NCAA Basketball

College Basketball Preview: South Carolina vs. Kentucky

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Earlier this season Kentucky beat South Carolina on the road. On the road! So, if they can beat the Gamecocks on the road, a place where wins have been nearly impossible to come by, they will surely take care of business at home, right?

They should.

South Carolina enters this game, losers of four strait, and six of their last seven. Quickly, they have gone from the SEC’s surprise team to the bottom of the SEC East, where everyone expected them to be.

Despite their recent struggles, unlike a Mississippi State team that UK just took care of, their losses can’t be blamed on a lack of effort. In their 73-67 loss to Tennessee on Wednesday, they fell simply because they were outmanned. They took care of the basketball, committing just 11 turnovers, and despite getting outrebounded, put up 21 more shots than the Vols.

Physicality has been the Wildcats main issue in their losses this season. Needless to say, this is not a very physical South Carolina team. Sure, they feature one of the best shot blockers in the SEC in Sam Muldrow, but physical play is not one of their strengths. This is something that should prove advantageous for the ‘Cats.

Their most pressing issue entering the season was replacing the services of star senior guard, Devin Downey. Enter freshman Bruce Ellington.

At 5′ 9″, Ellington is a power packed guard who is not afraid of contact underneath. His lack of fear would make him some kind of weapon if he ever decided to lace it up for Steve Spurrier and the Gamecock football team. While he is just a freshman, he is extremely poised. Rarely will you see him rush things while running the show.

He is a big shot maker and an extremely effective distributor of the basketball as he leads the ‘Cocks in both scoring and assists with 13.9 and 3.3, effectively. While he is handling the ball around the perimeter, look for head coach Darrin Horn to send bigs towards the ball to set screens. Defenders are ill-advised to fight under the screens because he will knock down the perimeter jumper. He leads the teams with 52 made threes and is shooting 33-percent from deep on the year. But, if you go over the top you allow him the opportunity to blow by you on the bounce. Also, look for the bigs to roll off of the screens where he is extremely effective at finding them for an easy two.

Last time out against the Wildcats, Kentucky held him in check with just eight points and four assists, while shooting 3-for-11 from the field. Overall, his numbers have dropped a bit from his stellar start, but he is still the catalyst of this team. The offense runs through Ellington and he will have to have a superb game for the Gamecocks to have a chance at Rupp.

I mentioned earlier that senior Sam Muldrow (6-9, 229) is the second leading blocker in the SEC as he is averaging 3.5 per game. He gets a lot of his blocks from flashing from the weak side and he also has the ability to body up underneath. But, the Gamecocks need him to do more than block shots if they want to win games.

In fact, throughout the season it has been quite evident that the ‘Cocks go as Muldrow goes. He is averaging 10.7 points-per-game, which second third on the team, but he has nine games this year where he has failed to reach double-figures, including their last loss at Tennessee where he put up just eight. South Carolina is 3-6 in those games. They need him to score. They need him to be as active on offense and on the glass as he is on the defensive side.

He also has the ability to step out and shoot the three, as he has knocked down 19 threes on the year.

In their last contest, the Wildcats struggled defending Muldrow underneath, as they have a lot of active big men this season. He had a stellar line in the 67-58 loss, putting up a season-high 23 points, 13 rebounds and three blocks. Five of this 13 rebounds came on the offensive glass.

The only other scorer they have that is averaging double figures is sophomore Ramon Galloway (6-2, 176), who is putting up 10.4 per game. Galloway is a freak athlete and the second best shooter on the team. He comes off the bench for Horn, but when he enters the game, which is usually fairly quick, he automatically brings a source of energy. I say he is a freak athlete because he could quite possibly be the second best dunker in the league, behind Georgia’s Travis Leslie. The kid can cram. He can also shoot it. On the year he has connected on 33 longs balls and is shooting 32-percent from distance.

Like Kentucky, this is not a very deep South Carolina team. In their last loss to Tennessee, Darrin Horn played seven guys for 22 minutes or more. Besides Ellington, Muldrow and Galloway, you will see action from Malik Cooke and Brian Richardson, who both start for the ‘Cocks. Richardson is another shooting threat for South Carolina, knocking down 38 threes while shooting 35-percent.

They could get some help in the depth department if sophomore Lakeem Jackson is allowed to return to action. He has missed the last three games rehabilitating an injured foot.

In their half court offensive sets, look for them to create space for players to get to the rim. The players most likelly to take advantage of this space and take their defender off the dribble are Galloway and Jackson, if he’s available at at near 100-percent. Late in the clock you will see them send a big to the key to set a screen for Ellington, who will either pull up or get into the lane to score or create.

Remember, in their last contest the Wildcats allowed Mississippi State to put up 79 points as they shot 12-for-22 from beyond the arc. Many of those looks were wide open and Jalen Steele really took advantage, shooting 5-for-7 from deep. The 79 points was the most points that Kentucky has allowed in a win since Sam Houston St. put 92 in the third game of the season a year ago. In that game, Corey Allmond scored 37 points on 11-for-16 shooting from three-land.

This South Carolina team is decent from deep, but they use the three-ball as a weapon to keep them in games. It did just that in their last contest at Tennessee, but in the end it ultimately did them in, as they ended up shooting just 10-for-32. On the season, they have connected on 175 threes on the year and are shooting 33-percent as a team.

Still, the Wildcats have to do a better job of closing out on shooters. Despite South Carolina’s recent slump from deep, they have players with the ability to knock shots down. If UK leaves them open and uncontested, they could take advantage.

This is a terrible free throw shooting team. On the season they are shooting just 64-percent, which ranks last in the SEC. Ellington also struggles from the line, as he is currently hitting just 64-percent from the stripe. If the game is close down the stretch, this is something that could definitely play in the Wildcats favor.

On the defensive side, this is a South Carolina team that will throw a lot of traps at opponents, whether it be in the full court or the half court. They will run at you and they will chase you in an attempt to create mistakes, which in turn leads to quick scores off of turnovers. While this type of defensive strategy does often create turnovers, it also allows the opportunity for easy buckets and more importantly increases the tempo of the game.

I like Kentucky’s chances against anyone in the country if the game is played at an up-tempo pace. A lot of their struggles this season have come against teams that have slowed the game down, mixed up defenses and banged underneath. In an open court game, it is tough to for opponents to do all three of these things successfully.

When opponents do settle into a halfcourt set, the Gamecocks primarily will play man-to-man, but I look for them to mix it up a little more on Saturday. They have also shown that they are very hesitant to double on the low block and I have to believe that this will continue because Horn has to like the chances of Muldrow guarding Terrence Jones one-on-one underneath.

Style-wise, I think this is a South Carolina team that is a pretty good match-up for Kentucky. They aren’t deep. They aren’t physical. And they like to run. Plus, you add in the fact that UK has confidence because they are the lone SEC team that they have been able to beat away from Rupp.

The Cats take care of the ‘Cocks and remain unbeaten at home.

Kentucky 76, South Carolina 65