhett are a very strong supporting cast.
Ole Miss’ zone can take away USC’s interior game, which was a big problem against the Tigers. The Gamecocks only had 16 points in the paint, Laimonas Chatkevicius scoring six and Mindaugas Kacinas with eight. Michael Carrera had 12 but six were from the 3-point or foul lines. The Rebels like to spread teams out and force outside shots; attacking that zone – which USC has been hesitant to do in many games – results in far too many turnovers.
The Gamecocks stroked seven 3s against the Tigers, four from Sindarius Thornwell, so at least they’re coming in off a hot performance. The Rebels haven’t played in nearly a week so perhaps that’s an advantage for USC as well.
It could also come down to who wants it more. The Gamecocks have – outside of the Arkansas game – shored up their ability to close out games. The postseason could be available; how prestigious depends on how many wins. Ole Miss has the real pressure, though, since the chance for a national championship depends on how well it plays this week.